language politics

Ten things you didn’t know about our polyglot nation

India’s multilingual map throws up many surprises.

The linguistic diversity in India’s literature runs far wider than in any other country in the world. What makes this possible? Among others, the zeal with which different local languages are promoted both by state administrations and by language activists. Here are ten of the most fascinating features of the country’s complex linguistic map:

One
The states and union territories of India carry out their day-to-day administrative work in 18 “official” languages. It is not mandatory for these official languages to belong to Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution. For example, neither English, the sole official language for four states and one union territory, nor Kokborok, the official language of Tripura, are part of the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.

Twenty-eight languages, several of which are still in the process of “scriptalisation”, have been declared as additional official languages.

Two
Jharkhand has the largest number of languages with “official” status. Hindi in Devanagari script is the official language of Jharkhand, and Urdu, the second official language of the state. In addition to Urdu, the following ten languages have been also identified as additional second official languages of the state: Santhali, Bangla, Mundari, Ho, Kharia, Kurukh (Oraon), Kurmali, Khertha, Nagpuri, Panchpargania and Odia.

Jharkhand is closely followed by Sikkim. While English is the official language, the following eleven languages have been identified as additional official languages: Bhutia, Lepcha, Limboo, Newari, Gurung, Manger, Mukhia, Rai, Sherpa and Tamang.

West Bengal holds third place in this list. Bengali is the official language, along with Nepali in the Darjeeling and Kurseong sub-divisions of the Darjeeling district, the other official languages are: Hindi, Urdu, Santhali, Odia, Punjabi and Marathi.

Three
While the three-language formula, as enshrined in the famous Kothari Commission Report (1964-66) is used as a template by most Indian states in school education, Tamil Nadu is the only Indian state which follows a two-language formula – all official work in the state is conducted in only English and Tamil.

Four
The state of Nagaland has the largest number of language academies promoting minority languages of the state.

Five
The moment the population of a linguistic minority group is equal to more than 15 per cent of the population of a district, tehsil, taluka or municipality, the state governments need to ensure translations and publications of Rules, Regulations, Notices, etc. in the relevant languages spoken by these groups. While the other states are still trying to achieve this, West Bengal has reduced this percentage to 10 – and is the most successful follower of this policy.

Six
Language activists of Chhattisgarh are campaigning to have Chhattisgarhi included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, and to be used more in the state where most official work is carried out in Hindi. They secured a great victory on January 8, 2002 when Hon’ble Justice Fakhruddin of the Raipur High Court awarded a judgment in Chhatisgarhi.

Seven
The emphasis on the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary school (Classes I to V) has inspired schools in Assam to work in ten different mediums of instruction: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Hindi, English, Manipuri, Garo, Nepali, Hmar and Karbi Anglong. Six other mother tongues are studied as subjects: Mising, Bishnupriya, Tai, Rabha, Tiwa and Deuri.

Eight
Assamese is the link language between different communities in Arunachal Pradesh.

Nine
In medieval times, Braj was the lingua franca in north India. From Punjab to Assam, from Guru Nanak to Shankara Deva, path-breaking original texts were composed in Braj bhasha, and these remain in currency in oral modes, ritual practices and performative texts even now.

Ten
Urdu is the official language of Jammu and Kashmir ever since the Dogra rajas made it the official language in 1889. This is interesting as Urdu is not a mother tongue for any of the major communities of the state – the mother tongues are as diverse as Kashmiri, Dogri, Balti, Dardi, Punjabi, Hindi, Pashto, Ladakhi, Pahari and Kohistani. But, historically, Urdu used to act as the lingua franca.

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, a PhD thesis on the Natyashastra, and most recently, with Saurav Jha, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat.

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