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Transcending Linguistic Imperialism

Transcending Linguistic Imperialism

By Anvita Abbi

Language is more than a mere academic subject in India. It is a reflection of identity and dominance. The basic principle for the reorganisation of states in 1956 carved out from the pre-existing colonial provinces was to identify and demarcate the country on the basis of the demographically strong linguistic communities. However, this process of carving different states overlooked the multiplicity of languages that existed in every state. Inevitably, we ignored the identity of those who were outnumbered by the larger language communities.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Over the years of post-independent India, the demand for more independent states increased. The reason being that increased number of communities expressed the urge to have their linguistic identity established by demanding separate states. Thus, Gujarat and Maharashtra were born from the Bombay state in 1960. In 1963, Nagaland, Punjab and Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Mizoram followed suit. Each one of them was carved out of a bigger state or province. Later, political, ethnic, and economic reasons resulted in the carving out separate states, viz. Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttaranchal, and Telangana. However, not all the new states had their majority language being represented in the Eighth Schedule. This was another holy grill of the independent India (1950). The Eighth Schedule initially declared only 14 official languages, but now consists of 22.

The Nettlesome Eighth

The want for being included in the Eighth Schedule was not so much for the ‘love thy language’ claims. Rather, it has been for the monetary and power gains. The recent additions to the list include Dogri in Jammu and Kashmir, Santali in Jharkhand, Bodo in Assam, Maithili in Bihar, Nepali in Sikkim, and Meitei in Manipur. Yet, the extent of  official work conducted in these languages and the seriousness with which they are implemented in schools  needs to be ascertained.

It is an exercise of the big fish swallowing the small ones – the economically and politically weak languages.

Inclusion in the Eighth Schedule is not dependent on the quantum of speakers. As otherwise, Sanskrit with its merely 0.01 million speakers would not have fit the bill. Nor is it dependent on the rich literary tradition of the language. In that case, Braj and Awadhi and not Hindi, that is spoken in Uttar Pradesh, would have been the candidates. It is an exercise of the big fish swallowing the small ones – the economically and politically weak languages. The glaring example of the same can be seen in the reductionist policy of subsuming 49 ‘varieties’ of Hindi under the name of ‘Hindi’. Ironically, some of them are not even mutually intelligible.

The Problem With Appeasing All

Language wars in the country are not new;  they are the result of  languages being the power tool of the dominating class. This is either defined by religion or by geographical location causing the ‘fear’ of being dominated. Thus, in pre-independent India, Bihar witnessed an uprising against Hindi when Urdu was seen as being faded out by the Hindu majority. Similarly, Tamil Nadu viewed Hindi as an ‘imposition’ to establish the domination of North India.

Article 343-351 of the Indian Constitution gives enough choice to each state to choose its language of education and communication within the state. They must keep in mind the multi-religious, multicultural and multi-ethnic population of each state or union.

Indian schools follow the three language rule, which ignores the importance of knowing the local languages and prioritises Hindi and English, fostering a sense of non-belonging. | Source: Scroll

Indian schools follow the three language rule, which ignores the importance of knowing the local languages, fostering alienation. | Source: Scroll

However, this has led to two significant decisions. For one, the policy of the three language formula that specified teaching of Hindi and English in every state in addition to the major Eighth scheduled state language. Secondly, the declaration of only a few state-recognized official languages as mentioned in Eighth Schedule.The outcome of these decisions was not encouraging. The first one ignored the dire need of the rural population who needed to be educated in their local languages, viz. their mother tongues. For some of them, even the state language or Hindi seems  as ‘foreign’ as ‘English’ or ‘French’.  The second one, on the other hand, started a war amongst communities  in a bid to have their languages ‘recognized’ as official languages.

The Importance of Indigenity

By not imparting education in our  mother tongue in the early stages of life, we not only deprive children of developing their cognitive abilities but we are also becoming instrumental in violating the fundamental rights to education and freedom of speech.

A large drop-out rate in the rural areas from school is because of non-comprehensibility of teaching material. By not being able to express in their local indigenous languages, we are destroying a rich source of the knowledge system.

A more serious issue is that our indigenous languages are not represented in the judicial system. Consequently,  we are unable to deliver justice to the communities whose voices are not heard because they are silenced by the organised behaviour of their protectors. This is the situation even after 69 years of independence. We still do not have an evolved judiciary system where a common man can complain and discuss the matter in his own language. The complainant is always at the mercy of translation, which is far from his comprehension and familiarity.  He or she is, thus, forced to accept the verdict in silence.  Muffling the voices creates insecurity and fear.

Looking Ahead

The introduction of the native languages in our education system is not sufficient if it is not of good quality.

By all means necessary, we have to fight linguistic imperialism. This can be achieved by instituting and promoting multilingual education in phases (MEP). This is the only way in which we can arrest linguistic genocide, and empower the marginalised societies to resist the domination of the glorified major language speakers. This will also discourage a language shift and ensure the survival of the so-called ‘minor’ languages in the long run. The introduction of the native languages in our education system is not sufficient if it is not of good quality. Poor quality education in the respective mother tongues has been a major cause of children shifting from mother tongue medium school to state dominant language schools.

Hindi – The Consolidator

Despite the uproar against Hindi by some states, one has to admit that Hindi in its various avatars is the only language that  facilitates inter-ethnic and interstate communication. It belongs to the masses and  has brought  social mobility across states and the social enhancement of several states in the Northeast.


It is imperative that Hindi be used to unify the diversity of languages in India, starting from classrooms. | Source: Youtube

Additionally, Hindi is positively linked with economic development in many Northeastern states too. It is also the biggest leveller across disparate communities and has been the sole reason for inter-tribe marriages in Arunachal Pradesh. The proof that spoken Hindi is a language that is acceptable all over India[1] and is important to communicate across the nation was recently observed in the statement made by Satyanarayana, the coach of Varun Singh Bhati, the bronze winner at the Rio Olympics and Thangavelu Mariyappan. He said “I want Mariyappan to learn Hindi because it is the  language essential for communication everywhere in India. That is why I deliberately put him with Bhati, who speaks Hindi fluently..”.

Dr. Anvita Abbi, Padma Shri, is a linguist and scholar of minority languages, known for her studies on tribal languages and other minority languages of South Asia.


[1] Abbi, Anvita, Gupta, R.S. and Gargesh R. 1998-2000. A Sociolinguistic Enquiry into the Acceptance level of Hindi as a Pan-Indian Language. New Delhi: ICSSR Report.

Featured Image Source: Unsplash

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