Languages in India: Hindi imperialism

Sinoj Thomas / Commento

Home minister Amit Shah’s pitch for the Hindi language provoked trenchant criticism on Friday, with opposition parties calling it an assault on India’s pluralism and asserting they will thwart the move to impose “Hindi imperialism”. Presiding over the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee in New Delhi, Mr. Shah said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided that the medium of running the government is the official language. This will increase the importance of Hindi.

Shah informed the members that now, 70 percent of the agenda of the Cabinet is prepared in Hindi. The Home minister said now the time has come to make the official language Hindi an essential part of the country’s unity, adding Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English and not to local languages.

First things first. Hindi is not the nat­i­onal language of India. The Uni­on of India was not founded on any particular language, except maybe English, which formed the only strain of everyday communication and coordination —via the British-built rails and post office. This new Hindi-style governance was there for all to see during the Covid pandemic period when a Hindi-speaking IAS delivered Covid updates exclusively in Hindi to 1.3 billion people, most of whom are non-Hindi-speaking and don’t know any language other than their mot­her ton­gue.

According to the last census (2011), 86 percent of West Bengal is Ban­gla-spe­aking, of which 83 percent know only Bangla. Yet, this has not stopped the Union government from having Amitabh Bachchan (Bollywood actor) deliver mandatory Covid warning messages in Hindi before every phone call; or erect signboards are written only in Hindi along national highways and railway stations.

The topic has touched many a nerve, be it socially or politically. It has gained more traction since the BJP came to power in 2014 and then again in 2019, following the Lok Sabha elections. The saffron party has almost exclusively focused on the use of Hindi in an official capacity in administrations across the country, citing “colonial hangover” as a reason behind the push. There are many people and many groups coming in favor and against this issue. The main opposition Congress accused Shah of trying to impose Hindi and said he was doing a disservice to the language.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh contended Hindi is ‘Raj Bhasha’ (official language) and not ‘Rashtra Bhasha’ (national language). He said, “I’m very comfortable with Hindi, but I don’t want it rammed down anybody’s throat.” Asserting that Hindi is not India’s national language, former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah accused the BJP of trying to unleash its agenda of “cultural terrorism” against non-Hindi speaking states.

Indian freedom fighter Pandit Raghunath Vinayak Dhulekar, during a heated exchange in the constituent assembly in the past, once said those who did not know ‘Hindustani’ (as Hindi was referred to back then) “had no right to stay in India.” There is no mention in the Constitution that Hindi is the national language. According to the Constitution, India doesn’t have a national language, as Hindi is among the 22 languages listed in the eighth schedule. Experts, too, say the notion of a national language, while being a charged issue, has always struggled against India’s linguistic diversity, just as the concept of a single national identity has clashed against the country’s multicultural ethos.

Karnataka former chief minister Siddaramaiah tweeted, “Hindi was never and will never be our national language. Every Indian must respect the linguistic diversity of our country. Each language has its rich history for its people to be proud of. I am proud to be a Kannadiga”. Even India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said that Hindi would not be imposed on non-Hindi-speaking states until they were willing to accept it.

When Hindi is forced on speakers of different languages, India is robbed of the cultural diversity that it celebrates so much. Language and society are deeply interrelated. The language affects the world-view and brings it down to a simple theory of ‘one nation, one language.’ This will limit the worldview, aesthetics, traditions, and culture. India is a land of diverse cultures that assimilate as one nation. Indian nationalism cannot be brought down to a single language. Indians thrive not just in their oneness but in their togetherness.

In the first few decades after independence, India witnessed numerous linguistic riots, the linguistic reorganization of states and clashes between supporters of Hindi and resistance to its ‘imposition’ as the ‘national’ language, especially from speakers of Tamil and other South Indian languages,” the essay states. Linguistic diversity is the essence of India and pluralism is what has held the nation together. Hindi imperialism will be the death knell for India.