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The fight for domestic parity

Last month, addressing the media ahead of the World Hindi Conference, Union External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, revealed that the Centre was actively trying to get 129 votes in the United Nations to make Hindi an official language of the international body.

On Thursday, at the inauguration of the conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went one step further. He said forgetting Hindi would be a great loss to the nation and pegged the language, along with English and Chinese, as potential world leaders in the digital space.

Hindi conferences since 1975 have consistently hung on to this demand of making the language the face of the country in the United Nations. Successive governments have paid lip service to the call by promising concerted efforts. But any move on this front has met with criticism from regional parties.

In the latest round, DMK president M. Karunanidhi called Ms. Swaraj’s announcement a challenge to the very plurality of India, which is perhaps one of the most linguistically diverse in the entire world.

What took everyone by surprise was the pronouncement by the Minister that India was willing to bear the cost that according Hindi this position would bring — a whopping $41 million a year, which is approximately Rs. 275 crore.

While Mr. Karunanidhi’s position might be deemed too radical, the External Affairs Ministry’s move has to be looked in the backdrop of the fight for linguistic parity that has continued for over 50 years.

The language problem

One of the crucial reasons attributed to the rise of the DMK to power was the 1965 anti-Hindi struggle in Tamil Nadu, which saw violence break out against the phasing out of English as an associate official language. It took a direct assurance from Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, that English would remain in use for official purposes till the States wanted it, to quell the riots.

In his sharp analysis of the move to divide the States on linguistic basis, B.R. Ambedkar wrote that there was no Article more controversial in the Constituent Assembly than the one making Hindi the national language. When the matter was put to vote after discussions, it led to a tie with 78 votes for and against in the first round. At a later point, Hindi won by a single vote, showcasing how sharply divided the country was in projecting a single language as its main identity ( Thoughts on Linguistic States-1955).However, it has to be stated that Ambedkar was pro-Hindi in the analysis though many of his predictions of "peril" in non-acceptance of Hindi have not come true.

Proponents of the idea of making Hindi an official language in the United Nations point to a logic that they feel is commonsensical. More speak Hindi in India than any other language. This is indeed a fact that cannot be disproved. The Census 2001, which is the latest data we have on the linguistic question, says 42.2 crore people listed Hindi as their mother tongue. But a deeper look would reveal that this number includes those speaking other languages similar to Hindi. This category accounts for 16.41 of the 42.2 crore.

Given the status of India as the second most populous country, the idea is that if a language has to represent the country in the comity of nations, it has to be the one most widely spoken. This automatically qualifies Hindi as the appropriate candidate.

However, the larger point that is missed is that the majority (58 per cent) in India are not those with Hindi as mother tongue. It might be the single largest spoken language but not the language of every one.

Furthermore, in a democracy, mere numbers cannot be the yardstick for according a special status, for such a setup would put minority rights under grave risk and endanger the concept of equality. In the 1950s, the founder of the DMK, C.N. Annadurai, retorted to the numbers argument in his unique style by wondering why the crow was not made the national bird despite possessing an overwhelming majority.

Read the counter-view: >Give the common crow its rightful space

The question of parity

When Lal Bahadur Shastri assured the continuance of English in official use, it was an implicit recognition of the assertion of rights and the fight for equality by linguistic minorities. The imposition of Hindi was seen as a direct invasion by hegemony into a crucial aspect of regional identity.

Therefore, it is not a surprise that the same arguments that thundered in the 1965 agitations are invoked in 2015 as well. While those in the Centre may point to the resolutions of the Hindi conferences to push the language into the United Nations, the regions are bound to see the move as hypocritical given how their larger demand for domestic parity of languages has been put in the back burner for logistical reasons.

How is it that the Centre, which has refused to heed to the demand of making all 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution as official languages, is willing to pledge Rs. 275 crore of taxpayers’ money annually to put Hindi in the UN? Would that money not help in ensuring the use of 21 other languages other languages in the Parliament? If money is not the problem, what keeps the Centre from accepting the demand?

While resolutions in Hindi conferences can persuade the MEA to push for 129 votes for the language in the UN, the demands of regional language conferences, especially World Tamil Conferences, to make their language an official one by amending the Constitution, have fell on deaf ears.

Another aspect is the utter lack of consultation before making the decision, despite awareness that the move would entail strong reactions. Matters of foreign policy are in the exclusive realm of the Centre. But the question of a representative language is much more than mere foreign policy.

The larger context

Apart from the concept itself, the push for Hindi will be naturally viewed within the larger context of what the Modi-led government has been attempting since assuming power. In September last year, following a strong protest from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the University Grants Commission was forced to take back a circular asking universities to teach Hindi as a primary language in undergraduate courses.

A few months before that, parties across regions slammed the Centre for seeking to promote the use of Hindi in official accounts in Twitter and Facebook. That the BJP comes from a stable that promoted the idea of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ was also a point raised by parties in Tamil Nadu, which has remained the hotbed of language politics. Even on Thursday, Mr. Modi did not fail to invoke the Ram Charit Manaswhen he played hard for Hindi.

The very fact that a robust infrastructure for translation, with a huge recurring expense, has to be put in place for the use of Hindi in the UN suggests that an overwhelming majority there would not be able to understand documents in Hindi. Thus, it is more an act of symbolism to assert India’s growing power than of any great substance.

Given the issues involved, it is obvious that the move to push Hindi into the UN is seen as an attempt to project the entire country as a nation of Hindi speakers even as linguistic parity remains a dream in the domestic corridors of power.


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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 1:17:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/hindi-as-an-official-language-of-the-un/article7638015.ece

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