Why India must achieve linguistic equality | Opinion

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE foundational basis for the Indian nation-state has been ‘unity in diversity’ which effectuates itself as one of the greatest strengths of India. This diversity also includes promotion of linguistic and cultural diversity among others, which is one of the country’s biggest assets in unification of a multicultural society.

With the recent aim of ‘unification’ of Kashmir into ‘one India’, that aspect of Indian culture has come into the limelight again. What does unification mean? Does it mean universalisation of values or does it mean diversification of values? One particular aspect of this broad issue is linguistic diversity, of which India is a major proponent in the international arena.

However, how much has the aspiration for linguistic diversity lived up to its expectations? It generally remains a failed promise and none of the languages other than English and Hindi are important in central government communications or court proceedings. Although the bare minimum language rights of being able to use their own language within the linguistic group as under article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is maintained, that in itself is a low bar to set. There are hundreds of articles that can be read about disappearance of languages in the modern era, and one of the many reasons provided is assimilatory education and demographic submersion.

There is a significant difference between protection of minority languages and promotion of minority languages, the former being a negative restriction and the latter being a positive obligation. There are hardly any legally binding obligations for promotion of languages, but its importance is undoubted. For example, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities in its preamble, states:

“[T]he constant promotion and realization of the rights of persons belonging to (…) linguistic minorities, as an integral part of the development of society as a whole and within a democratic framework based on the rule of law, would contribute to the strengthening of friendship and cooperation among peoples and States”

We can learn from supranational blocs like the EU that practice true equality of languages even while having their own hindrances. All government communications, laws, all court proceedings and judgments are available in all of the major languages of the European Union member states, without discrimination. No one single language can be felt as dominating the other languages in public documents. This is the world of alternate ideologies of that of the EU and India: the former trying to accomplish unification by accommodating differences and the latter trying to accomplish the same unification by mitigating differences.

While language promotion puts a strain on the infrastructure to set up a separate system of translation, lack of infrastructure has seldom been a justification at all for protection and promotion of human rights. Linguistic inclusivity enables outreach to a large number of people who are comfortable reading in their own language.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights famously states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. The Oslo Recommendations Regarding the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities interprets this as including linguistic rights through the following passage:

“[E]quality in dignity and rights presupposes respect for the individual’s identity as a human being. Hence, respect for a person’s dignity is intimately connected with respect for the person’s identity and consequently for the person’s language.”

Using only a majority language for government services, central government laws and communications effectively impedes public access to and public comment from a minority population who are not bilingual. Bilinguals is a category which a majority of rural population may not fall under. Only making public documents accessible to bilingual or trilingual people, other than the Hindi speakers, produces information asymmetry and perpetuates a subtle undercurrent of hegemonic dominance of the Hindi belt. Standardisation may inevitably lead to unintentional assimilatory practices.

It may be argued that a full effectuation of Article 14 of the Constitution may also mean non-discrimination by provision of government services in a particular language. This does not affect the rendering of the services but the medium of communication in rendering the services, which is only Hindi and English for convenience, not because of any reasonable classification between other languages and these two languages.

Now, it may seem redundant and useless to have all languages used for government services, laws and judgments for those who see that the entirety of India may slowly become bilingual. Is there any ‘necessity’ for promotion of linguistic equality? To that, yes, the promotion of linguistic diversity is not because of a functional efficacy but the embracement of the Indian identity: the idea that India is diverse, and yet ‘one’. That ‘one’ should be representative of more things than it currently does.

Languages in the eighth schedule of the Constitution are part of India’s cultural heritage; promotion and protection of which is an integral part of the duties of all governments together, as a shared responsibility of all. Equal respect for all constitutionally recognised languages is the first step in forming a more inclusive country sensitive to (linguistic) minorities: something that many developed nations proudly practice.

Nonetheless, one should be careful so as not to extrapolate these responsibilities to the extreme. A tweet from the government should obviously not come in all languages of the eighth schedule, and neither should internal office communications be in all of the languages. Taking it too far may hinder the provision of government services itself.

For languages not in the eighth schedule but peculiar to the state, the state government should be the torch bearer of protection and promotion of the language, a given under a common but differentiated responsibilities regime. Equality in the true sense of the term and information parity can only be achieved through inclusivity, not exclusivity.

Until a native speaker of an eighth schedule language other than Hindi answers the following question in the affirmative, we have a long way to go: Can I read the laws of my own country—that I love, in my own language that I speak?

(The author is a doctoral researcher in international law at the University of Amsterdam.)

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