All you need to know about India’s National Language issue.

Some time ago, a Kannada film star Kichcha Sudeep for some reason which only he knows, raked up an age old controversy in India: what’s the national language of India? What did he say? For this, have a look at Kichcha Sudeep contradicts his own statement on Hindi not being the National Language! Although, I was thinking that the issue would stay burning for some more time, but it died as soon as the marketing for the movies KGF 2 and Runway 34 ended. Quite a coincidence!! Isn’t?

However, I do believe that National Language is an important issue to be aware of. If I were to ask you what takes precedence – Religion or Language? Please do post your views on this in the comments. I believe its the language especially when we have seen instances where Urdu speaking East Pakistan killed somewhere upto 3 million Bengali speakers and raped upto 400,000 Bengali speaking women; irrespective of the religion they followed. If you carefully look at the human history, you will find similar instances where language always took precedence. And that’s why I think Language related issues should not be made fun of, or trolled or should not be sidelined. They need to be addressed before they blow up in the face.

National Language in India has been a source of controversy for as long as we have been independent. Before 1947, even after a fierce opposition from most of the then Congressman including the likes of Purushottam Das Tandon who was considered a protégé  of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and later became Congress president for a while before Nehru made him resign, Gandhi Ji and Pt. Nehru wanted Hindustani (an artificial language formed using Hindi as core with added Urdu vocabulary as spoken Hindi and Urdu sound pretty much the same) to appease Indian Muslims. I always wondered why Gandhi and Nehru never considered to pacify any other language speakers other than Urdu. There are more than 1500 regional languages in India, but Gandhi and Nehru thought to pacify only Muslims. What about Tamils? Malayalis? Kannadigas? Telugus? Bengalis? or other North East languages? This is one of the many reasons, why I think Indian National Congress was always unfair and biased.

However, the bloody partition engulfed both, the Gandhi and the very thought of Hindustani as a national language. However the issue still remained. The constituent assembly had lengthy debates on what language should be considered a national language. What do you think was the conclusion?

The debates about national language/official language/language to be spoken in parliament/houses were quite lengthy and took into consideration different languages and different aspects. Politicians from different regions speaking different languages put their points regarding why it would be difficult for them to continue working in Hindi as it would be very difficult to learn Hindi at that age for them. At the end of discussions and debates, English quite obviously lost the race as it was not an Indian language and was a language from a country that colonized us. The constituent assembly believed that “we need an Indian language for the process of Nation Building“.

Assembly finally reached a conclusion, here I quote as is from the book India after Gandhi by Ramchandra Guha, Page 120 “The assembly finally arrived at a compromise, the official language of the union shall be Hindi in the Devnagari script; but for fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement.

And maybe that’s why the Indian Constitution was handwritten in only two languages; Hindi and English and the business in Indian Parliament was conducted only in Hindi and in some cases English and is still the case. Indian constitution recognizes 22 official languages, meaning the states can conduct their internal business’ in one of these languages. Point to be noted, English is not considered as a regional language in India. The crux is that Hindi is already THE only official language at the center and its administration. The debate on choosing Hindi or not choosing Hindi is useless. This decision was made for us even before many of us alive today were born. So when ever you read something like this:

You know it is fake(incomplete) news written to manipulate its readers.

Having said all that, there is a difference between National Language and Official Language. Official Language(s) is/are the languages that would be used by the government(s) and carries a specific legal standing. National Language is symbolic, it simply in layman terms indicates that there is some sort of connection between the people who associate to one national language.

What is our National Sport? Its Hockey, but its Cricket that is considered like a religion. Did we stop playing or watching other sport because Hockey became our National Sport? Our national fruit is Mango, did we stop growing/eating/selling other fruits? Or does Mango taste different because it is a National fruit? Royal Bengal Tiger is our National Animal, did that mean we get rid of all other animals? Pumpkin is our national vegetable, are we feeding only Kaddu to everyone? Lotus is our national flower, did we turn a blind eye to all other flowers? I am yet to see some body gift a lotus to his/her beloved on valentine’s day.

The people/politicians who claim that making Hindi a National Symbol will kill diversity by eliminating other regional languages are just making a fool out of their audiences and are trying to accomplish their vested interests be it economic or political or otherwise.

The thing is that, for a country as diverse as India where every few kilometers the food, the language, the culture, the customs, the traditions etc. change, we need something that keeps reminding people that we are one. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh, irrespective of whatever one says or believes in he/she/it is a part of India.

How do you achieve this? When there is nothing in common between the people how do you make them believe in a nation? Sardar Patel and VP Menon did a commendable job in uniting more than 560 princely states into the Union of India; but it was piece of paper (Instrument of accession) that the Kings/Princes signed. People and their emotions were still unware of the existence of the Union. That was still a work in progress. Unfortunately Sardar Patel died and Congress deep dived in power politics rather than build a nation. As a matter of fact, lot of people like Rudyard Kipling a famous journalist of that time and others including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had articulated the same feeling that India would split into many pieces as there was nothing in common

Indians proved them wrong. India remained intact ever after, on the other hand Pakistan split into two. What made Indians click? I don’t know. What’s keeping them united I don’t know. But I definitely know one thing, we can not take it for granted. Around 50-60% Indians understand and speak Hindi, whereas all other regional languages fall below 10% speakers. In other terms more than 90% of the Indians wouldn’t understand or relate to any other specific regional language, I think its just commonsense. However, even after all this, if certain regions have taken it as a prestige issue that Hindi shouldn’t be a national language; in my personal opinion, Sanskrit could be a very good alternative for national language. It is not a regional language. Is it? North to South it is exactly the same. As per 2011 census, there were less than 25,000 Sanskrit speakers in India. And I am pretty sure the number would not have increased much, if at all it did increase. So, I guess it would not threaten anyone that their regional language would get extinct because of our national language.

Let me re-iterate the goal for National Language is to reinforce the feeling that we are one, give as an extra anchor to hold on to. It is not supposed to be an official language.

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13 thoughts on “All you need to know about India’s National Language issue.

  1. Kabir says:

    Nice article. I think India should learn from Pakistan’s experience in this regard. As you pointed out, language (not religion) was the main issue behind the breakup of Pakistan in 1971. This issue dated all the way back to 1947 when Jinnah went to Dhaka and told them that anyone who advocated any other language than Urdu was a traitor etc. Obviously this didn’t go down well with the Bengalis. To this day, Tagore is the only Nobel Prize in Literature winner from South Asia.

    In Pakistan, Urdu is the “national language”. Though Punjabis are the majority of the population (around 60%), they have not given their own language official status, even in Punjab province. The “smaller provinces” of KPK and Balochistan very much resent the hegemony of Punjabis and sometimes this comes out in their attitude to Urdu speakers as well.

    In India’s case, I would agree with you that an official language is needed to function. Hindi (and English) are serving this purpose and that’s fine. But if many South Indians and Bengalis resent the hegemony of North Indians and don’t believe in “Hindi Hindu Hindustan” then I think it is not politically wise to make an issue out of it. I also disagree with your suggestion of making Sanskrit a national language. The non-Hindu minorities certainly don’t relate to Sanskrit. It would just open up another can of worms. Why not let each Indian state function in their own official languages and at the center use Hindi and English?

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    • Anant Chetan says:

      The only point that you missed is, National Language and Official Language(s) are different. Indian states have their own official language. The country needs a national language, which would affect no body and no body would need to even learn it for day to day life. A National Identity!!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Kabir says:

        I disagree with you that countries necessarily need a national language for identity purposes. For example, English is NOT the “national language” of the United States. It’s at least never stated explicitly anywhere. But of course people learn English in school. Even if first generation immigrants don’t learn English (there are many in Chinatowns for example who only speak Chinese) their second generation children become fluent in English.

        In India’s case, I don’t think there is a national identity problem. Of course, I’m not Indian so this is an outsider’s view. Barring Kashmir (where yes many people don’t consider themselves Indian but that is for many complicated reasons) no group seriously has a problem with being part of India (maybe Nagaland does I don’t know). But I think pushing for a “national language” would turn a lot of South Indians off.

        Not only do I believe a “national language” is not necessary, your suggestion of Sanskrit is divisive. 200 million Indian Muslims have no emotional connection to Sanskrit. Many (if not most) of them would perceive pushing Sanskrit as move towards Hindu supremacy. I’m not sure you want to open up that can of worms.

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        • Anant Chetan says:

          1. India is not the USA. USA has federal structure based on their constitution, states have more rights and that’s why the United States of America. India is not united states of India its Republic of India as per the constitution. So they are inherently different.
          2. The push for federal states with more and more autonomy is done by separatists in India. Like some people wanted Kashmir, some wanted Khalistan some something else, so on and so forth. The point is, no matter how subtly you put it states won’t get autonomous beyound what they already are. Going forward at least with the current govt separatists would have a hard time.
          3. You could also say a national flag is also not required states can have separate flags like Kashmir used to have. But once again, was a big room for separatists to breathe.
          4. I have nothing to do with Sanskrit, don’t know the language don’t intend to.. But please for once see the world outside religious context. It would look very different. Everything in India does not go by religious contexts.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Kabir says:

            Isn’t India a union of states? Anyway, I don’t think the particular federal structure is really the issue. The point is that even in a country like the US, where pretty much the entire population speaks English, English is nowhere officially declared the “national language”.

            You could have a situation where a majority of people in India are comfortable speaking Hindi to some extent. But calling it the “national language” upsets South Indians (particularly Tamils for some reason). I don’t think it is politically wise to upset people for no particular reason.

            In the US every state has its own flag. And then of course there is the national flag. Again this is not really an issue unless you make it one.

            I wish “everything in India doesn’t go by religious contexts”. Unfortunately that’s just not true. Choosing a Hindu liturgical language as a “national language” would really upset Muslims. And not just Muslims but also Sikhs and Christians. Basically any non-Hindu minority would be appalled at the idea.

            Before the British colonial period, Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire. Imagine a scenario in which India was under Muslim rule today and the powers that be decided that Farsi was the national language. I would imagine you would be fairly appalled by the idea. So that’s how non-Hindus feel about Sanskrit.

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            • Anant Chetan says:

              1. What you think or don’t think doesn’t matter, what the constituent assembly while drafting the constitution thought matters. They thought, India would behave very differently to the US for whatever reason and thus the difference.
              2. See you can compare USA and India as much as you want, the thing is USA has around 350 million and India has 1350 million plus population, so your comparisons in terms of national unity are flawed. See not all the countries with a small population are as smart as Pakistan to split up into two. Otherwise it is a problem for a big population to stick together.
              3. Choosing Hindi as national language would really upset Muslims? Really? What doesn’t? Literally every day there is something that offends Muslims across the world, not just India… You can look around. And by the way, the Muslims that had a problem with topics like these had there own state created. Isn’t it? For some reason, they couldn’t keep it intact though.
              4. You actually made my point by writing the last paragraph. To get out of the shadow of the colonial rule and foreign invaders like Mughals, we need an Indian Language be it Hindi or Sanskrit as a National Symbol.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Kabir says:

                I’ll just make some final points and then I think we will have to agree to disagree.

                1. I take issue with you calling the Mughals “foreign invaders”. This is a Hindutva talking point. I don’t know if you are a Hindutvavadi but this rhetoric is very common to people who believe in that ideology. Obviously, Babur was Central Asian but by the time you get to Jahangir, the Mughals have Rajput mothers. Therefore, they are at least 50% Indian (if by Indian we mean “Hindu”) Read Harbans Mukhia “The Mughals of India”.

                Hindi itself developed during “Muslim rule” It comes from Khari Boli, the dialect of Delhi. The first time the word “Hindi” (or “Hindavi”) occurs is from Amir Khusrao. Hindi and Urdu are basically the same language according to all respected linguists. They have exactly the same grammar (which is what defines language). It is primarily for political reasons that they have been defined as two different languages.

                2. We were talking about Sanskrit as a national language really upsetting all non-Hindu minorities (not just Muslims). I don’t think Indian Christians or even Sikhs would be particularly pleased. I don’t think Sikhs like Sanskrit very much. Hindi as “national language” is basically status quo. It’s just not officially called the “national language”. It’s the “rajbhasa” which I believe means the official language of the Union. It’s not like Urdu which is the “quami zubaan” of Pakistan, whether the non-Urdu speaking people like it or not.

                3. Pakistan wasn’t “smart to split up into two”. There was a brutal civil war (in which India helped one side because Indra Gandhi wanted to break Pakistan). That civil war occurred largely because West Pakistanis treated East Pakistan as a colony. Part of this had to do with economic issues. Raw materials were processed in Karachi and not in Dhaka. But a lot of it had to do with linguistic and cultural issues. As I pointed out in my initial comment, Jinnah went to Dhaka in 1947 or 48 and told the Bengalis (who were actually the majority of Pakistanis at the time) that Urdu was the national language and anyone who told them otherwise was a traitor. Basically, there was a widespread attitude among West Pakistanis that Bengalis were half-Hindu. They wore saris, their language wasn’t “Islamic” enough etc. You can refer to what Ayub Khan later wrote in the 1960s to see where this attitude took us.

                The secession of Bangladesh is actually a really good example of why “national languages” shouldn’t be imposed on people. Unfortunately after 1971, the Pakistani state doubled down on Urdu and Islam rather than respecting that we are a multiethnic nation. I don’t think Pakistan would be hurt if Pashtuns teach in Pashtu, Sindhis in Sindhi etc. Urdu would a second language or a lingua franca for the nation.

                Basically, I fundmentally disagree with you that national unity requires a national language. If you push too far in this direction why would Tamil Nadu and other parts of the South not want to secede from what they perceive as a Hindi-belt dominated country? I’m sure you don’t want to open up this can of worms.

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                • Anant Chetan says:

                  Lets agree to disagree. Exactly like some don’t believe in the theory of evolution and we do. But still agree to disagree…
                  1. You take an issue of me calling Mughals foreigners? Really.. I just mentioned in the comment before, there is a particular section in India that takes offence and issues at literally everything. I am pretty sure if you would read my other posts you would literally take offence/issue at every other paragaraph not just post.
                  If come to your house, loot it, ransack it, make babies with your women, and a couple of my generations stay at your house? Would that mean I become one of you? Or would I be called intruder or invader? If you do, you should read about Stockholm Syndrome.
                  If Hindi was indeed developed during Mughal rule, then the Indian Muslims should be proud? Shouldn’t they? In the previous comment you did mention that Muslims will really be upset if Hindi is considered national language. By the way have you heard something about Devanagri Script? It might have to do something with Hind and for your information the script came into existence much before Islam came into existence let alone Mughals. The history of Indian subcontinent did not start from the 15th century. A lot of people think that way.
                  2. Indira Gandhi did not want to break Pakistan. Indira Gandhi could not stop millions of East Pakistani refugees sworming Nort East States in India. You can always blame others for your own failures, its always easy that ways.

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    • Shama Shivaprasad says:

      Sanskrit predates Mughal invasions (and calling the Mughals indigenous is the rhetoric that is common among Islamists masquerading as intellectuals and secularists trying hard to instill Mughal supremacy); it is at the core of the dharmic identity (that encompasses not just Hindus, but Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists) of this land that is Bharat (the term Bharatvarsha finds references in the oldest of our scriptures). Being a South-Indian, I do not see why it would bother me to see it become our national language as most Indian languages, including urdu, derive words from it.

      And because a 200 million strong ‘minority’ has issues acknowledging the dharmic identity and history of the land they reside on, we must just denounce our civilisational past and identity altogether? And only a select minority seems to have an issue with every other thing unless you massage their egos and call the Mughal rulers they worship as greats; the same rulers who desecrated our temples – plundered and looted it, ruthlessly murdered our ancestors, and even imposed jaziya on kafirs.

      “Are we sure we want to open the can of worms” – seems like an old threat that has been used to this day by the select community – “do as we say or we riot and kill the non-believers, and spread the narrative that the country is anti.”

      Well, agree to disagree

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kabir says:

        Yes Sanskrit predates the Mughal “invasions” but there is no doubt that it is a language that is associated with Hinduism. It is the liturgical language of that religion just as Latin was the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic church or Arabic is the “divine language” in Islam. Forget Muslims for a minute (that is the “select community” you are talking about right?) many Sikhs might ask if the liturgical language of Hindus is the “national language” of a SECULAR state, why not impose Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script on all of India? After all Sikhs love the language of the Guru Granth Sahab just as much as you may love the language of the Vedas.

        Your personal opinion may differ but it seems from the media that many South Indians hate Hindi (and especially so in Tamil Nadu). Why would they prefer Sanskrit being imposed on them?

        And this whole discussion is about language not about religion. India’s history has seen language riots and the states as they are currently drawn are linguistically based. Bengal speaks Bengali, Andhra speaks Telugu, etc. This is not a Hindu-Muslim issue. Both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis speak Bengali for example.

        Basically I am arguing for leaving well enough alone. India has enough issues.

        Since I’m not an Indian , this entire discussion is purely academic for me. But I would advise you to learn from the Pakistan example and not replicate what was done there. Half of the country was lost partly because Urdu was imposed on a people that were fiercely proud of Bengali.

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        • Anant Chetan says:

          1.Please read the difference between a national language and an official language. I wrote the difference in the post, I don’t know how I can explain it in a much better way. National Language is not the same as Official Language. Since you claim that it is an academic discussion for you, so please do understand the difference. What Pakistan did to former East Pak was impose Urdu as an official language amongst other things like your mentioned treating them as colony. In India nobody is imposing a national language on any one, its symbolic. Indian constitution recognizes 22 official language of which Hindi is also one.
          2. Since your discussion is academic, also try to read about Hinduism. How do you define a religion? Skhism, Jainism, Buddhism etc.. or any other religion originated from something that you call Hinduism, each taking some tenets. What’s Hinduism? Hinduism is a term coined in the 18th century, what existed before that? Read a little about Sanatan Dharma, you would know some of the reasons why people following any of the Indic religions like the ones that I mentioned above never behave the same as the Muslims in Indian Subcontinent.
          By the way, Sikh Gurus fought Mughals and other Muslims/non-muslim invaders more fiercely then anyone else. So, I would advice you not to make such arguments in front of a Sikh.
          You were trying to use someone else’s shoulders to make the aim and fortunately for me a South Indian didn’t let you use them.
          Yes, you are right, it was about language and not religion. Who brought religion in this? Read your very first comment, who are you preaching? Come on man, you can’t have that short memory.

          Like

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