Beyond the language conflict: the need for a clear language policy

We need clarity on language policy or else, India will soon be incomprehensible to itself and the world

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST

Published - May 30, 2017 12:05 am IST

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is famously said that a language is a dialect with an army. If not an army, the Hindi language is armed with two strengths: the constitutional mandate to promote it as India’s lingua franca, and the fact that it is far more widely spoken and understood than any other language in the country.

There’s been a linear movement of Hindi to become India’s national language, not just the official language. Moreover, the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas (SSUN), an RSS-affiliate and a part of the current dispensation’s brain trust, wants English to be removed as the medium of instruction. The implications are not hard to fathom.


However, a case is gaining momentum in favour of revisiting Part XVII of the Constitution which envisages, in essence, the replacement of English language with Hindi at the national level and with other languages in the Eight Schedule in their respective states.

The fact that this transformation should have been completed by 1965 but has been continually deferred is indicative of how sensitive — and potentially explosive — the issue can be. If left unresolved, the language muddle is bound to affect both the efficacy of our educational system and the integrity of our judiciary.

A fait accompli

The higher judiciary appeared to be the sole exception to this English-to-Hindi journey as Article 348(1) stipulates the use of English in the Supreme Court and High Courts as well as for drafting Bills, Acts and Orders. But Article 348(2) read with Section (7) of the Official Languages Act 1963 provides for Hindi or other official languages to be used in High Courts “in addition to English”.


Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have already been granted the right to use Hindi in their High Courts. But the same right has been withheld from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat and Chhattisgarh which sought permission to use Tamil, Gujarati and Hindi respectively.

With regard to the functioning of High Courts, all Indian official languages enjoy equal status and, therefore, demands for permission to use these languages in High Courts are bound to increase. This ought to, in any case, be the logical outcome of our language policy.

Moreover, given our preference for mother tongue as the medium of instruction coupled with a State’s official language being the sole language for all administration, it would be illogical to exclude that State’s sole official language from being used in its High Court.


And the Supreme Court doesn’t appear to relax its ‘English-only’ policy.

How will, then, judges be transferred from one High Court to another or elevated to the Supreme Court? Though, on paper, all High Courts also use English in their work, the English fluency of both litigants and their lawyers will progressively get worse as a result of our language policy.

The complexity of the language issue has been exemplified by four developments that took place in April this year. Three of the four are the outcomes of stipulations enshrined in Part XVII and the fourth one is a case in point on what happens as a consequence.

The Parliamentary Committee on Official Language recommended to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to make Hindi compulsory in all CBSE-affiliated schools till Class X. This requirement obviously targets CBSE schools in non-Hindi speaking States and English-medium schools everywhere.

Sensing backlash from non-Hindi States, especially Tamil Nadu, the CBSE announced that it has not taken a final decision on the matter. One can only wish that those in a hurry to promote Hindi had listened to what the Supreme Court has clearly pronounced on the issue. A Constitution Bench of the Court held in 2014 ( in Karnataka Vs Recognised-Unaided Schools ) inter alia:

Even for linguistic minorities, it is the fundamental right of parents to determine what their mother tongue is;

A child, and on his behalf his parent or guardian, has the right to choose the medium of instruction at the primary school stage under Article 19(1)(a), and;

The imposition of mother tongue at the primary school stage (by the State) affects the fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and (g) of the Constitution.

The Bench goes a step further on the issue of ‘standards of education’ and precludes any proactive role for the State. The general import of the verdict is that the State may ‘promote’ a language or a subject, but it cannot ‘impose’ the same on an unwilling populace.

In fact, the apex court’s line of reasoning must be music for the votaries of English-medium schooling: “For example, prescribing English as a medium of instruction in subjects of higher education for which only English books are available and which can only be properly taught in English may have a direct bearing and impact on the determination of standards of education. Prescribing the medium of instruction in schools to be mother tongue in the primary school stage in classes I to IV has, however, no direct bearing and impact on the determination of standards of education, and will affect the fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.” (supra, para 40)

Thus, a move such as what CBSE is contemplating will face the danger of being struck down as unconstitutional. The least that will happen is one more prolonged legal process, affecting the future of millions of our students.

The other two developments relate to the promotion of non-Hindi Indian languages in their respective states. Andhra Pradesh announced that a department will coin new Telugu words to replace English words in vogue now.

And the government of Kerala declared that from May, Malayalam would be the sole language of the administration. However, the State retained English as a link language in its dealings with the Centre and the outside world.

True to its reputation, Kerala has stuck to the global norm of mother tongue plus English. However, the efficacy of this policy will vary depending on how a State balances its desire to promote its language and culture with the imperative of helping its young people to have sufficient fluency in English.

The fourth development is the order passed by the apex court on April 11 terming an impugned order passed by the Himachal Pradesh High Court as “not possible to comprehend” and directed the High Court to hear the case afresh.

Rethink necessary

It can only be called a manmade disaster that the apex court was forced to dismiss a judgment of a High c=Court as incomprehensible. Part XVII in full operation will render India incomprehensible to itself and to the outside world.

It is time for India to relook its language policy under Part XVII which became obsolete more than 50 years ago. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Instead, the nation must adopt mother tongue plus English, with Hindi accorded a pride of place for ceremonial occasions at national and international levels.

D. Shyam Babu is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal

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