India’s Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent statement on Hindi being the one necessary language for India has stirred quite a big controversy. Shah, on the occasion of “Hindi Divas,” said: “Diversity of languages and dialects is the strength of our Nation. But there is a need for our Nation to have one language so that foreign languages don’t find a place. This is why our freedom fighters envisioned Hindi as Raj Bhasha."
There is no surprise in Shah’s pronouncement, as the BJP/RSS combine has long dreamed of converting all Indians into Hindi speaking subjects who would adhere to their ardent philosophy of uniformity that is essential for indoctrination and control. If there is anything that the Sangh Parivar detests the most, it is a free spirit and an open mindset. With a brute majority in the Lok Sabha and a dispirited and divided opposition, they are finding it an opportune moment to steamroll and impose their Hindi agenda on India, especially on the people in the South.
There is a misconception among many in India that include some in the NRI community that Hindi is the national language of India. However, it is far from the truth, and according to the Indian constitution, India does not have a national language but has two official languages, Hindi and English, in which Government would conduct its business. Therefore, the agenda in Shah’s statement is no mystery: to marginalize the regional languages by blessing Hindi as the prominent language and to ultimately remove English as an official language. In addition, Hindi would likely be the medium of instructions in academia as well as the language of proceedings in the Judiciary.
The latest data shows that Hindi is the mother tongue of 25% of the Indians, though 44% of the people say they know it. It is still short of a ‘majority’ as it is propagated by the Hindi advocates as a reason for it to be the National language. It reminds me of Annadurai, the erstwhile leader of DMK and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who was once quoted as saying “Is it because majority speak Hindi? Then why Peacock is our national bird and not crow despite being in the majority?” He may have said it out of his pride for the Tamil, a Dravidian language which has a 4,500-year history and is one of the classical languages in the world. Nevertheless, it is another clear indication as to how many Indians consider the richness and heritage of their own mother tongues.
Although Hindi is now popular and spoken in many parts of the South India, thanks mostly to Bollywood, caste prejudice and cultural arrogance once prevented it from full development. Ironically, it is Christian missionaries such as William Carey who took it upon themselves to develop the language with dictionaries and printing fonts. It is to be noted that the Bible was the first prose printed in Hindi. Also, in many Indian languages, the first novel, drama, travelogue or biography was published by these missionaries. In debating the virtues of Hindi or other vernaculars, the contributions of these missionaries in the development of these languages and the education of India’s backward castes are the most underreported story of our time.
The most acrimonious debate in the Constituent Assembly was not on a Uniform civil code but on the question of the official language for the nation. If we are to go back in recent history, one significant set of events took place in 1965 when Hindi became the official language of India. The architects of modern India felt that India needed an official language as a unifying force for such a diverse nation. However, they wanted to give several more years to this effort as they were very conscious of the sentiment of non-Hindi speaking folks, particularly in South India. However, some of the Hindi zealots in the north were pressing hard to make that a reality soon although many of their sons are daughters were sent to U.K. or USA for English education and higher professional studies. Protests and riots erupted across South India and most of the violent confrontations occurred in Tamil Nadu where men immolated themselves to resist the colonizing power of Hindi. Finally, the Central Government relented and made English the sub-official language of the nation.
When Amit Shah was talking about preventing foreign languages finding a place in India, he is indeed training his guns on the English language which may have become a stumbling block to the current regime in their overall strategy in achieving their pan-India dream — which stretches from Burma to Afghanistan. The BJP’s incessant failure to take control of the power centers in South India may have also factored in for their current pursuit for language uniformity.
Those who are deriding English should pause and think of an India without English. Despite the oppressive and exploitive British rule, the English language brought us Western education, modern nationalism, self-determination, and democracy. Above all, it enabled India in developing software technology or providing high-quality services to multinational companies in the West. Since most of the advanced computing instructions and training materials were written in English, and the project management was conducted using the same, Indians gained a natural advantage over others gaining that expertise and excelling in it. Today, India exports about 150 billion dollars’ worth of software services that provided upward mobility to millions of young people in the global arena. It was learning the language English together with the restructuring of the telecommunication policies by our dynamic and visionary leader Rajiv Gandhi (with the assistance from Sam Pitroda) that has catapulted India to the pinnacle of technology supremacy. It has brought us fame and fortune and probably more respectability around the globe. It is relevant here to recollect a conversation I have had with my superior, an American, at the United Nations while working as the Chief Technology Officer for the U.N. pension Fund: while discussing awarding a software development contract to a vendor from India as opposed to a different country, he said “give to Indians, at least, I can talk to them.’ That answer summarizes our success all across the global arena.
The imposition of Hindi on the Southern States will not only create challenges to the federalist system of government but may also pose a direct threat to the very unity of the Nation. However, a majoritarian government with blind ambitions having utter disdain for the cultural diversity and the linguistic differences of India, the pipe dream of promoting Hindi as the official language at the expense of English takes on nightmarish proportions. The constant stream of uneducated and unskilled labor from the north flocking southwards to engage in low-end jobs the natives refused to do is a poor advertisement for Amit Shah’s much-touted potential of the Hindi language.
George Abraham is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations.