Congress leader Shashi Tharoor recently questioned in Lok Sabha the purpose of making Hindi an official language at the United Nations. He said: “I understand the Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister can speak in Hindi, but what if a future External Affairs Minister comes from Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, who couldn’t speak in the language?”
Last year, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah termed the three-language policy as “not reasonable.” He was pleading with the Centre to remove Hindi signage in Bengaluru’s Namma Metro in response to popular sentiment against Hindi in his State. In effect, he sought exemption for Karnataka from the three-language policy (like Tamil Nadu) but stopped short of demanding a policy change.
Both leaders raised relevant questions on our language policy, but they should have asked their own party, the Congress, how it created a situation where Hindi is feared to be subsuming many subnational identities in the country.
The three-language policy
In the sixties, when the language policy ran into rough weather, the three-language formula was conceptualised as a modus vivendi (an acceptable solution). Parliament passed the Official Language Resolution in 1968, stipulating that a “modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages”, be studied in Hindi-speaking areas (along with Hindi and English) and that Hindi be studied in areas where it is not spoken (along with the regional languages and English).
The three-language policy was meant for the entire country. However, the policy took a whole different shape as if it was a prescription for non-Hindi-speaking States alone. While non-Hindi-speaking States (except Tamil Nadu) adhered to the three-language policy, Hindi-speaking States took a U-turn: they not only gave up on teaching a non-Hindi language in their schools but effectively delegitimised English.
The mischief of using the three-language policy to spread only Hindi took place when Congress enjoyed power at the Centre and in most States. Even the move to make Hindi an official language at the UN was a recommendation that the Committee of Parliament on Official Language (CPOL) made in 2011. So, the issues that Mr. Tharoor and Mr. Siddaramaiah have raised are the handiwork of their own party.
Though the CPOL was created in 1976 “to review the progress made in the use of Hindi for the official purposes... of the Union” and make recommendations on the same, its current mandate is much more. In fact, the Committee operates not only to promote Hindi everywhere but also banish English from the land. It appears to believe that Hindi cannot thrive as long as English survives.
In 2011, in its ninth report, the panel made 117 recommendations and the President approved more than 95% of them. Of the handful of recommendations that the President did not accept, two merit attention to understand the wrong direction that the panel is showing to the nation. The first recommendation pertains to adding a column on Hindi fluency in the annual confidential report of all employees/officers. This obviously targets Central government employees in non-Hindi States. The second is to have only Hindi or one’s mother tongue as the language to be used in Parliament. In fact, the panel is more magnanimous than Article 120(2) of the Constitution. While the Article (in abeyance since 1965) seeks to make Hindi the sole language in Parliament, allowing any other language as an exception when a member cannot speak in Hindi, the panel recommendation gives equal space to Hindi and other Indian languages. It is not clear what the Committee meant by mother tongue. Even if it meant languages in the Eighth Schedule (22 and counting), and if this recommendation is accepted in future, Parliament would become an assembly of tongues.
What of those recommendations has the Centre accepted?
The Committee’s fervour is palpable in every recommendation, throwing rationality, pragmatism and national interest under the truck. It says that students in colleges and universities in non-Hindi-speaking States will henceforth have the option of taking exams and interviews in Hindi. It asks that government advertisements in Hindi newspapers be of “bigger size” and “at starting pages”, while those in English newspapers be of “relatively smaller size” and “in middle or ending pages”. It mandates the purchase of more Hindi newspapers and magazines in all Central government offices, public sector undertakings, institutions funded by the government, and private companies engaged in public service. Recommendation No. 107 reads: “In order to end the dominance of English (not its use), such schools should not be given recognition by the government which do not impart education in Hindi or mother tongue.” So on and so forth.
Caught in between
Broadly, two factors are relevant to our language policy. One, English has become a global language and a certain fluency in it is taken as a given for mobility as well as for access to global knowledge. Hindi possesses no such advantages. Two, many non-Hindi Indian languages are older than Hindi and their speakers are justly proud of their rich cultural and literary heritage. They strive to make their respective languages prominent in governance and education, while keeping English for what it is. These States lack both the desire and the need to learn Hindi.
In any case, it is not apparent how not knowing Hindi renders one less of an Indian, or even less of a Hindu. As the president of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Raj Thackeray, said in an interview to The Hindu last year: “There could be Marathi Hindu or Tamil Hindu and so on, but one cannot make blanket imposition of Hindi on the entire country. All Hindus cannot be Hindi.” He likened India to Europe — a mosaic of cultures, languages and traditions. His stance seems to have found resonance even in a faraway State like Assam.
Non-Hindi States are unlikely to accept the ‘imposition’ of Hindi, even if it comes in a friendly garb and with a smile. Only time will tell if they make a common cause on the issue.
India finds itself sandwiched between a relentlessness that assumes semi-religious overtones to banish English and a vehemence with latent subnationalism to reject Hindi. Ironically, any impassioned deliberation on India’s language policy highlights the centrality of English not only as a link-language but as a glue that binds India together.
D. Shyam Babu is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal