Is Hindi India’s national language?

hindi imposition

Not yet. And any debate on this will only widen our linguistic divides

On July 8, a concert by composer AR Rahman in Wembley, London, made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some of those who attended the event where Rahman performed his Tamil numbers, mostly eventually walked out in ‘despair’. Some of them soon took their anger to twitter, slamming the musician for singing Tamil songs. One person even said it was disrespectful that Rahman chose to speak in Tamil, too, at the event. Their common point of rant was that Rahman ignored Hindi songs at the concert in spite of the “fact” that it was Bollywood that brought Rahman global acclaim.

On the face of it, these responses may seem trivial fan frown. But what lies under this is the majority linguistic nationalism, which had been a festering issue in the early years of the Indian Republic and which shows all signs of a re-emergence in recent years. The idea of this Hindi supremacy comes out of a general perception, mostly among the North Indians, that Hindi is the country’s national language and it is seen with nationalism and patriotism. The BJP government led by Narendra Modi is also trying to promote Hindi nationally. In late June, union minister Venkaiah Naidu said Hindi is India’s national language. “Hindi is our national language, our identity and we should be proud of it,” Naidu told reporters in Ahmedabad. “It is unfortunate that everyone is bent upon learning English because it guarantees employment. Hence, I want the nation to discuss, promote and learn our mother languages more and at the same time learn Hindi as well.”

His statement came after a Parliamentary Committee (on the official language) proposal to make use of Hindi, both in speech and writing, mandatory for those members of Parliament and Union ministers who could read and speak it. President Pranab Mukherjee accepted the recommendation. This has triggered protests, particularly in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu against “Hindi imposition” on people who don’t speak the language. While it’s not a secret that the BJP government wants to promote Hindi, Minister Naidu was wrong in saying Hindi is India’s national language. It is plain and simple: India doesn’t have a national language. According to the Constitution, it is one of the “official” languages of India. Clause 1 of Article 343 of the Constitution states: “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.”

A recent controversy regarding the use of Hindi in Bangalore Metro saw the #NammaMetroHindiBeda (means our metro, we don’t need Hindi ) saw Kannada activists coming out in protest against imposition of Hindi in metro announcements and name boards. Kannada Rakshana Vedike conducted a round table conference in Bangalore and came out with a resolution demanding the all 22 languages recognized in constitution to be made official languages. They also reiterated the demand for adding 38 languages recommended by Sitakant Mahapatra Committee to the list of Recognized Languages, including Tulu , Kodava and Beary.

Article 345 of the Constitution states, “The Legislature of a State may by law adopt any one or more of the languages in use in the State or Hindi as the language or languages to be used for all or any of the official purposes of that State: Provided that, until the Legislature of the State otherwise provides by law, the English language shall continue to be used for those official purposes within the State for which it was being used immediately before the commencement of this Constitution.”

This issue had reached before the judiciary earlier. While hearing a public interest litigation, the Gujarat High Court observed in 2010 that Hindi was not the country’s national language. “Normally, in India, majority of the people have accepted Hindi as a national language and many people speak Hindi and write in Devanagari script but there is nothing on record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as a national language of the country.”

The Constitution listed 14 languages — Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu — in its Eighth Schedule, in 1950. The list was revised thrice: In 1967 to include Sindhi; in 1992 to include Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali, and in 2003 to add four more languages — Bodo, Santhali, Maithili and Dogri. Now there are 22 official languages in India. And the question of the National Language is still not a settled one. There are demands from different quarters to add at least 39 more languages to the Scheduled List. And at such a juncture, the Centre saying Hindi is India’s national language will only further widen the country’s vast linguistic divides.

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