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India: A Multitude of Problems of a Multilingual Nation

India needs more inclusive and less Hindi-alienating solutions for its language divides.

The recently constructed Bangalore metro garnered sufficient controversy a while back with its decision to have Hindi signage complementing that of English and Kannada, the vernacular language of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Many people saw this as another attempt by the Modi government to “impose” Hindi on predominantly non-Hindi speaking regions. Social media, particularly Twitter, saw a number of people espouse this sentiment with the hashtag #NammaMetroHindiBeda, which translates as, “We don’t want Hindi in our Metro” from Kannada.

Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, has long been heralded as one of the most progressive and cosmopolitan cities of India, thanks to its housing of major industries that have been crucial to the growth story of India since economic liberalization started in 1991. In spite of this, if local populations have strong objections to oppose the language native to more than four out of every 10 people of India, then society as a whole needs to explore where and how the current policies on language are going wrong.

The conflict between speakers of different languages is not new to India. Linguistic diversity has been a critical aspect of the multiculturalism that has been the defining characteristic of India through the ages. As of 2013, over 700 languages are spoken in the country. The lack of a centralizing political union across South Asia throughout most of history meant that this wouldn’t really produce any social distress, until the advent of British rule. It was only when the British tried to centralize their administration beyond the ambit of the English language in the mid-19th century that they began to explore the divides in the linguistic identities of India as a means of imposing their domination.

True to the ancient policy of divide et impera, the British went about with their agenda conceitedly, starting with the Hindi-Urdu controversy in the late 19th century, an issue that is often cited as the beginning of the Hindu-Muslim divide in India. This was complemented by the now disproved, incomplete, imperialist and propagandist Indo-Aryan theory that implied an age-old socio-cultural divide between the Aryan-dominated north and the Dravidian-dominated south. Subsequent splits on the lines of caste-based precedents opened up very quickly, making way for several revanchist and radical movements to run parallel to the mainstream nationalist movements under the Indian National Congress party.

One movement that stood out was that for a Dravidian state. Spearheaded largely by middle-class Tamil intellectuals such as Periyar and C.N. Annadurai, its agitations steadily progressed from opposing Brahmanism and unilateral imposition of Hindi across southern Indian states to secession from independent India based on disagreements with the increasingly assertive demands of the Hindi-enthusiast mainstream right wing. While demands for secession receded after being outlawed in 1963, the movement did manage to indefinitely postpone the planned phasing out of English to make way for Hindi as the sole national language in 1965.

It also managed to consolidate a three-language formula, by which certain states would get to function and support education in one primary vernacular language along with English and Hindi, the two official languages of India ever since. While many states such as Maharashtra and Odisha managed to implement this, it was disapproved of by the Tamil Nadu assembly later. Annadurai, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu at that time, had famously criticized the requirement of non-Hindi speakers to learn both Hindi and English to that of “boring a smaller hole in a wall for the kitten while there is a bigger one for the cat.” Most anti-Hindi sentiments continue to thrive on this line of thought.

Beyond Regionalism

A simple video by the popular Indian comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) that had gone viral explains how flawed it is to assume that what suits the cat will also suit the kitten. Every language has its own populations to appeal to, with its own strengths and shortcomings in expression. To reject the unilateral imposition of a language in a society as diverse as India is reasonable, but to restrict the exposure of populations to other languages of the country seems myopic. It limits opportunities in terms of work, education and everyday interactions for millions of people, thus restricting social mobility and depriving the country of much-needed growth and prosperity.

With chronic overpopulation, rampant communalism, corruption, unemployment, territorial distress and large-scale migrations, the states of northern India have seemingly endured greater hardships under successive administrations in independent India in comparison to the relatively more industrialized and prosperous states of southern India. This has left a large part of the so-called Hindi-speaking belt of India with weak public institutions and a highly dysfunctional education system for the past seven decades. To expect this part of India to subset its usage of Hindi into a language that is still essentially foreign is both emotionally demanding and nearly impossible to carry out any time soon, given huge infrastructural shortages for imparting quality English education and implementing it across India in general.

It is somewhat reasonable for non-Hindi-speaking states to expect greater reciprocity from Hindi-speaking states from the perspective of the three-language formula, however. Instead of fancifully espousing European or East Asian languages, which are taught poorly and rarely used by the average Indian, Hindi-speaking states could do a world of good by promoting other modern Indian languages as much as other regional with their speakers could do by promoting Hindi.

Hindi, along with Urdu, developed as an amalgamation of many northern, eastern and western Indian languages over centuries of cultural intermixing due to political and social unrest. Limited social mobility arising from political constraints meant it wouldn’t be able to incorporate as many aspects of languages from the southern and northeastern regions as a national language should have. The ascendency of Hindi, however, didn’t dilute regional identities. The uniqueness of Hindi-belt languages such as Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, Punjabi, Marwari, Chhattisgarhi and Bundelkhandi, along with those of other states with remarkable Hindi literacy such as Gujarati, Marathi and Odia, stands to testify this. Hindi largely linked its speakers to a common linguistic basis, which eventually paved the way for broader, yet more inclusive, cultural identities. It is rather shortsighted to apprehend the expansion of demographic realms of Hindi, since it has mostly sought to expand the outlook of communities rather than subjugate them.

Identities in Modern India

Identities in modern India may have to be broader than what Hindi can encompass because of the very multiculturalism the world’s largest democracy is in fact based on. To allow this, Indian society must strive to maintain openness in all of its languages. Retrospective measures, such as the promotion of unnecessary linguistic purism as performed by certain Hindi ideologues and forceful, politicized burdening of language education as attempted with Bengali, can be both bitterly divisive and incompatible with the times we currently live in. The recent unrest in North Bengal over the statehood demands for Gorkhaland exemplifies this. New avenues of learning and communicating are radically redefining interactions, both descriptively as well as prescriptively. This is evident particularly in India because of its vast youth population and burgeoning ICT industries. Even English has had to borrow heavily from Indian vocabulary every now and then to keep up with the times. A non-progressive approach to defining language roles in India will only serve to confuse people and build up an unhealthy reliance on English.

To judge the immiscibility of languages and associated cultures on the basis of an incomplete and controversial theory with imperialist roots is rather shallow. To allow a disproportionately influential section of India’s political class to exploit insecurities of those suffering from the perennial status quo of this language divide for staying in power is rather despicable. The role of languages in modern India could probably be best understood by their capacities to connect to various groups of people from disparate cultures. Judging languages by their artistic elements or rigid regional limits simply cannot do justice to the contemporary needs of people.

The idea of having ethno-linguistically exclusive states in the world’s largest democracy is rapidly aging. India has to evolve to give due space to all of its languages if it is to become a more inclusive, mobile and connected society. At the same time, the cohesion of the country as a whole on indigenous linguistic fundamentals, rather than the imperialist foundations of English, is critical for the cultural and social flourishing of a nation that shelters almost two out of every 11 people in this world. Since the principles of democracy, tolerance and multiculturalism have morally guided limitations on enforcement of ideas, the balancing act will always be difficult. But after almost 70 years of manifesting its own destiny, India must direct the future of its languages soon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Micha Weber / Shutterstock.com