Hindi imposition row: Centre should realise that diversity in language leads to unity rather than fragmentation

Yasharth Kant and Tanvi Saran
In the words of British scholar Sir John Strachey, India has so much diversity of race, language and religion that every state is a country in its own.

India has always been considered as an 'unnatural' nation by the West, an amalgamation of sorts. In the words of British scholar Sir John Strachey, India has so much diversity of race, language and religion that every native state is a country in its own, but unlike Europe, these countries were not nations, they did not have distinct political character or social identity. Sir Strachey went on to say that there was no Indian nation or country in the past nor would there be one in the future.

People of Punjab, Bengal, North, North East and Madras can never feel that they belong to one Indian nation. Because of these factors, Winston Churchill predicted that if the British left India, India won't survive. The controversy around the New Education Policy draft has to be seen in light of the prophecies made by Sir Strachey and Churchill.

In the draft of the New Education Policy, the central government proposed a controversial clause that came under fire. The proposal of the "three-language formula" was seen as a move to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking States. The draft policy sought to make Hindi a mandatory third language to be taught in schools across the country.

This is not the first time that the country is witnessing protests against Hindi. Tamil Nadu had always resisted the "imposition" of Hindi. In 1965, the state witnessed violent protests against a proposal that Hindi would be India's sole official language.

So the question is: can India convert into one language-speaking country, like many other nations in Europe?

According to Census 2011, Hindi is the language of around 44 percent Indians and mother tongue of little over 25 percent people in India.  So can "Hindi" be the national language of India? The Constitution, did not declare Hindi as the national language; it rather accorded Hindi the status of official language along with English. Article 343 of the Constitution prescribes Hindi written in Devanagari script as the official language of the government along with English.

Language is not only a mode of communication but also an emotional issue of identity in our country. Politics of Hindi is often ensconced in the politics of Hindutva. BJP was considered a party of the Hindi heartland but the results of 2019 election have changed the narrative. It is true that southern India still managed to escape from the "Modi wave" and that's why the political parties see the new draft policy as an attempt to influence the voter in the south by imposing a 'foreign' language.

There has always been a dissatisfactory feeling among southern India of having been governed by North India. Northern India has a huge chunk of seats in the Parliament, which effectively means that a political party that manages to garner enough votes in the North can still govern India, even though they have negligible or no presence in the South.

The apprehension to imposition of Hindi was palpable at the time of framing of the Constitution. During Constituent Assembly debates with reference to the official language of the country, reservations were made openly by several members. There was unease in southern India of becoming second-class citizens, to whom liberty and freedom were not extended. It was urged that unless recourse is taken to ensure that there is a semblance of unity in the country, the South is not going to be satisfied at all.

Subbarayan, member of Constituent Assembly, poignantly stated in the Constituent Assembly debates: "I feel, Sir, that it is very important that you should understand the South Indian position. If I tell you what exactly happened for three months when I was holding charge of the portfolio of education in Madras and Hindi was introduced as a compulsory subject in the first three forms of the high schools, you will understand my anxiety that I should go back from here with something done, something accomplished. For three whole months, every morning when I got out of my house, I heard nothing but cries of "Let Hindi die, and let Tamil live. Let Subbarayan die and Rajagopalachari die.'"

While addressing the Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru had remarked: "I venture to put this question to the enthusiasts for Hindi, because in some of the speeches I have listened here and elsewhere, there is very much a tone of authoritarianism, very much a tone of the Hindi-speaking area being the centre of things in India, the centre of gravity, and others being just the fringes of India. That is not only an incorrect approach, but it is a dangerous approach. If you consider the question with wisdom, this approach will do more injury to the development of the Hindi language than the other approach. You just cannot force any language down the people or group who resist that. You cannot do it successfully. You know that it is conceivably possible that a foreign conqueror with the strength of the sword might try to do so, but history shows that even he has failed. Certainly in the democratic context of India it is impossibility."

The framers of our Constitution rightfully abjured the authoritarian approach. Even now, it is the duty of the incumbent to avoid using compulsion as a tactic. The proper channel is diplomatic, using goodwill and bonhomie among all regions to support any cause. Any domineering or forceful tactic will only bring discord and disharmony. Belatedly, but good sense prevailed when the government decided to revise the new draft policy. Unity must not be confused with unification.

It is true to an extent that India is not comparable to any other European countries which were drawn on the basis of language and culture. India is a salad bowl of various cultures, language and religion where all flourish equally simultaneously. In 1956, States Reorganisation Act was passed, dividing the states of India on the lines of linguists, but the division was acknowledgement of the fact that diversity is not fragmentation.

Interestingly, Macaulay's minutes on education in India in 1885 focused on pushing English as a language of administration at the cost of vernacular languages. This British legacy only gained faith each decade so much so that English took the place of a global language, compulsory for employment and communication while there was a runners-up contest between Hindi and other regional languages. The imperialists believed in imposition of their language sans any freedom to choose.

Today, India has arguably the world's largest workforce in the world and the State must harness this potential by facilitating the youth to learn multiple global languages, be it English or any vernacular or foreign language. As long as there is freedom to choose, we are heading in the right direction.

A Bengali living in Punjab must not be forced to learn Gurumukhi or a Tamilian living in Bengal must not compelled to learn Benagli. Freedom to choose may be governed on the basis of convenience of communication but it must not be state-sponsored compulsion.

The words of Churchill resonated even after Independence €" whether India can remain united facing obstacles in nation building. But India has thrived this long; and hopefully we will continue to prove all the Churchills and the Stracheys wrong in the future too.

Yasharth Kant is an advocate in the Supreme Court. His twitter handle is @yasharthkant and he can be reached on email at yasharthkant@gmail.com. Tanvi Saran Srivastava is Law Officer in MSTC Ltd, CPSU, and has done LLM in Access to Social Justice from TISS Mumbai. Her Twitter handle is @tanvisaran and she can be reached on email at tanvisaransrivastava@gmail.com.

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