On Friday, the Central government clarified that a Home Ministry order that government departments must use Hindi along with English on social media platforms was only meant for Hindi-speaking states. The directive was circulated only for the departments of what are called “A-category” states, in which Hindi is the major language, and was in fact reiteration of a policy instituted by the United Progressive Alliance.

But before the clarification, the doyens of linguistic alarmism in India took the opportunity to indulge in a bit of competitive posturing. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi fired the first salvo, leaving his chief rival, Tamil Nadu chief J Jayalalithaa, no choice but to send a strongly worded letter to the prime minister, telling him not to impose Hindi from above.

The celebrations of those who wish to see Hindi established as the main vehicle of communication in India were short-lived. They were possibly dismayed by what they perceive is a rollback by a government that was supposed to champion just these kinds of interests. But this government has realised that it cannot perform difficult surgery on a culturally volatile national body, and it seeks understanding from its supporters. The future, it seems, will hold more disappointments for cultural nationalists.

Yet, it is worth understanding just why this issue is so fraught, and why even the hint of a move to make Hindi the official language of the state is shouted down immediately.

According to the 1971 Census, which is believed to be the most accurate in this respect, India is home to 1,652 languages, belonging to five different language families. Over 87 languages are used in the print media, 71 languages are used on the radio, and the administration of the country is conducted in 13 languages. Of these, only 47 languages are used as a medium of instruction in schools.

It was with this diversity in mind that the writers of the Constitution refrained from establishing a single national language. The eighth schedule of the Constitution is simply titled Languages. The fact that the number of languages mentioned in this schedule has increased from 14 to 22 in just over 60 years demonstrates the open-ended nature of this schedule. Any language spoken in this country can be placed on this list. It has little to do with the qualities of the language in question. It is the political strength of its users that matters.

There are historical reasons that the dialect of Khadi Boli has been elevated over other dialects of Hindi, such as Braj, Avadhi or Bhojpuri, and a lot has been written on this matter. The years of the anti-colonial struggle are considered the golden period for Khadi Boli Hindi. Nationalistic fervour meant that it was welcomed and voluntarily adopted in the South, in states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. BV Karanth, the legendary theatre director from Karnataka, used to say that when he was a child in the 1930s and early '40s, learning Hindi was so glamorous that girls used to run away with Hindi pracharaks.

Some cultural nationalists have argued that English continued to be used in post-colonial India to perpetuate the hold of economic elites, who were already comfortable in the language. Yet, this is a simplistic, even incorrect, conclusion. The process of nation-making in India demanded a sensitive approach to the large number of linguistic and cultural identities that had been invited to become part of a single national identity. The fears linguistic minorities had about the extinguishing of their languages, and with it their cultures, had to be addressed.

At the time these debates were at their peak, champions of Hindi claimed that because a majority of the Indian population spoke the language it deserved to be declared the solitary national language of India. People such as Guru Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, argued that languages like Tamil had their roots in Sanskrit, the language that is a direct antecedent of Hindi.

Yet for many in the South, especially in Tamil Nadu, Hindi was seen as one of the youngest languages of the subcontinent, certainly not as refined and storied as their own. Nagarjun, one of the great modern poets of Hindi and a Maithili speaker, termed it the arrogance of youth, a reference to its relatively late development. He castigated the proponents of Hindi who claimed that languages like Maithili were merely dialects of Hindi. Even Bhojpuri users have resented this label of dialect or sub-language that has been conferred upon their preferred language. They have fought for it to be placed on the eighth schedule as a language of its own.

Take, for example, the three-language formula that is utilised in much of India in secondary education. In practice, in Hindi-speaking states, you barely find a school that has the facility to teach Malayalam or Tamil or Manipuri, yet in almost all non-Hindi speaking areas they teach Hindi in schools. The citizens of Hindi-speaking states do not understand the cognitive deficit they suffer in comparison with students in other states.