By Anindita Mukhopadhyay
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s recent spat in the Lok Sabha earlier this month has yet again raised the issue of Hindi’s status as a national language. Ms Swaraj, in her response to a query during the Question Hour, described the process of making Hindi the seventh official language at the United Nations and revealed the government’s willingness to devote up to 400 crores for this cause. In response, Mr Tharoor who was the former Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information at the UN, questioned the very purpose of the move, terming it a ‘solution without a problem’.
Official languages of the UN
The United Nations is an international organization founded in 1945, at the heels of the Second World War. The UN provides a platform for enabling dialogue and hosting negotiations amongst its now 193 member nations. The organization has become a mechanism for governments to find areas of agreement and take action on global issues together. Such a backdrop of diversity necessitates open and effective communication in order to be able to coordinate all its endeavours and the member nations.
The UN uses six official languages–English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian to facilitate effective communication amongst all member nations. Consequently, the basic criteria for a language to be officialised at the UN are that it must be considered an official language by a large number of nations. Hindi is considered an official language by only two nations: India and Fiji. With the exception of Chinese, these six languages are all spoken in more than 5 countries. In addition, besides Spanish, these languages can be matched directly to permanent member states of the Security Council who hold veto power, and hence their official status can be owed certain political clout as well. Combined, these six languages are spoken by almost 3 billion people in the world, thus any one of these languages are used by almost half of the world’s population as their official language.
There is a necessity for the UN to reach out to the other half of the world’s population who do not consider these as official languages in their countries. To officialise the Hindi language at the UN, at least two-thirds of the member states must first vote on its inclusion as an official language. More importantly, the states must collectively meet the cost of implementing such a change in the organisation. Despite an individual cost of about 40 crores for the purpose, Ms Swaraj has assured the government’s willingness to solely foot a bill of even 400 crores if other Hindi-speaking, financially weaker nations cannot contribute equally. The Modi government considers this a matter of national pride, and “continues to take measures for the acceptance of Hindi as one of the official languages of the UN and to popularise Hindi worldwide.”
Legal status of Hindi
India, in all its multilinguistic diversity, is home to several hundred languages, and a few hundred more near-extinct languages. These languages all belong to four families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Mongoloid, and the tribal languages and dialects. Of the several hundred languages, 29 major languages are spoken by more than 1 million native speakers, and 23 languages have been adopted as official languages for use within respective states and union territories.
According to the Official Languages Act of 1963, India as a whole has no single national language that integrates the entire country on a linguistic basis. However, to retain some semblance of unity, we adopted the use of Hindi in the Devanagari script as an official language. This allowed for the usage of English as required in official communications, up to a period of 15 years. The Act was amended in 1967 to extend indefinitely the usage of English as a working language. In addition, to maintain the unity and integrity of the nation, the ‘Three language formula’ was introduced in the Indian education system. This was “a compromise between the demands of the various pressure groups and has been hailed as a masterly-if-imperfect-solution to a complicated problem. It seeks to accommodate the interests of group identity (mother tongues and regional languages), national pride and unity (Hindi), and administrative efficiency and technological progress (English).”
The Act was a product of a half-hearted compromise between two groups, one which chose Hindi as the official language, and the other which did not favour Hindi as the official language. The bone of contention between these two groups were the other prevalent languages in the country, along with the non-Hindi speaking population. Adopting Hindi as the national language of the country would be unfair to the 600 million non-Hindi speakers, and hinder the growth and development of these communities, and states. This became the single most divisive official issue in the Indian Constituent Assembly.
The linguistic divide
Post independence, Hindi as an official language was proposed to give an independent identity to the nation, fulfilling Mahatma Gandhi’s vision. Having multiple official languages was not feasible, as Dr B.R. Ambedkar stated, “One language can unite people. Two languages are sure to divide people. This is an inexorable law.” Most regional languages were found unsuitable due to their provincial limitations. Hindi, as the mother tongue of about 40% of the population, understood by a large proportion of the non-Hindi speaking population, was found most appropriate. However, the unfair proposal ignited debates and agitations throughout the country.
On the verge of losing its unity, the Constituent Assembly came up with the Munshi-Ayyangar formula which ultimately gave rise to the Official Languages Act of 1963. According to this formula, English was to continue as the official language of India along with Hindi for an interim period of fifteen years, but the limit was elastic, and the power of extension was given to the Parliament. Even at the end of these fifteen years, non-Hindi states were found to be unwilling to accept Hindi as the national language. Hence, to prevent violence, the Act was amended to extend the usage of English. Despite being viewed as ‘symbol of slavery’, English was chosen as the accompanying, unifying official language for its association with employment and empowerment, on a global scale.
Hindi was chosen by The Official Language Commission’s report “not because it is better developed than the other regional languages; not because a greater or more varied wealth of literary output is available in it; not because it has presently a large availability of books in sciences and in different other branches of modern knowledge. It was chosen…because it happens to be understood and spoken by the largest number of people.” This, despite being true, must not be at the cost of regional languages which form as much a part of our linguistic diversity, if not more. In addition, our pride in Hindi as our official language must not be misused, wielded as a political instrument to promote India as a solely ‘Hindu Rashtra’.
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