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In light of Karnataka’s ordinance mandating greater use of Kannada, a relook at North–South language debate

The Union government is trying its best to ensure Hindi seeps into every nook and corner of India, but there has been resistance and pushback, especially from the southern states, as the recent Kannada Language Comprehensive Development (Amendment) Ordinance shows. 

ON January 5, the Karnataka cabinet approved the Kannada Language Comprehensive Development (Amendment) Ordinance, mandating that 60 percent of all signboards in the state must be in Kannada.

The new rule will be mandatory for signboards of shops, enterprises and institutions in the state.

The ordinance comes as a result of protests by a pro-Kannada group, the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike. The protests led to vandalisation of properties and signboards that had a majority of the text written in languages other than Kannada.

Since the state assembly is not in session, the cabinet brought in an ordinance for the Kannada language requirement to come into effect immediately.

But in order to give shops and establishments time to comply with the new Rules, the ordinance will come into effect on February 28.

The Rule

According to the ‘statement of objects and reasons’ of the Kannada Language Comprehensive Development Act, 2022, there is a lack of proper implementation of the official language of Karnataka, i.e., Kannada.

The Act emphasises the need for “extensive use and propagation” of the Kannada language in offices, industries, shops and establishments.

Under the general measures for ensuring such extensive use and propagation of the language, Section 17(6) of the Act states that the upper half portion of boards displaying the names of commercial, industrial and business undertakings, trusts, counselling centres, hospitals, laboratories, amusement centres and hotels and other establishments functioning with the approval and sanction of government or local authorities should be in Kannada and the lower half can be in any other language.

With the amendment, the ratio of Kannada to other languages in signboards is mandated to be 60:40.

Section 23 of the Act provides for a penalty on the owner or person in charge of any industry, shop, firm and commercial establishment who fails to comply with the provisions of the Act.

Vinay Sreenivasa, a human rights activist based in Bengaluru, told The Leaflet, “Language is part of our identity and an important issue for us. The [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike] BBMP’s rule that 60 percent of signage has to be in Kannada is required to benefit the local working-class population unfamiliar with other languages.”

On the practical side of the new signage rule, Clifton D’Rozario, national convenor of All India Lawyers Association for Justice, shared, “If you have a majority people who speak a particular language and if you are going to efface that in public spaces, it is bound to create some disgruntlement.”

Both Sreenivasa and D’Rozario, however, condemned the violence that preceded the passing of the ordinance.

D’Rozario sought to emphasise that there are other deeper underlying issues— such as privatisation policies of the government and casualisation of the workforce— that need addressing by the state government.

Hindi imposition?

D’Rozario opined that the Union government has been pushing for Hindi imposition and a unitary State. D’Rozario said, “The language imposition by the Union government goes against the federal structure of the Constitution.”

D’Rozario illustrated his statement by pointing out that when the Union government introduced the three new criminal law Bills in August last year, there was condemnation from several organisations in the southern states for choosing Hindi titles for the Bills. The argument was that most people in the southern states cannot pronounce the titles or understand their meaning.

On August 11, 2023, the Union government tabled three new Bills in the Parliament to revamp the country’s criminal justice system. The three Bills were: the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, 2023, the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita Bill, 2023, and the Bharatiya Sakshya Bill, 2023, to replace the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 respectively.

D’Rozario pointed out that the Union government’s National Education Policy (NEP) marks another instance of the attempt to impose the Hindi language in non-Hindi-speaking states.

The draft of the NEP of 2019— based on a three-language formula— made the study of the Hindi language compulsory in schools till Class 8 in non-Hindi-speaking states.

Following protests by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK ), the leading regional political parties in Tamil Nadu, the NEP draft was revised, allowing students to choose another language as their third language instead of Hindi.

According to D’Rozario, from the naming of the laws to the national education policy, the Union government is “ensuring the hegemony of Hindi”, which is symbolic of “an ideology that does not allow diversity”.

D’Rozario pointed out that through the exercise of reorganisation of states (the States Reorganisation Act, 1956), the boundaries of Indian states were drawn linguistically. “It is too late in the day to say that a homogeneous mindset towards language should be adopted throughout the country,” he added.

In October last year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin criticised the report of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Languages.

The committee, headed by Union home minister Amit Shah, reportedly recommended that Hindi be made the common language across India. It also recommended replacing Hindi with English as the medium of instruction in all Central universities.

In response to the report, Stalin alleged that the Union government was “imposing Hindi”, disregarding the Constitution that recognises 22 languages under its Eight Schedule.

In September last year, Shah remarked, “Hindi unites the diversity of languages in the world’s largest democracy.

In response, the AIADMK warned that if the Union government imposes Hindi unilaterally, there would be an adverse reaction not just in Tamil Nadu but also in states such as Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

With the language war percolating into the film industry, in April last year, actor Ajay Devgn posted on the social media platform Twitter (now X) in Hindi, “Hindi was, is and will always be our mother tongue and national language.”

This evoked a response from Kannada movie star Kiccha Sudeep, who clarified on the platform that Hindi is not a national language. Sudeep also remarked that he did understand Devgn’s post in Hindi, since Hindi is widely “respected, loved and learnt”.

Sudeep added, “No offence sir, but was wondering what would the situation be if my response was typed in Kannada. Don’t we too belong to India, sir.”

Primacy to regional languages

Mayura Priyan, an advocate based in Delhi, shared with The Leaflet the resistance of Tamil Nadu against the “imposition” of the Hindi language throughout the country since 1937.

Priyan explained that the three-language policy of the Union government, where Hindi was made a compulsory language, saw two agitations in Tamil Nadu.

During the second anti-Hindi agitation, Tamil Nadu, under the leadership of the DMK, formulated a two-language policy and scrapped the Union government’s imposition of the third language in the state.

D’Rozario opined, “Given the diversity in the country, it is important to respect state languages.”

In the context of current events, besides the signage rule in Karnataka, on January 13 last year, Tamil Nadu made the Tamil language compulsory for state government services.

The state assembly amended the Tamil Nadu Government Servants (Conditions of Service) Act, 2016, mandating securing passing grades in Tamil language papers for recruitment to government services.

In March last year, the director of private schools in Tamil Nadu made the Tamil language compulsory for students of classes 9 and 10 in private schools.

Contentions on a unifying language

During a meeting of the Parliamentary Offical Language Committee in April 2022, it was reported that Shah remarked, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided that the medium of running the government is the official language, and this will definitely increase the importance of Hindi.

Now the time has come to make the official language an important part of the unity of the country. When citizens of states who speak other languages communicate with each other, it should be in the language of India.”

With this, Shah divulged that 70 percent of the agenda of the cabinet is now prepared in Hindi. He indicated that Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English.

According to Priyan, the DMK’s reasoning for the two-language policy was two-fold. Firstly, he stressed the aspect of equality between southern and northern states.

Priyan explained that unlike in northern states, Hindi is a foreign language in non-Hindi-speaking states.

Hence, if the three-language policy is implemented, the northern states would not be required to put extra effort into learning a new language, Priyan added.

Secondly, Priyan stated that even if the southern states put extra effort into learning a new language, the DMK argued that it would not serve any purpose and that knowledge of two languages is enough.

Priyan further remarked that since English is the language that connects Indians to other parts of the world, why cannot people within the country converse with each other in English— why do they need to learn another language?

Former chief minister of Tamil Nadu C.N. Annadurai had stated, “Since every school in India teaches English, why cannot it be our link language? Why do Tamils have to study English for communication with the world and Hindi for communications within India?”

Priyan shared, “The sentiment in the southern states is not against the Hindi language but against its imposition.”

Priyan opined that Karnataka and other southern states are now following in the footsteps of Tamil Nadu, where the ‘regional language’ Tamil is thriving due to its two-language policy.

Explaining the convenience of the English language, D’Rozario highlighted that English, which is sanctioned by the Constitution, is used for various official purposes, including court proceedings.

The Leaflet