A couple of years ago, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) member of Parliament (MP) Kanimozhi hit a language barrier at Chennai airport with a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) member apparently unable to communicate in either English or Tamil while the MP lacks proficiency in Hindi. The issue took a political turn with the MP tweeting that she was asked whether she was not Indian when she requested that the security staff speak in Tamil or English, leading to an official inquiry. The findings of the inquiry are lost amid declining public interest, but the incident became another instance of a language divide, or chauvinism, depending on the eye of the beholder. More recently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s remarks to the Parliamentary Committee on Official Language that people from states speaking different languages could use Hindi as a link language sparked a sharper debate. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided that the medium of running the government is the official language and this will definitely increase the importance of Hindi. Time has come to make official language an important part of the unity of the country,” Shah said.
Shah did add that Hindi could be an alternative to English but his comments immediately drew criticism from some opposition parties, particularly DMK, about the “imposition” of a language or “Hindi imperialism”. “Are Hindi-speaking states enough? A single language will not be of use for unity,” said Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin. Soon enough, DMK party organ Murasoli amplified the message.
Not long after this exchange, the prime minister sidestepped the language trap during a visit to Chennai, praising Tamil as a classical and eternal language while Stalin, speaking at the same event, reiterated his demand for Tamil to be recognised as an official language of the Union. It did look like the issue would go off the boil till DMK MP TKS Elangovan raked up a fresh controversy, suggesting Hindi is synonymous with caste bias, and it would reduce Tamils to “Shudra” status. As his comments sparked a storm, the DMK veteran sought to explain his comments saying that the “entry” of Hindi would bring about certain cultural practices. The pugnacious posturing seems in keeping with a more confrontationist stance DMK has adopted with regard to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Centre since its return to office. There has been a sharp articulation on ‘federalism’ over issues like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) dues claimed by the state while the party has paid more attention to repudiating ‘Hindutva’ than might seem necessary given that BJP has been a small presence in the state. The message overall seems aimed at reviving a distinct regional identity that is at variance, even at odds, with the Centre. Part of the explanation could lie in BJP’s successes against regional parties and a view that smaller parties need to clearly distinguish how they stand apart.
Although not as shrill or bitter, DMK’s outlook seems to mirror the Trinamool Congress’ trenchant criticism of BJP. Opposing the ‘imposition’ of Hindi then would seem part of the same toolkit that has seen DMK revive a plank that party founder M Karunanidhi had de-emphasised towards the end of his long political career that had seen the party become a BJP ally for a while before a parting of ways ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Since then, BJP has sought, without much success, to strike roots in the state and it was no surprise to see the party tweeting scenes of people lining the streets to greet Narendra Modi when he was in Chennai last month. The advancement of regionalism also fits the view of opposition strategists who feel diluting or countering BJP’s Hindu consolidation is essential to upsetting the saffron applecart in 2024.
Tamil Nadu for long has had a two-language formula and analysts defending the policy have said that the state enjoys an exemption from the official languages rules that aim to promote the use of Hindi. In schools run by the state government, Hindi is not offered as a subject to students as part of what has been policy for long. Yet, while governments have kept Hindi out of the syllabus, the language has recorded a quiet growth in southern states, including Tamil Nadu. The increase in the number of Hindi speakers cannot be solely attributed, as some commentators do, to the migration of workers from north India. There is an increase in the number of Hindi speakers even among people, often in the younger age group, who hail from these states. The pervasive influence of Hindi cinema is often mentioned as a cultural ambassador—drawing counter-assertions of the growing profile of southern films all over the country—and is certainly a factor that has popularised Hindi. Yet, the increase of Hindi speakers in states where it is not the mother tongue indicates a rising acceptability even as the total numbers in the south remain low. As the Language Atlas of India 2011 shows, there has been a strong growth in the number of Hindi speakers and while the number of English speakers has also risen, English is not widely understood outside the metros. Even in urban settings, English is less well understood in older or more traditional parts of town. Hindi is more often the language for informal communication in schools and colleges in north India where English is the medium of instruction than was the case earlier. If considered in numerical terms, many more people converse in Hindi as compared to English which is almost completely absent in the countryside. The debate over Hindi is often read in the light of populist declarations that it is the national language, as was the case in the Twitter spat between actors Ajay Devgn and Kiccha Sudeep recently. There is no reference to any rashtra bhasha in the Constitution. But Hindi and English do figure as official languages of the Union and the Ministry of Home Affairs has a mandate to promote the use of the Indian language.
While retaining the essence of the three-language formula, the big change in the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) is the shift towards regional languages in the advocacy of the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. “The idea is that all Indian languages, not just a few, are equal. The thinking behind the NEP is to present an alternative to English-medium instruction as it has been found that learning, particularly in the early stages of schooling, in the mother tongue is beneficial for students,” Chamu Krishna Shastry, chairman of the Bharatiya Bhasha Samiti, Ministry of Education, told Open. He points out that definitions have been deliberately confused to create a sense of linguistic fragmentation. Fine differences are drawn between mother tongue, home and local language, and even regional languages. Similarly, dialects are promoted as separate languages, a process intended to create the impression of separateness and generate discord.
Experts have also come to realise that individuals may well have a ‘first language’, the language they most use at school or at work. So a person may declare any of the scheduled languages as his or her mother tongue but mostly communicate in English. NEP, in its promotion of the three-language formula with greater flexibility, looks to counter the use of language as a divisive tool and will be much more inclusive as it reduces language barriers that make learning an uphill task for students not familiar with the medium of instruction in schools or, because of not being proficient in English, find themselves locked out of elite institutions altogether. Such students, even when they clear competitive examinations, struggle to keep pace due to lack of familiarity with the medium of instruction. The policy seeks to promote bilingualism which the Census data shows to be growing. In fact, this is more evident in states where Hindi is not the common language. “More HEIs, and more programmes in higher education, will use the mother tongue/local language as a medium of instruction, and/or offer programmes bilingually, in order to increase access and GER and also to promote the strength, usage, and vibrancy of all Indian languages,” NEP states.
The rub then is not the promotion of Indian languages but the continued inclusion of Hindi as one of the likely three languages, even when it has been spelt out that the choice will lie with the states. The implied promotion of alternatives to English as a medium of instruction could potentially disadvantage a two-language approach, and is a faultline in the current discussion. The absence of the teaching of Hindi runs the risk of making the products of such a system strangers in many other parts of the country. The promotion of language and separate identity has deepened regional divides and also feeds into the political view that India is a federation rather than a nation. On the other hand, for the ruling dispensation, acknowledgement of diversity goes hand-in-hand with a strong Centre. Asked whether languages were not indeed different, as in those classified as Indo-Aryan when compared to Dravidian tongues, Shastry argues that there are several commonalities that are ignored and which make the differences less stark. “There is a shared grammatical structure and expression in many Indian languages, many of which are clearly influenced by Sanskrit,” he argues. NEP promises to make learning participative and entertaining. It calls for developing bilingual texts and outlines the need for large investments in making available skilled multilingual teachers. It also speaks of creating resources for the teaching of foreign languages like Korean, Japanese, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese (with the notable exception of Chinese). In all of this, the policy breaks new ground but also opens a new front in the language debate as its implementation—while not mandating Hindi—will definitely diminish the salience of English in the education system and that has implications for states with a restrictive approach to teaching languages.
Opposing the ‘imposition’ of Hindi would seem part of the same toolkit that has seen DMK revive a plank that M Karunanidhi had de-emphasised towards the end of his long political career. The advancement of regionalism fits the view of opposition strategists who feel countering BJP’s
Hindu consolidation is essential in 2024
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Every now and again, when Central ministers respond to questions in Parliament, opposition MPs from non-Hindi states rise to request that the reply be in English. They are making a point and sometimes so are the ministers, particularly those who are bilingual and are aware that the query has been posed by an MP not familiar with Hindi. The request for an answer in English is usually accepted and the byplay ends there. Given the evidence that most states are not unilingual and that bilingualism is steadily rising, the question as to who wants a language war begs an answer. The propensity of linguistic-regional sensibilities becoming a flashpoint even in the 75th year of independence raises plenty of doubt and scepticism about policies of the previous decades. Did seeing language as an identity-marker increase divisiveness rather than preserve diversity?
The philosophical underpinning of NEP is certainly in part influenced by a desire to undercut the “Macaulay legacy”, a sore point with many on the right and in the Sangh Parivar. But just as attraction for a modern education in English was evident even before Thomas Macaulay’s famous minute of 1835, a correction of sorts has been underway despite periodic bouts of heated rhetoric. As regional languages and cultures reassert their influence, NEP seeks to provide fresh legs to the study of classical languages like Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Odia, Malayalam, Arabic and Persian. The process of assimilation is likely to become more visible once the long delayed Census 2021 takes place and its results are available. If indeed more languages were taught in schools, DMK leader Kanimozhi and the CRPF personnel at Chennai airport may have found a way to resolve their differences. The disagreeable incident may not have occurred at all.