View: The role of Hindi as a unifier

The Prime Minister’s commitment to respecting the diversity of Indian languages is clearly evident from the prominence given to teaching in the child’s mother tongue in the NEP, writes G Kishan Reddy

ET Spotlight
G Kishan Reddy

India’s diversity of languages and dialects have always been seen as a source of immense strength. This was echoed by Home Minister Amit Shah on September 14 th last year, on the occasion of Hindi Diwas. Speaking at Vigyan Bhavan, the Home Minister went on to state how our diversity of languages and dialects have never been a hindrance, and that Hindi, as the most widely spoken among Indian languages, can act as a unifying language as opposed to non-native languages such as English.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to respecting the diversity of Indian languages is clearly evident from the prominence given to teaching in the child’s mother tongue in the National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020. NEP 2020’s strong focus on the mother tongue ensures that a child’s energies are spent on learning critical concepts rather than learning a new language. The NEP also goes on to state the importance of protecting tribal languages. My home state of Telangana has at least 10 districts with large tribal populations. Children belonging to tribal communities such as Lambadas, Koyas, Gonds, Yeurkalas, Chenchus and others will stand to benefit with the promotion of tribal languages. The NEP thus protects hitherto discriminated languages by inculcating them in the school curriculum.

The constituent assembly debates – The Sangh’s inclusive role

Contrary to how it is depicted by language chauvinists, the Bharatiya Janata Party has always shown the way to respect all languages and dialects. One needs a trip down memory lane for one to observe how the party’s inclusive language policies has been a cornerstone of its politics. On September 13, 1949, while the constituent assembly was debating a carefully crafted compromise on the role of Hindi (The Munshi-Ayyangar compromise formula), Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh observed: "Why is it that many people belonging to non-Hindi speaking provinces have become a bit nervous about Hindi? If the protagonists of Hindi will pardon me for saying so, had they not been perhaps so aggressive in their demands and enforcement of Hindi, they would have got whatever they wanted, perhaps more than what they expected, by spontaneous and willing co-operation of the entire population of India.”

The Munshi-Ayyangar compromise formula formed the basis for Article 343 of our Constitution that identifies Hindi in Devanagiri script as the official language (“Rajbhasha”). Dr Mukherjee was castigating the Congress leaders from the Hindi heartland for their unyielding stance by forcing other regions to accept Hindi as a national language. On the other hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological precursor, the Jana Sangh, have consistently supported the propagation and protection of all Indian languages. Dr Mukherjee’s constituently assembly speech, has been a template for the party’s approach to language policies where he states: “India has been a country of many languages. If we dig into the, past, we will find that it has not been possible for anybody to force the acceptance of one language by all people in this country. Some of my friends spoke eloquently that a day 'might come when India shall have one language and one language only’. Frankly speaking, I do not share that view ….”

While politicians interested in finding new fault-lines purposely conflate Hindi’s status as the “Raj Bhasha” (official language) with “Rashtra Bhasha” (national language), this government led by the Prime Minister firmly believes that no Indian language is inferior to any other. India’s rich diversity can be attributed to the many languages and the vast literature and oral histories and traditions that exist in our languages.

The Eighth Schedule – the BJP’s stellar role in including more languages

The Indian constitution that was initially adopted had 14 languages in the Eighth schedule that were to be included in the Committee of Parliament on Official Language. This included Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. Tribal languages such as Santhali and Tibeto-Burman languages such as Nepali, Meitei and Bodo had no place initially.

On June 22 nd 1962, Jana Sangh’s U.M Trivedi brought in a Private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha to include Sindhi in the Eighth Schedule and on August 17 th 1962, Atal Bihari Vajpayee introduced it in the Rajya Sabha. In a debate on the floor of the House, when asked if Sindhi were to be written in Urdu script, Vajpayee replied: “Question of script will be settled by Sindhi people. We should not interfere in this question. If they wish, they may retain their own script or adopt Devanagiri. But, for us, Hindi speaking people, it won’t be good to express our opinion in this matter …”

In April 1967, after sustained pressure, Sindhi was added to the Eight Schedule through the twenty-first amendment of the Constitution. The 1990s saw Meitei, Nepali and Konkani introduced through the seventy-first amendment of the constitution. Both the twenty-first and seventy-first amendments saw an initial push for adding new languages from outside government through private member bills. The BJP gave unflinching, unconditional support to each of these bills.

In December 2003, the ninety-second amendment was introduced by Shri L.K. Advani that added Bodo, Santhali, Maithili and Dogri into the Eighth schedule of the constitution. The party’s commitment to the country’s linguistic diversity saw the first tribal language, i.e. Santhali, being added to the list of scheduled languages.

Special Directives – Article 351

In all this, Hindi does have a specific role through Article 351 of the constitution. The special directive of Article 351 entrusts the responsibility of the Union to promote the spread of Hindi and to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression and to secure its enrichment. To aid in this, the Department of Official Language was set up in June 1975 as an independent department within the Ministry of Home Affairs. Given this background, one would need to ask if Hindi is being promoted at the expense of any other Indian language or if Hindi can happily co-exist with other languages of the Union. The Home Minister had settled that debate unequivocally on Hindi Diwas last year- Hindi’s role as a unifying language would neither affect the status nor the stature of other Indian languages.

(G Kishan Reddy is the Minister of State for Home Affairs in the Union Government )

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