Why the government must be mindful of the fine line between promoting and imposing Hindi

The recent announcement by Union Home Minister Amit Shah that Hindi would be a compulsory subject in certain school classes in north-east India reignited a long-standing discourse surrounding the alleged imposition of the Hindi language on non-Hindi speaking states and communities in India. 

What happened?

The 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee took place on April 8.

Shah stated at the Committee meeting that in all eight north-eastern states, Hindi will be made a compulsory language for all students up to the level of Class 10, and that examinations in the Hindi language should be given greater attention. In the speech, he also mentioned that considerable planning and delegation of resources have taken place in furtherance of this agenda, with as many as 22,000 Hindi teachers already being recruited.

The details regarding the plan to introduce Hindi as a compulsory subject in the north-east were accompanied by rhetoric that pointed towards a clear broad agenda of giving primacy to the Hindi language at an all-India level, with the Minister stating that Hindi is the “language of India” (it is pertinent to note that India does not have a national language), and that the “time has come” to promote the usage of Hindi in the interest of the “unity of the country”.

Why is the decision being opposed by people in north-east India?

The chairman of the North East Students’ Organisation, Samuel B. Jyrwa, stated that while the organization had no objection to the introduction of Hindi as an optional subject, its introduction as a compulsory subject is an imposition.

There is concern that indigenous languages of the Northeast are endangered – with their status often ranging from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘moribund’ as per the findings of scholars researching the same. Although various universities are conducting research in the area, with funding being given by the University Grants Commission since 2014 to nine universities for research on endangered languages, the languages are still under threat – delineating the need for further investment in their protection and preservation, and further building upon the Constitutional framework that outlines this need.

It is important to give primacy to the opinions of those non-Hindi speakers who believe that a compulsion of learning Hindi strikes at their right to promote their mother tongues. 

Furthermore, the Northeastern region is one of great linguistic diversity. This is evidenced by the fact that the languages spoken here belong to five different language families: the Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic, Tai-Kadai and Dravidian language families. Keeping this in mind, the imposition of Hindi upon such a linguistically diverse region particularly may be perceived as an attempt towards homogenization, and disregard for such diversity.

Language is a crucial component of one’s identity and engagement with one’s community. Studies have also shown that actively engaging with one’s mother tongue is a necessary facet of design thinking and comprehension, as well as promoting the holistic development of an individual. Thus, it is important to give primacy to the opinions of those non-Hindi speakers who believe that a compulsion of learning Hindi strikes at their right to promote their mother tongues.

Also read: Racism against Northeasterners: How Covid-19 pandemic propelled the existent social evil into an extreme

What is the policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party regarding Hindi as a language? 

This is not the first time the party has been criticized for putting the Hindi language at a higher pedestal than others and equating it somewhat to the status of a national language, which it is not. As far back as 2014, the ruling National Democratic Alliance government centralized examinations for recruitment to Regional Rural Banks, leading to the examinations being held only in English and Hindi; previously, they were held in 13 different regional languages, in addition to English and Hindi. Furthermore, the domicile clause that had been operation, which had previously ensured that only those who spoke the local language would be posted in rural areas in Regional Rural Banks was removed. After much pushback, the government reversed its position in 2019.

Also in 2019, Shah stated that India’s freedom fighters had “envisioned Hindi as Raj Bhasha.” On the occasion of Hindi Divas, he pitched for the idea of ‘One Nation, One Language’, in favour of Hindi as a sort of unifying language.

The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin vociferously criticized the aforementioned idea of ‘One Nation, One Language’ on the grounds of being detrimental to the country’s unity.

Earlier in 2019, the Centre’s draft National Education Policy, that seemingly pushed a three-language policy in schools, including Hindi, led to the hashtag #HindiIsNotTheNationalLanguage trending on Twitter as individuals from all over the country protested the need for a common language, particularly one other than English. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) castigated the Policy’s three-language formula for promoting “linguistic chauvinism.”

Article 351 of the Indian Constitution states that “it should be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language”, even though this is immediately qualified that this shall be done “without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule”.  

The Union Government had also attempted to gain official language status for Hindi at the United Nations in 2018, leading to criticism on the grounds, among others, of such a push for Hindi being representative of “nationalist zeal.” Others have criticized the policy of giving Hindi primacy as a language as a “problematic” policy that props up “cultural homogeneity” and “linguistic hegemony.”

Thus, it is evident that the current government has harboured a long-standing agenda of promotion of Hindi even among non-native speakers, in spite of the vehement opposition it has faced from different quarters each time it has made efforts to further that agenda.

Also read: Plain languages in a complex country

Is Hindi India’s national language? 

It is important to note that in an official capacity, India has no national language. This has even been reiterated by the Gujarat High Court in 2010, in the context of a case surrounding the question as to whether a mandamus can be issued to a particular manufacturer on the grounds that they have not listed the details and particulars of their product in the Hindi language. The following was also held by the Court in this case:

“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.”

Hindi is spoken by an estimated 43.63 per cent of the country’s population – which means that the majority of Indians are not native Hindi speakers.

In fact, several provisions of the Constitution may be invoked to uphold the right of communities to practice and promote their indigenous languages.

These provisions include, among others, Article 29, which concerns the protection of interests of minorities, including, under Article 29(1), those sections of citizens that have a “distinct language, script or culture of its own” – bestowing upon such sections the “right to conserve the same.” Article 30(1) outlines the right of minorities, including minorities based on language, to “establish and administer educational institutions of their choice,” thus delineating the rights of linguistic minorities in the context of education. These provisions clearly point toward a right to preserve a community’s linguistic identity. Further, the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which essentially lists the major languages of India, includes Hindi in a list of 22 regional languages.

In terms of Constitutional provisions protecting the rights of communities in the Northeast to preserve their indigenous languages, reference must also be made to the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which allows tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura autonomy in governing their legislative and judicial affairs, and shields them from automatic application of central and state laws. Ampareen Lyngdoh, a suspended Indian National Congress legislator from Meghalaya, has stated that keeping in mind the provisions of the Sixth Schedule, imposition of Hindi cannot be tolerated by a state that speaks the languages of Khasi and Garo.

The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti of Assam, too, criticized the move as being “anti-democracy, anti-Constitution”, and against the federal structure of India. Keeping in mind the aforementioned Constitutional provisions, the contentions of these various groups are certainly understandable.

It must be noted that the language does enjoy the status of being an official language, as outlined by Article 343 of the Constitution. Furthermore, notwithstanding the aforementioned provisions that obviously should be invoked to protect linguistic rights, Article 351 of the Indian Constitution states that “it should be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language”, even though this is immediately qualified that this shall be done without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule.  Furthermore, there is also the question of the provisions of Article 348(2), as well as Section 7 of the Official Languages Act, 1963, by virtue of which Hindi-speaking states may, in their High Courts, use Hindi. On the other hand, the request from the Tamil Nadu government to utilize Tamil in the State’s High Court was rejected in 2020 by the Supreme Court, citing the reason of avoiding complications surrounding the transfer and the posting of Judges from High Courts across India.

This tension may contribute to what has been phrased as a ‘false memory’ that many individuals hold, which leads people to believe that Hindi is indeed the national language of India, and leads to considerable confusion surrounding the Constitutional intent surrounding the treatment of Hindi in an official capacity. It is also noteworthy that during the Constituent Assembly Debates around Article 351, several members raised the concern that this provision may effectively marginalize other languages.

Also read: Why India must achieve linguistic equality | Opinion

Is promotion of Hindi compatible with federalism?

India is a deeply multicultural society and home to great linguistic diversity. The idea of promoting “unity in diversity” is one that has been continually reiterated as being in the best interests of a deeply diverse country. Scholars, too, have pointed out that efforts to accord primacy to Hindi over other languages effectively “threaten the diversity of federalism in India,” and represent a monopolization of “faith, education and language” on the part of the union government. This not only violates the vision of federalism that India must subscribe to, but also steers the country in the direction of majoritarianism.