India, a land of many tongues

share this article

Rather than designate any one language as the nation’s standardised tongue, it makes more sense to invest in the development of other regional languages and thus preserve India’s multiculturalism through multilinguism.

The Karnataka government, which has moved to remove all Hindi signages in the State's metro rail stations following protests, alleges that a Central Ministry notification had last year forced it to add Hindi. | Special Arrangement

There is a popular aphorism that depicts India’s linguistic diversity rather well: Kos-kos par badle paani, chaar kos par baani (The language spoken in India changes every few kilometres, just like the taste of the water). The Census of 2001 provided only a partial demonstration of this multiplicity when it said that our country has 30 languages that are spoken by more than a million people each. These 30 languages by themselves only provide a linguistic window through which we can view the 122 languages that are spoken by at least 10,000 people each. Then we have the 1,599 languages, most of them dialects, restricted to specific regions, many of them on the verge of extinction.


More than a decade after the 2001 Census, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, headed by eminent academic G.N. Devy, found that our country is home to 780 languages and 66 different scripts. Given this enormous heterogeneity, doesn’t the privileging of one language by the state do great disservice to other equally-deserving languages?

But then, a counter-question arises: Doesn’t Hindi hold a special place because it is the most-spoken language in the country? In the 2001 Census, 41% of Indians listed ‘Hindi’ as their mother tongue. Taking this figure at face value, we can say that Hindi is the first language of less than half of our population. Even if we count the total number of Hindi speakers — including those who list it as a ‘second’ or ‘third’ language — the figure only just about crosses the halfway mark, at 53%.

Compare this to other countries. In China, Mandarin, the most-spoken language in the world, is the language of choice of 71% of the population. In Russia, 81% of the population speaks Russian. In France, over 88% of people identify their official language as French and in Germany, over 95% of people speak German or call it their mother tongue. The argument that Hindi is to India what these languages are to their respective countries hence falls flat. Hindi can, at most, claim to be the primus inter pares, first among equals, of all Indian languages.


Tongues which demand separate recognition as an "official language" LanguagePrimarily spoken in these Indian States 11 of the 38 languages seeking recognition come under Hindi. The total number of speakers who identify these as mother tongues constitute 21.5% of languages grouped under Hindi.
Current status
Angika Bihar, Jharkhand Unrecognised dialect of Maithili
Banjara/Banjari Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana Grouped under Hindi
Bazika/Bajjika Bihar Unrecognised/Dialect of Maithili
Bhojpuri Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand Grouped under Hindi
Ladakhi/Bhoti Jammu and Kashmir (Ladakh) Non-scheduled language
Sherpa/Bhotia Sikkim Non-scheduled language
Bundeli/Bundelkhandi Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh Grouped under Hindi
Chhattisgarhi Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh Grouped under Hindi
Dhatki/Thari Rajasthan Unrecognised/Dialect of Rajasthani
Garhwali (Pahari) Uttarakhand Grouped under Hindi
Gondi Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh Non-scheduled language
Gujjar/Gujjari/Gujari Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Gujarat Grouped under Khandeshi (a non-scheduled language)
Ho Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh Non-scheduled language
Kachchi/Kutchi Gujarat Grouped under Sindhi
Kamtapuri/Rangpuri/Rajbangshi West Bengal Grouped under Bengali
Karbi Assam Non-scheduled language
Khasi Meghalaya Non-scheduled language
Coorgi/Kodava/Kodagu Karnataka Non-scheduled language
Kokborok Tripura Grouped under Tripuri (a non-scheduled language)
Kumaoni Uttarakhand Grouped under Hindi
Kurak/Koraku Chhattisgarh Grouped under Korwa (a non-scheduled language)
Kurmali Jharkhand Grouped under Hindi
Lepcha Sikkim Non-scheduled language
Limbu Sikkim, Assam, Nagaland Non-scheduled language
Mizo/Lushai Mizoram Non-scheduled language
Magadhi/Magahi Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal Grouped under Hindi
Mundari Jharkhand Non-scheduled language
Nagpuri/Jhaari/Sadri Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal Grouped under Hindi
Nicobari/Nicobarese Andaman and Nicobar Non-scheduled language
Pahari/Pahadi (Himachali) Himachal Pradesh Grouped under Hindi
Rajasthani Rajasthan Grouped under Hindi
Sambalpuri/Kosal Odisha Odia
Pali Not listed
Prakrit Not listed
Siraiki Punjab (spoken primarily by refugees from Western Punjab) Not listed
Tenyidi/Angami Nagaland Non-scheduled language
Tulu Karnataka Non-scheduled language

What does the Constitution say?

At this point, after several language-linked agitations, the question has been almost put to rest — Hindi cannot claim to be India’s sole official language. While the Constitution’s Article 343 says “the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script,” it also empowers the use of English indefinitely. Furthermore, the provision coexists with the Eighth Schedule, which, as per Articles 344(1) and 351, permits the use of 22 languages as official languages.

And then there is Article 347, which provides for the recognition and use of even those languages that are not the ‘official language’ of the State, allowing for greater State autonomy. This partnership of multiple constitutional provisions, though often messy, has kept our Union alive, diverse and vibrant.

Ever since many Indian States were reorganised along linguistic lines, language has always played a part in determining a State’s political identity. However, when States feel an encroachment on their powers to conduct their official business in their own recognised language, the imperfect federal nature of our Union gets threatened and protests are bound to arise. Karnataka has since moved to remove Hindi from the signages in metro stations. The same threat perception was also on display when a proposal to make Bengali compulsory in the Nepali-speaking Darjeeling region triggered fresh demands for a separate political entity, a separate State of Gorkhaland, within India for those whose mother tongue is Nepali.

Hindi came to be known as a ‘language’ only in the late 19th century. There are many dialects and languages, some with grammar and syntax of their own, which are grouped under the term ‘Hindi’, including Haryanvi, Braj, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Bundeli, Bagheli, Kannauji and Rajasthani. A cursory look at the ‘language’ section of Census results shows that there were 49 such ‘dialects’ grouped under ‘Hindi’. Though a Hindi speaker may easily understand some of these tongues, each of them have an identity of its own that is not wholly dependent on Hindi. If you consider solely those who list ‘Hindi’ or ‘Khadi Boli’ — the standardised Hindi variant used for official purposes — as their mother tongue, the percentage of native Hindi speakers is just about 26%.

Mr. Devy, who headed the PLSI, says Hindi came to be recognised by its original name only after its introduction in Fort William College, Calcutta, in the latter part the 19th Century. Till then the other languages, currently considered parts of Hindi, were known by their own names. “At present, a fairly large number of smaller languages are shown as Hindi-fringes. These include various languages in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Their number is approximately 65,” he says.

Some of these ‘languages’, considered ‘dialects’ as of now, have been demanding official recognition, an inclusion in the Eighth Schedule. A decision on 38 such languages, based on the Sitakant Mohapatra Committee report submitted in 2004, is pending in Parliament. At least 11 of those 38 languages were included under ‘Hindi’ in 2001. Two of them, with a rich history of peaceful agitation for inclusion are Bhojpuri and Rajasthani.

On May 17, 2012, then Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram gave a new lease of hope to those striving to include Bhojpuri as an official language when, speaking in Bhojpuri on the floor of the Parliament, he said: humrauwa sabke bhavna samjhatani (I understand your sentiments). He announced that a decision on its inclusion to the Eighth Schedule will be taken in the very next session. Over five years on, the assurance has not materialised, despite several ‘calling awareness’ programmes conducted by Bhojpuri enthusiasts.

In terms of figures, 33 million ‘Hindi speakers’ identify Bhojpuri as their language, in India. This apart, there are about six million speakers in countries like Nepal, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Uganda, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Vincent, Great Britain and the United States.

The literature imprint

So why this dilly-dallying over recognition despite the facts being so apparent? Here, the argument given by the pro-Hindi scholars is that languages like Bhojpuri and Rajasthani are essentially parts of Hindi and separate recognition for some of the languages may dilute Hindi’s importance. But is there any merit to this point? Recognition for a separate language can only enrich the related language’s literature, more so when the language in question, like Hindi, has an identity that is more derivative than original.

Mr. Devy says that when one speaks of a dialect becoming a language, it is an indirect way of saying that a “marginal community has become the mainstream”.

Giving an example, he says “Konkani was considered for a long time to be a dialect of Marathi. But when Goa became a part of India, and Konkani was chosen as its State language, the perception changed altogether. Now, the Konkani language is a part of the Eighth Schedule of India and no sensible person can think of it as a dialect of some other language.” So, did a recognition for Konkani impoverish Marathi literature?



We need to learn to recognise some cities as "multilingual cities" just like "smart cities", those needing a different legal framework.


Possessing an extant literature seems to be an important criterion for a language to be taken seriously over time. Mr. Devy says languages like Bhojpuri, Kutchi, Ahirani and Tulu would have had their “own States” during the Linguistic State Reorganisation process, had they developed their own “literature imprint” with the help of their own scripts. “Since they have remained outside the print culture at that historical juncture, they now survive as a poor relative of their respective State languages.” The need to build better infrastructure for such languages couldn’t be more urgent than it is now.

Another less-understood aspect of the debate on linguistic integration is the ongoing north-to-south migration of workforce. As this article points out, the southern States in India — Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — have already either achieved or are nearing replacement fertility levels. This means greater migration from the other States, including Hindi-speaking ones, will be needed to aid the workforce. According to the census figures of 2011, Tamil Nadu’s migrant population surged by 98% between 2001 and 2011, Kerala’s by 49%, Karnataka’s 50% and Andhra Pradesh’s 40%.

In the near future, the State and the migrating population, both, will face a challenge: should they expect the local people in the State to learn the migrants’ own language? Or should the migrants make an effort to learn the destination State’s language and get integrated into the local culture? The fault-lines created by the schism caused by linguistic and cultural differences are already visible in the form of the vandalism that has been aimed at the use of Hindi in public places in parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Mr. Devy has a few suggestions in this regard. He says we need to learn to recognise some cities as “multilingual cities” just like “smart cities”, those needing a different legal framework. “Just as we created linguistic States during the 1950s-60s, the time has come for us to create multilingual city-States/Central Territories.”


Mahatma Gandhi, a largely self-taught polyglot, has said in his autobiography My Experiments with Truth that in all Indian curricula of higher education, there should be a place for Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and English, besides, of course, the local language of the particular region. He says if the education were more systematic, learning the languages could be a source of pleasure.

This argument can be slightly modified to say that as part of a three-language formula followed in schools, there can be at least one language from the Indo-Aryan family of languages and one from the Dravidian family to aid better linguistic integration. About 95% of all languages spoken in our country can be considered part of either of the two language families. If taught and learnt in the right way, the knowledge of any one Indo-Aryan language — like Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi — can aid the knowledge of other akin languages. The same applies to the Dravidian languages — Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. Know one language and the doors will open for the learning of the others, provided the support exists.

Mr. Devy feels that it is also important to create employment in the teaching of the tongues. “The desire to protect and promote languages can ultimately be fulfilled if we think of creating employment in these languages. Even planning at the Central level needs to incorporate a micro-element of language for planning for different districts and cultural regions,” he says.


Failing to recognise the dangers inherent in the ‘imposition project’ will create a demographic time-bomb out of the demographic dividend.

He also says there can be greater emphasis on translations. Further, “universities can propose extra-credits for students learning some other Indian languages… They can be popularised through a national language promotion mission, either by volunteers or institutions”.

Many Indians are bilingual by default. As per Census 2001, about 255 million Indians — more than a quarter of the total population — spoke at least two languages while 87.5 million spoke at least three. Our society, multicultural by default, can be made multilingual by design if the right interventions, at State and non-State levels, are taken. However, the Centre’s current efforts — placing an excessive focus on the Sanskritised version of Hindi — would aid only in fuelling greater insecurity among the local people of the regions where the language is not spoken. The government — through its Department of Official Language, under the Home Ministry — allocates huge amounts towards a tongue that is spoken by less than half of our population. A portion of those funds, if allocated to institutions dedicated to other languages, will foster a greater spirit of nationhood. Failing to recognise the dangers inherent in the ‘imposition project’ will create a demographic time-bomb out of the demographic dividend.

share this article
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor