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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 42 New Delhi October 5, 2019

One Nation, One Language—an Untenable Proposition

Saturday 5 October 2019


by D.K. Giri

A needless controversy was created by the Home Minister with a tweet that Hindi should be made the single national language to unite the country. The television channels and social media buzzed with debates on the feasibility and desirability of the idea of ‘one language, one nation’. Given the political weight of Amit Shah, his Ministry reportedly switched to Hindi to lead the way. Perhaps realising the storm he had kicked off, Shah quickly made amends and said that he only wanted that Hindi should be learnt as a second language across the country. With that clarification, the controversy and the cacophony seem to have subsided for now, but mind you, it will come up again as there are people in the ruling establishment and their patrons who want Hindi as the “national language”. Hence this article is arguing for linguistic pluralism, the foundational principle of Indian-ness.

The die-hard supporters of the ruling party, euphemistically called ‘Modi Bhakts’, waxed louder than others that Hindi is natural to our existence. It is the only language in which we can articulate and express our emotions and acquire our self-image. Not officialising the use of Hindi across the country has stunted the growth of the citizens and so on. They refer to many non-English-speaking countries. “Look, when you go to Moscow or Spain, as you arrive at the airports, we see the signposts written first in their national language, Russian and Spanish, and below those, it is English. But in our country, it is only in English.” That is so, because we are an English-speaking country with many other regional languages.

While many, including myself, would love to learn and speak the Hindi language, on the issue of whether it should be made a single national language, that would be rigorously contested. Secondly, the ‘one nation, one language’ slogan is ill-conceived and impractical. To start with, the Western concept of nation-state is not applicable to India. So imitation of Western-nationhood, based on cultural monism, is inadvisable. Furthermore, the Western countries themselves are embracing federalism and multi-culturalism under the heavy influx of migrants and the process of integration in the European Union etc. They are moving away from the single-identity nation to accommodating multiple identities. Then, are we not moving in the reverse gear towards regressive politics? Whilst other developed countries are seeking to emulate us, we are losing our self-confidence, and intending to imitate the failed or past concepts. I hosted a multiparty delegation from Sweden whose members came to study the concept and practice of multiculturalism in India.

Third, a single language to unify the country militates against the concept of federalism, the spirit and strategy of ‘unity diversity’ and so on. The Constitution of India says, ‘India is a Union of States’, and the States have been constituted on the basis of language, except the new States Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Telangana which were created with development- drivers. To deny the States their language will be tantamount to erasing their cultural identity and self-hood.

Fourth, majoritarianism in all spheres of life is a fallacious approach. It is simply one of the mechanisms for decision-making in a democracy. It is erroneous to assume that majority sanctifies or legitimises any action. Philosophers have warned that an evil does not become good, wrong does not become right even if the majority says so. So, there is a limit to stretching majoritarian mechanism beyond decision-making in a democracy.

Fifth, Hindi is not the natural medium for cultural and emotional expression. Even in the Hindi heartland, people speak in their mother tongues, the dialects like Magadhi, Maithili, Braj, Kangri, Dogri, Haryanvi, and so on. So the argument that Hindi will lend cultural identity and self-hood is not entirely true.

Sixth, Hindi is confined to interpersonal communication. There is little in social sciences, and natural sciences, that draw on our own inventions, civilisation, history etc. The entire knowledge is packaged in the Western-modern sources. To translate them into Hindi has been a humongous and hilarious exercise and experience. Take, for instance, the Hindi word for button, it is ‘asta byasta niyantraka jantra’; so it is impractical and unnecessary to translate each of the English word into Hindi.

Seventh, English has been part of our lingua-franca. There are four kinds of English spoken in the world, British English, American English, International English and Indian English which is also called Hinglish (Hindi+English). Why resist something, which has been part of our psyche? We have taken many things from outside, our political system, education system, justice system, army structure, bureaucracy, and so on, and all of these are linked to English language. It will be unwise to undo all of that. So, from political, even cultural, and practical angles, doing away or diluting English is a self-defeatist idea.

However, admittedly, we need one language or two languages for the people to speak to each other as fellow-countrymen or women across the country. Imagine a situation, for instance, one Odiya meeting a Telugu, one or both of them not knowing Hindi or English. How will they converse with each other? This is what actually, sadly happened once with me. A very lively Telugu lady came to visit us with her daughter who knew English. We could talk as her daughter interpreted her mother into English. Once when her daughter went out on an errand, I was left alone with the mother. We could not talk although we wanted very much to do so. How I wished either of us knew a common language!

Also English has been made an elite language. In order to learn English from childhood, one needs to go to English medium schools which are more expensive and are located in urban areas only, not in the rural villages. The non-Hindi speaking rural people cannot afford it, and they are not so keen on Hindi. To overcome this deficit, there should be a three-language formula across the country. From the primary school level, even if the children are taught in their mother tongues as a medium of instruction, Hindi and English should also be taught as compulsory subjects up to the end of their student life. That is how Indians will speak in three languages, Hindi and English common to all, and mother tongue will be State-specific. As such, any educated Indian speaks all the three language, except those from deep south, or the North-East.

The official communications can be issued in three languages, Hindi, English and the State language. We have several developed and developing countries with two or three national languages used simultaneously: Belgium (French, Dutch and German), Switzerland (German and French), Canada (French and English), Finland (Finnish and Swedish), Bolivia (Aymara, Quechua and Spanish), New Zealand (English, Maori, New Zealand sign language). The closest example is that of the European Union which is similar in its social and political texture to the Union of India. The European Union has 24 official languages but it conducts business in French, English and German. Likewise, the Union of India has two official languages Hindi and English but 22 if we include the States. There is no single national language yet.

Therefore, in order to maintain India’s huge diversities, multiculturalism, federalism, we need to have at least a three-language formula. That will help Indians talk to each other in either English or Hindi across the States, whereas within the State, they could speak in their mother tongues and even dialects. But, the rider is that in order to learn either English or Hindi, there has to be full literacy, everyone has to be in the school and reach a certain level to learn these languages as they are taught other subjects. To learn to speak the mother tongue one can do it outside the school, but not Hindi or English. Without minimum level of school education and complete literacy, the process of nation-building in a country like India will be incomplete.

The present government with its clear majority and decisive leadership is making many fundamental changes to our politics, and more such reforms are on the anvil. No problem with that. But if they change the fundamentals of Indian politics and society, they will plunge the country into strife and turmoil. India stands out in Asia for its democracy and diversity, culture of synthesis, and spirit of accommo-dation. It has rejected the binaries of the West and sees multiple shades of an idea. Linguistic pluralism is one such fundamental principle that must be preserved. We hope BJP is not blinded by so-called majoritarianism to this fundamental existential reality of India.

Dr D.K. Giri is the Director, Schumacher Centre, Delhi, which seeks primarily to contribute to revitalisation of rural India by training and the application of appropriate technology. Having done his MA and M. Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, he obtained his Ph.D from the University of Hull, England, where he was associated with the Centre for Developing Area Studies, and the Centre for European Union Studies. Dr Giri has done another Ph.D on the ’British Labour Party’ from the JNU, New Delhi. Having a brilliant academic record—first class distinctions and merit scholarships throughout his career Dr Giri has taught in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and has been guest lecturer in the universities in India and abroad.

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