Searching for a language that binds India

India does not have a national language and, therefore, calling Hindi — an official language — as one is against the law

Arup Ghosh April 30, 2022 11:45:15 IST
Searching for a language that binds India

The Constitution does not make a mention of national language. But Hindi is India's official language. AFP

When the Indian cricket team plays a match, what language do they use to communicate? It is primarily Hindi. The team is drawn up of players from all parts of India. Yet, the language that binds them is Hindi.

The same logic applies to other team sports which are actually a melting pot of India’s diversity. There is no squabble or disagreement on what the language of communication should be. And all of this happens without any diktat.

Take the reach of Hindi cinema. It is seen in all parts of the country. Many of these movies are popular, aspirational and draw audiences. Now, with the cross integration of actors across the board, the perceived gap between Hindi and regional languages has diminished. Television shows play a similar role in making Hindi the language of connect.

But the spat between Hindi actor Ajay Devgn and Kannada actor Kichha Sudeep has started a mega Hindi language war.

Karnataka chief minister Basavraj Bommai joined the chorus of voices in backing Kannada actor Kiccha Sudeep.

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Read Part One of this series here: Fear of ‘Hindi imperialism’ triggers mega language war

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“What Kiccha Sudeep said was correct. A regional language is the most important as a state is formed on linguistic bas(is),” Bommai told reporters, “Everyone should understand and respect what Sudeep has said.”

Controversy erupted after Sudeep's response to a question about KGF: Chapter 2 — a Kannada film — being called a ‘pan-India film’. He said that Hindi was not a national language and asked Bollywood to make films for the whole country.

To this Devgn responded (in Hindi): “According to you if Hindi is not our national language, then why do you dub your mother tongue movies in Hindi... Hindi was, is and always will be our mother tongue and national language.”

Sudeep then underlined India’s cultural and linguistic diversity, and also politely wondered if Bollywood would have understood his comment had it been in Kannada and not English. “Don't we too belong to India sir,” he asked.

The exchange has prompted furious debate in cinematic and political circles.

The fact is that India does not have a national language and, therefore, calling Hindi (an official language) one is against the law. A 'national language' is representative of the country, its cultural heritage and history. It gives the impression that citizens of the country know and speak that language.

An 'official language' is used for the official purposes of the Union and the state governments. A country can have more than one official language; yet, the national language is one.

Two former Karnataka chief ministers — the Congress' Siddaramaiah and Janata Dal (Secular) boss HD Kumaraswamy — also spoke up.

Kumaraswamy said that “Hindi is not a national language...” and criticised Devgn for his “ludicrous behaviour”. He called him a “mouthpiece of BJP”. He also ripped into the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and said: “A seed sown… has become contagious (and is) dividing the nation. This is a threat to India's unity.”

“Hindi was never and will never be our national Language. It is the duty of every Indian to respect linguistic diversity… Each language has its own rich history for its people to be proud of. I am proud to be a Kannadiga,” Siddaramaiah said.

Congress' state unit chief DK Shivakumar also tweeted, pointing out there were nearly 20,000 languages in India and that none should dominate another. “There are 19,500 mother tongues in India. Our love for India feels the same in every language. As a proud Kannadiga and proud Congressman, let me remind everyone Congress created linguistic states so no language dominates.”

But nowhere is the Central government saying Hindi would replace the regional languages. In fact, neither is it saying to downplay English in schools. So, why the pushback? Besides, times have changed.

Earlier generations in the southern states saw the imposition of Hindi as a threat to their cultural and linguistic identity. Now, due to changing social factors the protests, largely political in nature, are muted.

Tamil Nadu, which has long opposed the “imposition” of Hindi in the state, saw a rise of 50 percent Hindi speakers among Tamilians between 2001 and 2011, according to the latest Census data.

Yet, in 2019, responding to the draft new education policy which introduced a three-language formula making Hindi mandatory, DMK chief MK Stalin said, “Imposing Hindi on Tamil Nadu would be similar to throwing stones at a beehive”. Stalin is now chief minister.

Overall, the percentage of Hindi-speaking south Indians, however, rose by 13 percent during the same period.

Taking Tamil Nadu as a microcosm, there are several reasons for Tamilians learning Hindi:

  1. Migration is the key where workforce travelling from other states have become a necessity.
  2. Commercial entertainment has influenced Tamil people to understand and speak Hindi to a certain extent.
  3. The shift started when the Ramayana and Mahabharata were telecast.
  4. Hindi has a wider usage sweep in industrial units and government establishments.

The above rationale applies to the rest of southern India as well.

The anti-Hindi sentiment of the 1960s has changed with large-scale migration from India's north, north-east and north-west as blue-collar and white-collar workers.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah says that 22,000 Hindi teachers had been recruited in the eight states of the North East. Also, nine tribal communities of the North East had converted their dialects’ scripts to Devanagari and all the eight states of the North East had agreed to make Hindi compulsory in schools up to Class X.

Whether it is the Congress or the BJP, successive governments in power have reiterated that Hindi should be the national language of India. In 2018, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued directives to all the central universities to implement Hindi as a compulsory course in the bachelor programmes.

Mahatma Gandhi, during the freedom struggle, had described Hindi as the national language and called for its adoption. He understood Hindi as Hindustani (a blend of both Sanskritised Hindi and Persianised Urdu) written either in Devanagari or the Persian script. His opinion resonated with the Constituent Assembly as well. But with the Partition of India, the cause of Hindustani was lost.

As India evolved, it had to use English and Hindi for its official purposes, whereas the state governments were empowered to choose one or more official languages for the state.

But in 2017, milestones on national highways in Tamil Nadu were changed from English to Hindi. Before that, new banknotes issued after the government’s demonetisation drive used “Devanagari” numerals.

Politics of language is one thing; being prudent is another. It is the practicality of the matter which would take precedence. What connects us in language. Whatever that may be.

This is Part 2 of the two-part series. The author is CEO of nnis. Views expressed are personal.

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