Baba’s Explainer – The Language Debate of India

  • IASbaba
  • May 7, 2022
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Baba’s Explainer, Indian Polity & Constitution, Social Issues
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Baba’s Explainer – The Language Debate of India


  • GS-2: Indian Society – Diversity
  • GS-2: Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, issues and challenges pertaining to the federal structure.

Why in News: The recent remarks by a Hindi actor to the effect that Hindi is the national language of India and the counter by a Kannada star, sparked a controversy over the status of the language under the Constitution.

  • Many were quick to point out that there is no national language for India, and that Hindi is the official language of the Union.

What is the status of Hindi?
  • India being a linguistic diverse country has always celebrated diversity. Our Constituent makers were conscious of this fact and hence debated hotly on the topic of language in Constituent Assembly.
  • Division in Constituent Assembly on the issue:
    • Members of Constituent assembly who came from states that did not speak Hindi opposed the declaration of Hindi as National Language for they feared it would lead to domination of Hindi at the cost of regional languages.
    • Proponents of Hindi were insistent that English was the language of enslavement and that it should be eliminated as early as possible.
    • There were demands to make Sanskrit the official language, while some argued in favour of ‘Hindustani’.
  • Compromise
    • Ultimately, it was decided that the Constitution will only speak of an ‘official language’ and not National Language.
    • It said that Hindi will be the Official Language of the Union. And that English would continue to be used for a period of 15 years
    • The Constitution said that after 15 years, Parliament may by law decide on the use of English (dealt by Official Languages Act, 1963).
  • Status of Hindi
    • Under Article 343 of the Constitution, the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script. The international form of Indian numerals will be used for official purposes.
    • Hindi is spoken by nearly 57% of Indians and 43% of people reported it as their mother tongue (Census 2011).
What about regional languages?

The Constitution does not provide for the official language of states. However, It says that :

  • The legislature of a state may adopt any one or more of the languages belonging to the state or Hindi as the official language of that state. Until then, English will continue as the official language of that state.
  • As a response to this the states have adopted the following regional languages as their official language:
    • Andhra Pradesh – Telugu
    • Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland – English
    • Jammu and Kashmir – Urdu (and not Kashmiri)
    • Goa – Marathi and Konkani
    • Gujarat – Hindi and Gujarati
    • Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana, and Rajasthan – Hindi.
    • Odisha–Odia
    • West Bengal–Bengali
    • Assam–Assamese
    • Kerala–Malayalam
  • Note, there is no compulsion for the state to choose the language from the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
  • Any two or more states are free to agree to use Hindi (instead of English) for communication between themselves
What were the 1965 protests about?
  • Original Constitution had provided for the use of English as official language of the Union only for 15 years.
  • However, Jawaharlal Nehru had given an assurance in 1959 that English would remain in official use and as the language of communication between the Centre and the States.
  • The Official Languages Act, 1963, did not explicitly incorporate this assurance, causing apprehensions in some States as the January 1965 deadline neared.
  • In Tamil Nadu, then known as Madras, the prospect of the use of Hindi as the medium of examination for recruitment to the Union public services created an apprehension that Hindi would be imposed in such a way that the future employment prospects of those who do not speak Hindi will be bleak.
  • Soon protests broke out and took a violent turn after more and more student activists joined the protest. More than 60 people died in police firing and other incidents as the protests went on for days.
  • The agitation died down later, but by then the Congress at the Centre realised the sensitivity of the language issue among Southern States and therefore included the provision for continued use of English language in Official Languages Act (1963).
  • The 1963 act also provided for following provisions
    • Authorized Hindi translation of Central Acts, etc.
    • Optional use of Hindi or other official language in judgments, etc., of High Courts (no mention of Supreme Court)
    • English should be the communication language between the Union and the non-Hindi states.
    • The communication between Hindi and Non-Hindi states if done in Hindi then it must be accompanied by an English translation.
What is the language of Higher Judiciary?
  • Article 348(1)(a) states that unless Parliament by law provides otherwise, all proceedings before the Supreme Court and in every High Court shall be conducted in English.
  • Article 348(2) provides further that notwithstanding the provisions of Article 348(1), the Governor of a state may, with the previous consent of the President, authorize the use of Hindi or any other language used for any official purpose, in proceedings in the High Court
  • Therefore, the Constitution recognizes English as the primary language of the Supreme Court and the High Courts, with the caveat that when some other language is used in the proceedings of High Courts, judgments of the High Courts must be delivered in English.
  • Currently, the language of SC proceedings is English only All pleadings, documents and arguments in the Supreme Court are in English. Reasons for using English are:
    • Just like cases from all over the country come to the Supreme Court, judges and lawyers of the Supreme Court also come from all parts of India.
    • Judges can hardly be expected to read documents and hear arguments in languages with which they are not familiar.
    • Without the use of English, it would be impossible to discharge their duty. All judgments of the Supreme Court are also delivered in English.
  • Interestingly, bills have also been introduced in Parliament – the High Courts (Use of Official Languages) Bill, 2016 and the Supreme Court, High Courts and District Courts (Use of Official Languages) Bill, 2018 – to mandate the use of regional languages in courts including the Supreme Court, but so far nothing has come of these.
Language of the Subordinate Courts
  • There are two provisions regarding the use of language in subordinate courts. Under Section 137 of the Code of Civil Procedure, the language of the district courts shall be similar to the language of the act.
  • The state government has the power to declare any regional language as an alternative for the proceedings of the court.
    • However, judgments, orders, and decree may be passed by the magistrate in English.
    • The recording of the evidence shall be done in the prevailing language of the state.
    • In case of a pleader being unacquainted with English, a translation into the language of the court shall be supplied to him on his request and the court shall bear such costs.
  • Section 272 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973, states that the State government shall determine the language of all courts other than the High Courts. So, broadly it means that the language used in the district courts shall be in the regional language as the state government directs.
What is Eighth Schedule?
  • The Eighth Schedule contains a list of languages in the country. Initially, there were 14 languages in the schedule, but now there are 22 languages.
    • Following are Eighth Schedule languages: 1) Assamese, (2) Bengali, (3) Gujarati, (4) Hindi, (5) Kannada, (6) Kashmiri, (7) Konkani, (8) Malayalam, (9) Manipuri, (10) Marathi, (11) Nepali, (12) Oriya, (13) Punjabi, (14) Sanskrit, (15) Sindhi, (16) Tamil, (17) Telugu, (18) Urdu (19) Bodo, (20) Santhali, (21) Maithili and (22) Dogri.
    • Sindhi language was added by the 21st Amendment Act of 1967.
    • Konkani, Manipuri, and Nepali were included by the 71st Amendment Act of 1992.
    • Bodo, Dogri, Maithili, and Santhali were added by the 92nd Amendment Act of 2003 which came into force in
  • There is no description of the sort of languages that are included or will be included in the Eighth Schedule. Thus, both attempts, through the Pahwa (1996) and
    Sitakant Mohapatra (2003) Committees
    to evolve such fixed criteria have not
    borne fruit.
  • There are only two references to these languages in the text of the Constitution.
  • One is in Article 344(1), which provides for the formation of a Commission by the President, which should have a Chairman and members representing these scheduled languages.
    • The purpose of the Commission is to make recommendations for the progressive use of Hindi for official purposes of the Union and for restricting the use of English.
  • The second reference, found in Article 351, says it is the Union government’s duty to promote the spread of Hindi so that it becomes “a medium of expression for all elements of the composite culture of India” and also to assimilate elements of forms and expressions from Hindustani and languages listed in the Eighth Schedule.
What are classical languages?
  • A classical language is any language with an independent literary tradition and a large and ancient body of written literature
  • Currently there are six languages that enjoy the ‘Classical’ status in India:
    • Tamil (declared in 2004), Sanskrit (2005), Kannada (2008), Telugu (2008), Malayalam (2013), and Odia (2014).
    • All the Classical Languages are listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
  • The Ministry of Culture provides the guidelines regarding Classical languages which are as given below:
    • High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years;
    • A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers.
    • The literary tradition is original and not borrowed from another speech community.
    • The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.
  • Once a language is notified as a Classical language, the Education Ministry provides certain benefits to promote it:
    • Two major annual international awards for scholars of eminence in classical Indian languages.
    • A Centre of Excellence for studies in Classical Languages is set up.
    • The University Grants Commission is requested to create, to start with at least in the Central Universities, a certain number of Professional Chairs for the Classical Languages so declared.
Why is the promotion of Hindi language resisted? Or why having Hindi as National Language is not conducive?
  • Fear of Hegemony of Hindi Belt: Making government communication solely in Hindus produces information asymmetry and perpetuates the hegemonic dominance of the Hindi belt.
  • Hindi Imposition leads to Coercive assimilation: Standardisation or imposition of one language may inevitably lead to unintentional & coercive assimilatory practices.
  • Threat to Native Culture & knowledge: Language is the carrier of society’s culture. It is through one’s own language that people are able to express effectively. The disappearance of language due to imposition of non-native language will eventually lead to sublimation of native culture & the traditional knowledge.
  • Disproportionate Access to Public Resources: Also, using only a majority language for government services, central government laws and communications effectively impedes public access to a minority population who are not bilingual. It also distorts the level playing field in government employment at Union Level (recall 1965 protests)
  • Protection & Promotion: There is a significant difference between protection of minority languages and promotion of minority languages, the former being a negative restriction and the latter being a positive obligation.
  • Idea of India: The promotion of linguistic diversity is not because of a functional efficacy but the embracement of the Indian identity: the idea that India is diverse, and yet ‘one’. The idea of “one country, one language” is not only fallacious but also dangerous to the unity & integrity of India itself.
    • One of the underlying factor for the birth of Bangladesh was imposition of Urdu from West Pakistan.
    • The unrest in Sri Lanka can be attributed to not given adequate protection to Tamil speaking minority population.
What is three-language formula?
  • The teaching system across various regions in the country was not uniform.
  • Whereas Hindi was the general medium of instruction in the north, regional languages and English were the media of instruction in other parts.
  • This led to chaos and created difficulties for inter-state communication.
  • Therefore, in order to uniformize the system, in 1968 the New Education Policyderived a middle path called the Three-Language Formula
    • In Hindi-speaking states, the formula translated into learning Hindi, English and a modern Indian language (preferably south Indian).
    • For students in non-Hindi speaking states, it mandated lessons in Hindi, English and the regional language
  • The three functions which the three language formula sought to serve, were
    • Accommodating group identity
    • Affirming national unity
    • Increasing administrative efficiency
  • Incidentally, the National Educational Policy 1986 made no change in the 1968 policy on the three-language formula and the promotion of Hindi and repeated it verbatim.

What has been the progress of Three Language Formula?

  • Since education is a state subject, the implementation of the formula lay with the states. Only a few states had adopted the formula in principle.
  • In many of the Hindi-speaking states, Sanskrit became the third language instead of any modern Indian language (preferably south Indian language). This defeated the purpose of Three Language formula to promote inter-state communications
  • In non-Hindi speaking state such as Tamil Nadu a two-language formula was adopted and did not implement the three language formula.
Why is South, particularly Tamil Nadu, historically opposed to Hindi Language?
  • Language being the vehicle of Culture is protected vociferously by civil society & politicians in the State. Any attempt at diluting the importance of Tamil language is viewed as an attempt at homogenisation of culture.
  • An important aspect of the opposition to Hindi imposition is that many in Tamil Nadu see it as a fight to retain English.
  • English is seen as a bulwark against Hindi as well as the language of empowerment and knowledge.
  • There is an entrenched belief in certain sections of society that the continued attempts to impose Hindi will eventually lead to elimination of English, global link language.
  • However, voluntary learning of Hind has never been restricted in the State. The patronage for the 102-year-old Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, based in Chennai, proves this.
  • Only compulsion is met with resistance.
What has been the impact on India due to Language Politics?
  • Allegation of Imposition of Hindi: In Non-Hindi speaking states Hindi is mandated as third language however, it a difficult task as at least in 20 out of 28 states Hindi is not the natural language. This leads to misconstruing promotion of Hindi as imposition.
  • Identity Politics: Language, from the very birth of the independent India, remained a contentious issue and as a result it has become tied with the identity politics.
  • Reactionary Policies: States have often implemented reactionary policies against the centre’s enthusiasm to promote Hindi.
  • For example, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal made it compulsory to learn their state languages across schools in the respective states
  • Domino Effect: Such reactionary policies have a domino effect which jeopardizes other administrative functions and center-state relations.
What does NEP 2020 say about the Three Language Formula?
  • Medium of Instruction:Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language.
  • The three-language formula will continue to be implemented while keeping in mind the need to promote multilingualism as well as promote national unity.
  • NEP also stated that there will be a greater flexibility inthe three-language formula, and no language will be imposed on any State.
  • The three languages learned by children will be the choices of States, regions, and of course the students themselves, so long as at least two of the three languages are native to India.
What is the Criticism of NEP 2020 with regards to Language?
  • As opposed to the previous policy, the current draft suggests the introduction of languages at the primary level itself. This is criticized on the ground that it will be Cognitive burden on young children to learn languages
  • Back Door Entry for Hindi:Tamil Nadu which is having two language policy in State opposes the continuation of Three Language Policy as they fear this would eventually pave the way for Hindi to enter the State through the back door.
  • Scarcity of Teachers of non-Hindi Languages: Several linguistic activists and educationists observed that the move would eventually end up in students being forced to learn Hindi because of scarcity of teachers in other languages
  • Discrimination in Funds: The Centre has allotted 50 crore for development of Hindi, while no such funds are given to other languages.

 Is the Criticism valid?

  • Out of necessity, many in the Tamil Nadu State have picked up conversational Hindi to engage with the migrant population that feeds the labour needs of society. Teaching the same in schools is thus not a threat to the native language
  • There is this counter-argument that Tamil Nadu is depriving students of an opportunity to learn Hindi, touted as a national link language.
  • Unlike the National Education policy-1968 which mandated teaching of Hindi in non-Hindi speaking States, the latest NEP does not explicitly mention the ‘third’ language shall be Hindi.
  • This means, apart from Tamil and English, students must learn any one of Indian languages.
What is the Way Forward?
  • Supreme Court tells Centre about Consideration of amending Official Languages Act 1963:
    • The Supreme Court said the Central government should consider amending the Official Languages Act of 1963, for the inclusion of scheduled languages other than Hindi and English as official languages.
    • Chief Justice of India (CJI), SA Bobde said that all the people in the country might not know either English or Hindi, and communication by the Central government in vernacular languages will help them.
    • “There might be people in Karnataka, Nagaland or rural Maharashtra who might not know Hindi or English. Your government should consider amending the Official Languages Act,” – CJI Bobde
  • Languages in the eighth schedule of the Constitution are part of India’s cultural heritage; promotion and protection of which is an integral part of the duties of all governments together, as a shared responsibility of all.
  • Equal respect for all constitutionally recognized languages is the first step in forming a more inclusive country sensitive to (linguistic) minorities.
  • For languages not in the eighth schedule but peculiar to the state, the state government should be the torchbearer of protection and promotion of the language
  • Nonetheless, one should be careful so as not to take it to the extreme. A tweet from the government or internal communication of administration in all languages may only hinder the efficiency of the administration itself.


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