National language: Another pandora’s box

In the series of efforts launched by the BJP government to promote unity and integrity of the nation, it has now turned attention to the question of a national language for multi-linguistic India. More than the issues like “one nation, one poll”, “one nation, one Constitution”, “one nation, one ration card”, or “one nation, one curriculum”, entry into the language question is likely to invoke instant and passionate public reaction.

Home Minister Amit Shah, speaking on Hindi Day in the capital, opened the debate on the need for a national language. He said that Hindi is the only language that can unify the country and steps should be taken to promote it, thus opening another Pandora’s Box.

He claims that his object is to halt the overwhelming influence of English in the country. While asserting that unity and diversity is the strength of our nation, he said that “a national language is needed so that foreign languages do not overpower our own”. He was speaking in the Rajbhasha Award ceremony — a fit place to enthuse the audience with the idea “Let us make Hindi the most widely used language in the world” as reported in the media.

The Home Minister also linked Hindi with Mahatma Gandhi, a tactical remark, in the context of Bapuji’s 150th Birth Anniversary. Promotion of Hindi is for realising the dream of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel of one language for the country. He reminded the people that Hindi is the “heart and soul of our freedom struggle”.

Of all socio-economic issues that divide people, the one about national language stands unique in the sense that the pro and anti groups do not concede or even listen to each other’s point of view. It is indeed a highly emotional question, much more than religious attachment. It raises questions of numerical size, comparative development, adaptability to contemporary use, richness of literature, age of the language, etc, — factors that intensify irrelevant comparisons and introduce linguistic divisions where they are not present.

In this controversy, different terms are being used interchangeably without clarity in their meaning like national language, official language, link language, regional language, and common language. Apart from this, there is medium of instruction.

BJP’s optimism that Hindi or any other language can be the uniting factor for the nation is reasonable and can be worked out if that language is spoken by or understood by a big majority — say three-fourths of the population. In a vast country with over one billion population, even if three-fourths speak the same language, the other one-fourth is also large and cannot be pressurised to learn a new language.

Our uniting factor is our culture, our way of life transcending linguistic barriers. Extraordinary effort is required to elevate Hindi to the status of a uniting factor. That effort should receive voluntary cooperation of the people of India. Till that time, Hindi will have to wait patiently.

In truth, India stands united with multiple languages and unity will grow stronger and stronger with more and more scope for their promotion. Pride in one’s language and its achievements are unshakeable sentiments in India and also get hurt at the slightest offence. There is of course genuine difficulty for Hindi-speaking population to put itself in the place of non-Hindi people, particularly those far away from the Hindi heartland to realise the implications of HM’s speech.

National language is the term commonly used when talking about a language that is spoken in a country. It denotes a connection between a territory and a language spoken there. A number of Constitutions mention national languages, but in a different meaning. The term is also used in a region crossing political borders. National language is used for symbolic purposes in a nation’s flag or emblem. It represents the national identity of a country. Many countries have found it difficult to determine their national language, and very often, it is confused with official language.

An official language is the one used for official purposes, i.e. in official documents and proceedings, police and court reports, etc. A national language is also the official language in a country, but an official language is not necessarily the national language. In Singapore, for example, there are four official languages — English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil, but only one national language — Malay. Kenya’s national language is Swahili, but official language is English. Arabic has dual role in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.

Official languages are mentioned in many Constitutions and have a unique legal status. In many African countries, indigenous languages are given official status and their use promoted. Noteworthy in this connection is the US Constitution, which mentions no official language and grants no linguistic rights and obligations. Despite being a melting pot, there is strong sense of identity, which rests on progress and development.

So also, the Constitutions of Australia, Denmark, Gambia, Uruguay and many others do not mention national or official language. Some others like Argentina, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden constitutionally protect minority languages.

Canada, South Africa, and Belgium, which have linguistic groups cherishing a distinct identity need constitutional protection. The Constitution of South Africa gives official status to 11 languages, but like Zambia and Zimbabwe has no national language. South Africa recognises linguistic rights of individuals and groups as fundamental. Japan, the Netherlands, and Myanmar have not adopted any language as national or official.

A link language is a “semi-technical” term used for a language that is used for communication between two or more linguistic groups like Swahili in South Africa. Hindi is able to take this place easily between a Gujarati and Marathi because of their proximity to Hindi areas, which facilitates learning without effort, but meets resistance with Tamil or Telugu.

Link languages grow on their own and are not promoted by policy interventions. Necessity is said to be the mother of inventions; so also, it is the mother of absorption of languages. People are generally bilingual in border areas between linguistic States in India without anybody’s promptings. Hindi is growing in its role as link language due to increasing contacts and communications. No other Indian language has had this opportunity. Those in favour of linguistic unity have to wait.

In Europe, French served as the “lingua franca” — a mixture of Italian and Southern French — in 18-19th centuries and English has taken that place today. International organisations such as the WHO, World Bank and others have promoted English because of its global spread and not by any deliberate promotion.

With such variegated pattern in the linguistic world, India can better strive to strengthen its unity and integrity with several factors other than language since its very mention raises protests and offers a strong bond for a new Mahagathbandhan. The DMK has already stirred up an anti-Hindi call to unite political parties. Since there is no compromise solution, the wiser way is to build unity by encouraging all languages equally.

BJP leaders cannot be unaware of possible reactions to any proposal to push Hindi with official machinery directly or indirectly. The Home Minister must only be testing the atmosphere and must have got the result.




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