India is a haven of numerous languages. It ranks in the top ten linguistically diverse countries. It begs the question – What is the national language of India? Is Hindi India’s national language? Do we even have a national language, to begin with?
History of “National Language” in India
Often associated with nationalism and national consciousness, Hindi has been given a stamp of prominence. This prominence has allowed the public to propose the language to be set up as the country’s national language.
However, historically the idea has faced stiff resistance from the non-Hindi speaking population.
The debate over the acceptance of a national language has been raging since Independence. While leaders like Seth Govind Das, RV Dhulekar, Mohd. Hifzur Rahman argued for the idea of “One Language One Script”, there were others like TA Chettiar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee who opposed this idea.
Jawaharlal Nehru recalled Gandhi’s views of identifying Hindustani as a national language. Nehru, however, cautioned against forcing one language on all of India’s people. He said this was “not only an incorrect approach but …a dangerous approach.”
In 1937, when the Congress formed the government in the Madras Presidency under the leadership of C. Rajagopalachari, it planned the imposition of Hindi on the state. This sparked massive protests and anti-Hindi demonstrations led by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker.
In 1963, the government of India passed the Official Languages Act. This legislation, which was to take effect from January 26, 1965, promised to phase out English and retain Hindi as the sole official language of the Union. This again triggered massive protests in Tamil Nadu and other parts of the nation. As a consequence, the act was later withdrawn.
Our country is steeped in regional language and identity. Assertion of one language over others often raises questions on its supremacy over the others.
This diversity and identity are also reflected in the boundaries of our states and territories. A result of the Vishalandhra movement, the States Reorganisation Act of 1956 organises the states along linguistic lines.
Hindi is not our national language – here’s why
It is easy to see why it may be confused as the national language of our country. After all, the 2011 census flaunted the number of Hindi speakers at almost 44%. However, the number should not legitimise its supremacy over other languages in the country. Especially when collectively non-Hindi speakers form a larger majority of our population.
GN Devy, the head of people’s linguistic survey of India, notes that numbers cannot accurately paint the place of a language in its society.
When we go beyond numbers, it is seen that Hindi is native to only eight out of the 29 states in India despite its prominence. Looking even further, it is evident that Hindi serves a more functional purpose than a cultural one in six out of these eight states.
In terms of its heritage, Hindi has a much younger history than its counterparts like Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and other prominent Indian languages.
So what is our National Language?
The simple answer, we don’t have one.
The idea behind having a national language is to instil a sense of unity. It brings the people of a country together by acknowledging their shared cultural heritage.
The pre-independent history of riots in Madras on the assertion of Hindi language in their states, along with the days-long discussion on the matter, prompted the founding fathers of our constitution to adopt the term “official language” over “national language” in our constitution. Over time the law recognised other prominent languages in the continent and made necessary amendments.
Today, the Indian constitution recognises 22 major languages of India in “the 8th Schedule” of the Constitution. These languages are – Assamese, Bangla, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Kannada, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, and Urdu.
The status of languages in India today
In his famous book, And the Mountains Echoed, author Khalid Hosseini very beautifully expresses the relation of language and culture. He writes, “If culture is a house, then language was the key to the front door; to all the rooms inside. Without it, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.”
Language is integral to culture. According to the 1961 Census, India is home to 1,652 “mother tongues” – including 103 foreign mother tongues.
Our languages are among the richest, most scientific, most beautiful, and the most expressive in the world. Unfortunately, the country has lost over 220 languages in the last 50 years alone due to a lack of care and attention. UNESCO has even declared 197 Indian languages as ‘endangered’.
The government has taken a great initiative to preserve this beauty by keeping the students rooted in their cultures through language.
Implementing Nehru’s idea of imparting education in regional languages has proposed the idea of the three language formula in the NEP.
According to this policy, a student is required to learn three languages- their home language/mother-tongue, English and any other language native to India. It emphasises the role of education through the native language to preserve culture and open doors to new opportunities.
India writes in many languages and speaks in many more voices. Yet, communication has never broken down in this subcontinent. The core idea behind setting up a national language is to unite a diverse country, but do we need a common language to preserve the idea of India? Isn’t our struggle for Independence, our faith in the Constitution, and acceptance of our diverse cultures strong enough to keep us one? Our strength lies in our diversity. An attempt to unify our people within a singular language can do more harm than good.