In the 37th meeting of the Committee of Parliament on Official Language, held on the 9th of April, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who is the chairperson of the committee, stated that Hindi should replace English as the only nationwide official language. He said, “Now the time has come to make the Official Language an important part of the unity of the country. When citizens of states who speak other languages communicate with each other, it should in the language of India.” The statement led to considerable debate in public discourse, with Opposition leaders, especially from the Eastern and Southern regions, criticising Shah for the same.
This is not the first time Shah has proposed that Hindi should be the sole official language of the country. On the occasion of Hindi Diwas in 2019, Shah had proposed “One Nation, One Language”, saying that “it is absolutely essential that the entire country has one language that becomes the identity of the nation. If there is any language that can tie the whole country in one thread…it is Hindi.”
Shah’s statements not only shed light on the BJP’s ideological imagination of India but also crystallises the broader intentions with which this dispensation functions. The rhetoric of this kind is in continuation with other cultural markers, such as food, and clothing, that BJP is attempting to Hinduise and Hindi-ise. Yet any statement made for the proposal to push for a singular official or “national” language, irrespective of how fleetingly it was made, demands serious and critical engagement beyond political rhetoric.
For such critical engagement, it is crucial to revisit the history of official languages in our country. The Constituent Assembly had accepted the Munshi-Ayyangar formula, which proposed that Hindi will be the official language of India but English will also be used for official purposes till 1965. The intention was to phase out the use of English in the meantime and give Hindi its promised primacy after 15 years.
A crucial turning point for the primacy given to Hindi changed with the setting up of the State Reorganisation Commission in 1952. In 1956, the Commission’s report recommended the states be primarily demarcated on the basis of language among other administrative considerations. This was in continuation of the resolution adopted by the Indian National Congress in 1927 for the redistribution of provinces on a linguistic basis. Naturally, linguistic sub-nationalism gained unprecedented strength within states created on a linguistic basis, such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra. The government thus passed the Official Languages Act in 1963 to implement the continuation of English for official purposes beyond the stipulated year of 1965. This was not sufficient for the non-Hindi states, especially the then Madras state, where mass protests including widespread violence spread from January to March of 1965. It was after repeated assurances by Prime Minister Shastri that Hindi would not be imposed, and an amendment to the Official Languages Act, did the protests in Madras dissipated, and English continued to stay as a language for official purposes alongside Hindi.
At this juncture it is important to question, why was there a demand in the first place for a singular “national” or “official” language? The answer lies in the understanding of a nation as a culturally and linguistically united group. This notion is found as far back as in mid-19th century Europe where German philosopher JG Fichte had argued that the basis of a nation should be a common language and culture. Herein, a nation is imagined as a monolithic entity which is united in its culture, and centralised administratively.
In India, leaders from the Hindi speaking states, primarily Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, felt the need for English to be replaced as it was a symbol of imperialism. Yet the fact that English had evolved into a language of official communication, especially between the Hindi speaking states and non-Hindi speaking states was overlooked. The notion of a nation as a monolithic entity where language is imposed has been both tried and failed, especially in culturally diverse countries. Belgium, Canada, and Spain stand as examples. However, a monolithic and homogenous idea of a nation continues to live on in the BJP’s ecosystem of ideas, as reflected by Shah’s statement.
In a post-independent context, the imposition of Hindi would inevitably result in the hegemony of the northern states over the rest of the country. It would unfairly disadvantage people from the non-Hindi states; they would have to learn an extra language, and would inevitably be lagging behind Hindi states in prospering professionally. In the use of English, a foreign language imposed by a colonial administration that has left the country, people from northern and southern states find themselves on par with each other. The removal of English as an official language disrupts this equilibrium. The irrefutable fact is that English today has developed into a language of convenience in communication apart from having an aspirational value. It is more rapidly learnt than ever before because of social media, and it is an undeniable vehicle of social mobility. Hence, before English is removed as an official language of India, the Union Government has to evaluate to what extent Hindi can compete with English in bringing more economic and cultural prosperity to the country.
The solution hence rests in being open to the idea of facilitating multilingualism. Literary critic GN Devy rightly says that “the current practice of clubbing together multilingual spaces with monolingual habitats is not fair to the large cities today. The language choice of citizens should be widened and not narrowed by the state. If there is a mechanical and monolithic idea of unity followed by any entity, such an entity generally generates great hostility beyond its immediate borders.” This argument also holds true for rural India, where the government has to play a crucial role in allowing the youth the option to learn English apart from their mother tongue, rather than restricting it so that they have the opportunity to compete equally with the youth from the cities.
The alternative to this is to shift our attention to improving the economy. If we imagine India to be a global economic power, forcefully strengthening one identity will only lead to internal resistance and unfairly disadvantage a large part of the country. Instead, economic progress and technological advancements, followed by cultural self-reliance are the only ways to ascertain that Indian languages are able to strengthen themselves.
Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student in Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media and culture.
Picture Credit: Mint
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