Hindi-stan: How far can language take us?

Can a single language spoken by a majority help bridge the rampant inequality in India? Can a single language help us be identified as a united nation? The Hon’ble Home Minister Amit Shah seems to have strong reason to think so, in spite of heavy opposition from leaders in states where Hindi is not as widely spoken as it is in the “Hindi Heartland” of the country. The issue has been long debated by some of our most respected ministers. MP Shashi Tharoor and former MP Sushma Swaraj too had a whirling debate in the Lok Sabha on the same topic when the former External Affairs Minister was accused by Tharoor of using the United Nations as a platform to push Hindi as a national identity for India. Vote bank politics and divisive statements aside, the homogenization of one language in one of the most diverse, yet secular nations like India is likely to raise eyebrows. However, there may be some merits in making the Hindi language synonymous with the Indian identity since a majority of our population does speak the language. Additionally, it could help us bridge the communication gap between people from different states and this may lead to increased understanding of different cultures, thereby helping unite us- even if it were by a fraction.


The Union Home Minister, who is also in charge of the Department of Official Language, sees merit in the idea on the pitch of unification and a sense of oneness. However, the argument made by the opposition is one of principle- being Indian is not a question of language, religion or caste. 


Hindi, as a language, is not very old. It dates back to some time in the 18th century and was born out of a much older language- Hindustani. Like most other native Indian languages, Hindi has roots in Sanskrit and follows the Devanagari script. This language, along-side English, currently holds the status of Official language of the Union Government. But how did English as a language set its foot in India in the first place? The answer to this question goes back hundreds of years, when the East India Company marked its advent in India. They introduced Indians to the English language, by setting up schools that had English as the medium of instruction. The language continues to be a part of the Indian educational machinery even today, and this has been largely due to opposition from non-Hindi speaking states to the use of Hindi as the sole official language of the Indian Union since Independence.The language debate in India isn’t new. Even Mahatma Gandhi advocated for Hindi-Urdu as being the sole lingua-franca, or a common language in simpler terms, for India during the Independence movement. As English was the language of the administrators, Gandhi was against its use. He believed that one language could unite the entire country and English should not be that language. Fast forward to more recent times, leaders like Amit Shah have time and again, emphasized on the need to have a unifying language, while stressing on the fact that the mother tongue is not any less important.


So can Hindi unite our country? There are many reasons to believe so. Firstly, a common language will ensure that a person from any corner of the country will be able to communicate with other people using Hindi, which will promote a sense of unification and nationalism. There will be less chances of misunderstanding due to miscommunication and hence will lead to a better flow of information. It will also enable  easier and more efficient communication across the various state governments. Although the diversity in our culture is a key feature of India, there are still communities which harbour ill will towards others. Bringing down the language barriers could be an important step to a more understanding nation. Besides, it will also help the world identify India with one language, promoting our unity at an international level. 


While it remains true that diversity of languages in India is its strength, the concept of a common language for India, which is not English, isn’t so bad in its entirety. Hindi is the most commonly spoken language in India by numbers – more than half the population of the country speak the language and this is why Hindi is better suited for a national role than any other language in India. The language might look challenging to learn, but there are many advantages to learning it. The knowledge of Hindi can help one with languages like Sanskrit, Urdu, Nepalese, Gujarati and Bengali as they have some similarities with Hindi, either in spoken language or in the written script (Devanagari). As for foreigners, the knowledge of Hindi, assuming that Hindi is a common language of our country, will help them to communicate effectively with anyone anywhere in India. Seeing that Hindi is the most commonly spoken language of India and that a common language will help foreign visitors in effective communication, it only makes sense to support the cause for Hindi to be the official language of India. People from non-Hindi speaking states may need to put in effort to learn Hindi first, but it will only lead to a better connection among all the people in the long run.


Some economic benefits may also be attained out of linguistic homogenization of the country. Economists at the University of Southern Denmark conducted a research on the relationship between the linguistic diversity of the country and the social capital (SC)- a quantitative measure of the effectiveness of the functioning society. They found that the countries with a lower linguistic diversity tend to have a higher SC. Japan, South Korea and Denmark all have high levels of linguistic homogeneity and high SC. India and Uganda lie on the opposite side of the curve, being very high on diversity but low in SC. However, there are outliers in the graph, like America (high diversity and high SC) and Bangladesh (low diversity and low SC).


But just as every coin has two sides, this debate has an opposing side too. Unlike traditional Nation States, India is a Multi-Nation State and by the virtue of that, people belonging to diverse ethnic backgrounds reside in this country. Being a country which boasts “Unity in Diversity” and whose leaders always envisioned a secular, pluralist democracy, it has never had a National Language in its 73 year past. Instead, the Article 344(1) of the Indian Constitution provides for 22 official languages (listed out in the 8th Schedule) which includes Hindi and English, apart from several other regional languages. Every Indian is inherently proud of their provincial identity. The idea of having a particular language on a pedestal higher than other equally beautiful and rich regional languages is simply not acceptable to most Indians as it goes against the policy of respecting the diversity. Many, however, do seem to believe that Hindi is our national language. There have been several cases of “anti-national” tagging of those who simply do not understand or speak Hindi. The situation would only get worse if Hindi does indeed attain the status of the national language. Expertise in the language would turn into a measurement of one’s love for the country, leading to alienation of non-Hindi speaking states and widespread resentment amongst the people. One born within the boundaries of of India would have to prioritise the National Language over his/her mother tongue or risk being branded as “anti-national” or “non-Indian”. 


The confusion surrounding Hindi’s status has existed for long. In fact, in 2010, the Gujarat High Court had to release a statement rejecting the existence of any such national language as a part of a verdict in a case. Shashi Tharoor drew reference to this when he explained his reasons to oppose the motion to make Hindi an official language in the UN in a Lok Sabha debate in 2018. He argued that in the status quo, the Indian representative is free to speak in any language and a translator is available to do the job of translation. If Hindi does become an official language, choosing to speak in a regional language like Tamil or Bengali on an International stage would be looked down upon or questioned on a global scale. 


Language is an inherent feature of every human that culminates from the need to express our thoughts. On the societal level, language is what shapes our cultural identity. Its close ties to communication, thought, identity and sentiments makes it important – and dangerous. Diversity in thought and expression is a threat to an authoritarian government that aims to make us sheep-like. In the wrong hands, language becomes a tool of manipulation. 


Sometimes, majoritarian rule in a democracy leads to a silent death of diversity in opinion. A language never dies alone. Along with it dies a culture and its intellectual heritage. The idea of having a single language as the National Language promotes a superficial unity that endangers diversity. Nationalism is escalated to the point of jingoism where personal identity is suppressed by an imposed common identity. History vouches for the fact, as does elementary classical Physics, that any force tends to have an equal and opposite reaction. A good example of this is the Bangladesh Liberation movement. 21st February, 1952 marked the Mother Language Movement. The people of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) vehemently opposed the imposition of Urdu by the government. After years of violent turmoil and bloodshed, East Pakistan finally broke away in 1971. The movement, at its roots, sought to have the linguistic and cultural rights of an entire population recognized and respected. UNESCO declared the 21st of February as “Mother Language Day”- “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages” as a consequence of this movement born of the love for mother tongue. 


Politics in India is deeply interwoven with language, as proven by several twists and turns in the history of language in India. In 1948, the Dhar Commission promised to organise the states into linguistic provinces, laying down the foundation for an ethno-federal state. English’s time as one of the official languages of the Union Government was supposed to conclude in the year 1965. This led to violent protests involving self-immolation in Tamil Nadu and other non-Hindi majority states as it virtually meant that Hindi was to be more important than all other languages, almost like a national language. As a response, the Official Languages Act of 1963 mandated that Hindi was to continue as the “official language” of the Union government, alongside English. This holds till date. India’s colourful past is marked with linguistic tension and several protests to preserve one’s language, such as, the agitation for the Telugu-majority state of Andhra Pradesh in 1956, the protests of Bengalis in Assam to give equal status to Bengali and Assamese, and the still ongoing fight for a Nepali-majority Gorkhaland in West Bengal.


Some countries in the world are united by factors like a common language, religion or culture. This includes Italy, Germany, France and so on and so forth. India is different – its unity lies in acknowledging, respecting and preserving the diversity. Our country is a conglomeration of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities, like the seven colours converging into the beauty of  a rainbow. Replacing the multi-coloured rainbow by a single streak robs it of its ethereal charm. Similarly, suppressing the multitude of languages under a single National Language deprives India of the very fabric of its existence- its diversity.