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Above: G Kishan Reddy, a Telugu-speaking minister, taking oath in Hindi/Photo: PIB

India is venturing into uncharted territories, where Hindi is developing new clout and legitimacy. This may pose a threat to the linguistic diversity and federal structure of the country 

By Damayanti Datta

How many languages should a child learn? America does not care to teach a second language to schoolchildren. Barely 47 percent of British children learn another language, while it is 10 percent in Brazil, Russia and Argentina and just one percent in China. Europe offers multiple languages in school, but only for a year, while in Japan it is two years. With 780 spoken languages, 122 in the Census, 22 official and no national language, India wrestles with its linguistic diversity, compelling children to learn more languages than they can master. After 30 years, a policy overhaul waits on the anvil. But new flashpoints reopen old fault lines—of politics, identity and chauvinism. And they are all there, waiting to be repeated.

Exactly a day after its second term started, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government landed in the eye of a storm on the politically sensitive question of language rights. On May 31, a draft National Education Policy developed by the K Kasturirangan Committee was shared by the ministry of human resource and development (HRD) for public comment. Like the National Policy on Education of 1968, the Education Policy of 1986 and the Programme of Action by the Parliament on education in 1992, it reiterated its commitment to the three-language formula, but with a twist in the tale. It recommended Hindi as a compulsory language in non-Hindi speaking states.

Protests exploded across the country, with the southern states taking the lead. Social media went into overdrive, with #StopHindiImposition hashtags trending on Twitter. Opposition leaders—Tamil Nadu to West Bengal, Maharashtra to Kerala—warned of mass dissent. The centre went into damage control mode, with senior cabinet ministers tweeting reassurances that Hindi would not be imposed without public consultation. Yet another draft was prepared in a day by the HRD ministry to defuse the crisis, dropping the clause. But the idea of the three-language formula continued even in the latest draft. Hence, Hindi could come in by the backdoor. How many schools in India would have the wherewithal to find teachers equipped to teach a range of regional languages, asked experts. Wouldn’t Hindi become the default language of choice in most non-Hindi speaking states? What would stop Hindi-speaking states from abandoning regional languages and opting for Sanskrit as the third language?

When the new council of ministers took the oath of office on May 30, 58 people were from Hindi-speaking states. Noth­ing unusual in that as this is a trend that goes as far back as the first Lok Sabha of 1952. What was atypical was the dominant language of the ceremony: Hindi.

Striking in traditional headgear was G Kishan Reddy, 55, the sole minister from the Telugu states, a BJP member since age 15, known to be “Amit Shah’s right hand man”. As he read out his oath in Hindi with a heavy Telugu accent, fumbling a little with the words, an uncharacteristic note of contention interrupted the solemn routine. President Ram Nath Kovind broke into correct his accent and words, making him repeat sentences. The nation watched.

In 2009, a Maharashtra MLA was slapped by his peers from the opposition for taking the oath of office in Hindi and not Marathi. Ten years later, it seems like a lost chapter in the story of India. Hindi, the fastest-growing Indian language, is developing new clout and legitimacy. At work is the powerful Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, an RSS affiliate that propagates the idea of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” and the removal of English. Led by Modi, BJP politicians are aggressively using Hindi on social media. On the floor of Parliament, Hindi is fast replacing English; Modi speaks only in Hindi. With the Committee of Parliament on Official Languages promoting Hindi, it is now everywhere: official speeches, airline tickets, syllabi of central schools. The writing is on the wall: India is venturing into uncharted territories, where the spectacular rise of Hindi may pose a threat to our linguistic diversity and federal structure.

Yet, there is no national language in India. Although Hindi remains the most spoken mother tongue in the country, barely a dozen states and Union Territories have a majority who list Hindi as their mother tongue. And out of them, 40 percent do not speak pure Hindi, but in 49 tongues similar to Hindi, shows the People’s Linguistic Survey 2017. Nearly 60 percent Indians speak a language other than Hindi. The Constitution designates 22 official languages, Hindi written in the Devanagari script, as well as English as the official languages of the Union. The state governments have the power to legislate their own official languages. Hence, there are 22 official languages. Hindi or English is used for official purposes: parliamentary proceedings, judiciary and communications between the centre and states.

At the time of framing of the Constitution, it was decided that Hindi in Devanagari script would be adopted as the official language of the Union under Article 343(1) under Part XVII of the Constitution, while English would continue to be used for executive, judicial and legal purposes until 1965. Article 351 of the Constitution advocated developing Hindi as an “official language” with the help of other Indian languages to make it acceptable to non-Hindi speakers. The provisions created tension between those who wanted English to stay and those who wanted primacy for Hindi.

Collisions were averted by Jawaharlal Nehru’s assurance in 1959 that English would be an associate language as long as states would want it. In 1963, the Official Languages Act sanctioned the continued use of English even after 1965 and for correspondence between the centre and the states. Article 348(1) provided for the use of English in the Supreme Court and high courts as well as for drafting bills, acts and orders, although Article 348(2) read with Section (7) of the Official Languages Act, 1963, provided for Hindi or other official languages to be used in High Courts “in addition to English”.

Ultimately, it is the apex court that can shed new light on the muddled mess around India’s language policy, especially the outmoded Part XVII. In 2014, a constitution bench upheld the fundamental right of parents to choose a child’s mother tongue and medium of instruction, invoking Articles 19(1)(a) and (g) of the Constitution—or the rights to freedom of speech and profession. The bench also precluded proactive role of the state to determine “standards of education,” or “impose” a language on an unwilling population.

Formal, no-nonsense, quiet, non-intrusive and at the same time, a stickler in matters of propriety, President Kovind interrupted seven NDA ministers on May 30 for callous oath-taking, five of whom were native Hindi-speakers. Kovind is the first president to have taken his oath in Hindi, yet it’s his command over English, and knowledge of the Constitution that is said to have clinched the NDA decision to nominate him as the president. No wonder, language plays a pivotal role in his public speeches. He advocates citizens to learn more languages, asks Hindi-speakers to extend more respect and space to regional languages, worries about the opposition to Hindi in some parts of the country and enjoins all to adopt other languages and cultures, to “unite the people and the country”.

As the constitutional head of the Union, will he build bridges across languages in politically turbulent times?

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