A needless pursuit of Hindi at the United Nations

It makes no sense for India, which prides itself on its multilingualism, to make a case for Hindi at the UN

Updated - January 12, 2018 11:06 am IST

Published - January 12, 2018 01:05 am IST

There is a story in the Genesis that the entire world spoke a single language before humanity, apparently in arrogance and pride, set out to build a tower so high that it would reach heaven. And that to undermine such overweening pride, God condemned them to speak in different languages so that the enterprise failed due to the resulting confusion. Fortunately, when nations came together in the modern era to form a global alliance for peace, it was decided that the United Nations should have two working languages — English and French — lest it should become another Tower of Babel. Chinese, French, English, Russian and Spanish were the UN official languages, but by subsequent resolutions over the years, all five became working languages too. In 1973, Arabic was adopted by the General Assembly as an official and a working language.

For the Government of India, obtaining official language status for Hindi at the UN is an attractive way of enhancing its stature among languages and propagating the greater use of Hindi. The current rules do not make it easy. It may be possible for India to get the required two-thirds support. However, it is apparent that it cannot get all these countries — 129 out of 193 members, to be precise — to share the expenditure, as the rules stipulate. Even if the funding part was taken care of, it will be a gross waste of resources to spend millions of dollars every year to fund the required translation and interpretation work. The last General Assembly resolution on the status of multilingualism at the UN noted with concern that the availability of official documents in all official languages was “limited in some areas of Secretariat activity”. As it is, the UN is some distance away from achieving its multilingual goals; expecting it to include one more language may be quite naïve.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has argued that Hindi is spoken not only in India, but also in Fiji, Suriname, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. It is quite a strange thing to say as other Indian languages too are spoken in several countries. Bangladesh has asked for official language status for Bengali in the UN, and the West Bengal Assembly has passed a resolution supporting the claim.

It’s incongruous

It makes no sense for a country like India, which prides itself on its multilingualism, to make a case for Hindi at the UN. It will be quite incongruous for India to spend good money on interpretation and translation at the UN, when many of its own representatives use English. As Congress MP Shashi Tharoor pointed out in Parliament, the policy seems to assume that India will have only Hindi-speaking Ministers.

Far more than gaining greater global recognition for Hindi is at stake here. As a country known for its linguistic pluralism, India should not give an impression on the global stage that it has one pre-eminent language. The government must not embark on this needless pursuit.

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