by Karan Thapar
If there’s one thing our history has taught us it’s that language can be incendiary. When it ceases to be a means of communication and is treated, instead, as a form of identity it has the potential to divide, offend and infuriate. This is particularly so when a language other than your own is forced upon you.
Now, ours is a heterogeneous, plural and diverse country. We comprise a multitude of ethnicities, religions, castes and sub-castes. India has 22 languages recognized by the Constitution. According to the 2011 census we, in fact, have 122 whilst the People’s Linguistic Survey of India claims it’s actually 780. On top of this we also have hundreds if not thousands of dialects.
We are, therefore, one of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world. That’s, undoubtedly, one of our unique and beautiful features. Unfortunately, it’s one we often fail to appreciate.
In such a country a national language, which is by definition a language preferred by everyone, is hard to agree upon and, therefore, difficult if not perilous to enforce. The Tamils, Kannadigas, Telugus, Malayalees can’t speak hindi whilst Haryanavis, Rajasthanis, Madhya Pradeshis, Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis have no knowledge at all of Tamil, Kannadiga, Telugu or Malayalam. And so far I haven’t even mentioned the North East, the Valley, Ladakh, Bengal or Odissa.
It’s against this background that English has evolved as our link language. It’s also the language of aspiration right across the country. Non-hindi speaking South India and the North East are as willing to embrace it as the hindi-speaking North.
Of course, hundreds of millions can’t speak it whilst many speak it badly and pronounce it appallingly. But that’s not the point. It’s the one language that unites India and proficiency in speaking it is increasing, possibly geometrically.
This is why a decision by the Home Ministry to implement a 6-year old report of a Parliamentary Committee on Official Language is not just bizarre but potentially inflammatory. It recommends that all MPs and Union Ministers who know hindi use it as their only language, both for making speeches and writing. But what about the hundreds of millions in South India and the North East who won’t understand what they are saying or writing?
The report, which has been approved by the President, also makes it mandatory for railway stations in non-hindi speaking states to make announcements in hindi. Why? At best this will bemuse and befuddle the citizenry. At worst, it could offend and annoy them.
Already M. K. Stalin has accused the government of trying to create “Hindia”. It may not be long before other politicians in Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and the North East issue similar warnings. But is anyone in Delhi listening? We have enough problems without scratching open old wounds to create new ones.
So far the only explanation has come from the junior Minister for Home Kiren Rijiju and it’s not satisfactory. “I won’t comment on why the report was sent for President’s approval now”, he said without explaining this strange reluctance. But don’t we have a right to know? And doesn’t he have a responsibility to explain?
Mr. Rijiju insists “this is not an imposition but promotion of hindi.” That sounds as if he’s playing with words. I only hope it doesn’t turn out he’s playing with fire.