language politics

It’s time for the government to stop spreading the lie that Hindi is India’s ‘national language’

It's time to remember that the Constitution specifically avoids such a term.

Last month, the Union government celebrated Hindi pakhwara, or Hindi fortnight, a countrywide mandatory celebration of Hindi at government offices, Public Sector Undertakings, educational institutions and agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation and National Brain Research Centre that lasted two weeks.

When the celebrations started on Hindi Day, September 14, the hashtag #HindiDivas (Hindi Day) in Devanagari, started trending on Twitter, with most tweets linked to this hashtag coming from Hindi-speaking cities. Almost simultaneously another hashtag, #GOIMakeMyLanguageOfficial, started trending strongly from non-Hindi speaking cities.

These tweets highlighted instances of how rampant Hindi imposition has been taking place for years in non-Hindi speaking areas, how a citizen whose mother tongue is Hindi enjoyed a huge advantage over non-Hindi speaking citizens in terms of government jobs, exams, services and access to information, and how, non-Hindi speaking peoples of the Union are being relegated to the status of second-class citizens. The protestors demanded that all the 21 other languages with official language status be made official languages of the Indian Union alongside Hindi and English.

Linguistic inequality

This might seem to be an odd demand to make on Hindi Day, and some may feel that the demands are inspired by a hatred of Hindi. However, Hindi Day is not a cultural festival. It is celebrated to mark the day when Hindi was made the official language of the Indian Union, thus giving legal stamp to the unequal status of various other languages in the country. It is from this special official status of Hindi that the legal basis of its imposition on non-Hindi speaking people and concomitant discrimination of non-Hindi speaking peoples arise. Basically, Hindi Day is linguistic inequality day.

This special official status for Hindi has been subsequently used by the Union government to propagate the lie that Hindi is the country’s “national language” when it is not.

The Constitution specifically avoids such a term because it tacitly acknowledges that the Indian Union is an agglomeration of ethno-linguistic nationalities that have their own languages. Still, the “Hindi is our national language” lie is peddled by all and sundry – from senior Union government ministers to National Council of Educational Research and Training textbooks to government-issued Hindi advertisements in non-Hindi media.

There is no hue and cry about this blatant Hindification from quarters that are otherwise vocal about saffronisation. This is neither conspiratorial nor accidental, but structural. It reflects on the unstated imperial ideology that views the Indian Union as essentially a Hindi state, with other languages potential disruptors of its unity.

This ideology was reflected in Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement on Hindi Day when he said: “Hindi has been accepted by us as our national language”.

Who is this “us” he refers to, and when the majority of Indian citizens do not understand Hindi, which nation was he talking about?

Singh hinted at the steadily rising calls against Hindi imposition that have surfaced in reaction to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government’s stringent Hindi imposition policy when he talked about those who are “trying to create a rift in different parts of the country in the name of language”.

National and anti-national

This is the classic motif where Hindi is the uniter and those asking for equal rights are creating a rift, when Hindi is national and those against Hindi imposition are anti-national. Even government-owned undertakings propagate such messages. For instance, on Hindi Day, the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited tweeted that Hindi is “a language that unites the nation”.

BJP minister CP Singh, while claiming that “Hindi is our national language”, said on Hindi Day that no other language in the world can take the place of Hindi. These are the signals that inspire people like Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay who filed a Public Interest Litigation during the fortnight devoted to celebrating Hindi seeking that Hindi be declared the national language.

Though the plea was withdrawn after the court said that the Constitution did not provide for any “national language”, the Union government counsel told the court that the plea was “premature”. The use of that term betrays the government’s long-term designs.

With the official language department being under the home ministry, it is also clear the Union government treats language as an internal security issue. The maintenance of Hindi dominance as a national security priority and viewing calls for equality as a threat to national security echoes the attitude of Urdu imperialists to calls for linguistic equality in undivided Pakistan.

It is imperialism that divides people by preferential linguistic propagation policies. This was apparent in the constituent Assembly too, when RV Dhulekar, a member from Uttar Pradesh, said: “People who don’t know Hindustani have no right to stay in India”.

This anti-pluralist ideology continues to shape politics and policy in its overt and covert forms.

Celebrating diversity

Almost as a counterpoint to the imperial philosophy that inspires celebrations like Hindi Day, came the European Day of languages on September 26. This event is an official celebration in the European Union and is commemorated to raise awareness of the wide variety of languages in Europe and promote cultural & linguistic diversity. It celebrates over 200 European languages, 24 official EU languages, about 60 regional or minority languages and more.

The government of India can learn a thing or two from the European Day of Languages by looking at the reality of the Indian Union with its multiple languages. In India, the “unity in diversity” slogan is more often than not a cover for obliterating diversity by branding it as a threat to unity. It should remember that there can be no unity at the cost of diversity and dignity in a multi-lingual, Hindi-minority Indian Union.

Garga Chatterjee is a brain scientist.

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