Is Hindi being imposed on the states of the Indian Union that don’t speak the language? For the past few weeks, a range of people living in South India have made this claim, arguing angrily that the Union government is forcing the Indo-Aryan language onto Dravidian-speaking states.

On Monday, former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy demanded the cancellation of the state celebration of “Hindi Day” calling it an “underhanded method” to impose Hindi. This comes after viral protests by activists – including many celebrities – in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka asserting that they “don’t know Hindi”.

It is unclear what is the proximate trigger for the protests. While some activists have claimed that they are responding to the Union Government’s proposed national education policy – which would make Hindi compulsory via what is called the “Three Language Formula” – in reality, the Three Language formula has been in place for more than five decades now and the Modi government has made no change to it.

T shirts with "I don't know Hindi, go away" have gone viral.

Population growth

Even as voices against Hindi imposition and against foisting Hindi as a national language get shriller, simultaneously Hindi is growing like never before in Indian history.

The first method of the rise in Hindi is straightforward: population growth. India’s Hindi belt has rates of fertility which are some of the highest in the world while the corresponding figure in the South (as well as West Bengal and Maharashtra) is similar to developed countries, which are struggling with population decrease.

This means the proportion of Indians who identify with Hindi as their native language is shooting up fast. Between 2001 and 2011, Hindi grew at a rate of 25% to add close to 100 million new speakers. Among the 10 largest languages in India, Hindi is the only one that saw the proportion of its speakers rise during this decade.

Between 1971 and 2011, Hindi native speakers went up from 37% to 44% of India.

The corollary of this means that major non-Hindi languages are seeing their population share drop.

Migrating Hindi

Hindi growing in its own home region is one part of the dynamic. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that Hindi is also expanding geographically. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of Hindi native speakers in South India has nearly doubled. This, when the total population in these states has only gone up by 28%.

Much of this increase is due to migration. And while absolute numbers are still small, the fact that migration would mostly be concentrated in urban centres means this rise would have a disproportionate impact compared to if it were distributed across the state. “The significant migration from the north means that Hindi is widely used in a place like Bengaluru,” explained Shikaripur N Sridhar, a professor of linguistics and India studies at Stony Brook University in the United States.

Hindi as a second language

A third data point is that non-Hindi speakers are increasingly picking it up as a second language. This is a significant pointer to the spread of Hindi given that language acquisition for adults is extremely difficult.

This data is backed up by the fact that new migrants to the South display low native language comprehension skills. For example, only 12% of native Bengali speakers in Karnataka know Kannada. This, points out linguist B Mallikarjun, leads to the conclusion that new migrants to Karnataka are “content with Hindi”.

Anecdotal data reveals that this spread of Hindi as a second language means even some South Indians would now use it as a lingua franca.

Soft power

What explains, say, native speakers of Dravidian languages picking up Hindi as a second language? Much of the activism against Hindi imposition focuses on hard government measures like education or jobs. While these are important, often ignored is the sheer size of the Hindi-language mass media and its consequent impact.

Speaking to the Times of India, sociologist GS Karanth for example identifies the role of national television channels such as Doordarshan in popularising Hindi in Tamil Nadu. “There are several reasons for Tamilians learning Hindi,” he explained. “Migration is one, but TV programmes also influence Tamil people to utter a few words in Hindi. The shift started when Ramayan and Mahabharat were telecast on TV.”

Linguist Shikaripur N Sridhar also identifies the rise of social media as a significant factor alongside older factors such as movies and migration. “With time, it is true that Kannadigas have become more proficient in Hindi,” he explained. “The two major reasons, apart from migration, are movies and social media.”

Traditionally, English has been the lingua franca of the South – with activists against Hindi imposition demanding that this status quo be maintained. However, what makes this even more complicated is that purported English-language content in India itself uses significant amounts of Hindi. It is, for example, rather difficult to watch English news in India today without a basic understanding of Hindi, given just how much of the north Indian language is used in programming.

Sridhar identifies these changes for the rise in activism against Hindi imposition: “It is this rising Hindi that is creating a reaction.”