Home Minister Amit Shah’s now-retracted declaration that Hindi should be India’s national language drew protests from a wide variety of people – from the usual liberal Twitter users to residents of the southern and eastern states. A great deal has been written and tweeted about this topic, much of it from the perspective of language imperialism – that one language shouldn’t dominate a country that has always been known for its multilingualism.

However, not much has been written about the fact that more and more of us non-native Hindi speakers are speaking Hindi. This is certainly helped by the presence of Hindi in our school curriculum. But it is also spurred by the pervasiveness of Bollywood, the requirements of commerce, increasing migration across the country and the laws of language ecology – the study of how languages interact with each other and spread as populations interact.

As a result, it is not uncommon to see Hindi as a link language today between two South Indians. I have witnessed this myself when my mother, a native Malayalam speaker, conversed with her Telugu-speaking neighbour in Hindi.

Data on the growth of Hindi as a second language isn’t easy to come by so I pieced together two different pieces of reportage. In 2001, Hindi competed neck and neck with English but by 2011 it had pulled away decisively. That gap has almost definitely widened since then.

Why is Hindi growing so fast? And why are non-Hindi speakers increasingly adding Hindi to their repertoire?

One answer to this lies in the writings of Philippe van Parijs, a Belgian-born political philosopher who has written extensively on English-language imperialism and language ecology.

Parijs was puzzled by the tendency of Europeans with diverse mother tongues to speak in English when they met in large groups, especially when most of them weren’t native English speakers. He concluded that language usage in group interactions as well as in one-on-one encounters is subject to the principle of least exclusion – or the maximin law of communication, as he described it.

This means that when a native Telugu speaker with decent English but patchy Hindi interacts with a migrant labourer from Chhattisgarh who speaks fluent Gondi and Hindi (but no English), then the language of communication will be Hindi.

“When deciding which language among those you know you should pick, the question you will spontaneously tend to ask yourself will not be which is your own best language, or which language is the best language of the majority, or which language is best known on average, but rather which language is best known by the member of your audience who knows it least,” Parijs said.

Hence maximin, so named because it is the maximum of the minimal.

Lingua franca

The maximin principle or principle of least exclusion explains why more and more South Indians (or non-Hindi speakers such as from eastern India or the North East) are speaking Hindi. The Hindi film industry and the three-language formula that has taken Hindi into classrooms have ensured a minimal awareness of Hindi in most non-Hindi speakers.

The reverse isn’t true. The Southern or Bengali movie industries aren’t as popular, and there is no requirement to study Telugu or Bengali in the Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan state board. This means native Hindi speakers graduate with proficiency in at best two languages – English and Hindi. If they are from a lower socioeconomic strata, then they will be proficient in effectively only one language, Hindi.

Thus as South Indians meet people from Central India, the principle of least exclusion forces greater usage of Hindi. The same principle also explains why South Indians who don’t speak each other’s languages or know English are using Hindi to speak to each other, such as my mother and her neighbour.

Anecdata and data will all reveal much the same. Amit Shah needn’t have been quite so heavy handed in his approach. Whether we like it or not, Hindi has increasingly become India’s lingua franca, horror of horrors, even amongst South Indians.