Use of Odia in government work long overdue

The state’s first BJP government rode to power by placing ‘Odia Asmita’ and language pride at the core of the people’s identity.
Odisha CM  Mohan Charan Majhi
Odisha CM Mohan Charan MajhiExpress Illustrations

After Odisha Chief Minister Mohan Charan Majhi began officiating from the state secretariat following a ritualistic entry last week, his first direction was to use Odia language in all official work. It was an order—and a message, too. The state’s first BJP government rode to power by placing ‘Odia Asmita’ and language pride at the core of the people’s identity.

Majhi’s instruction was clear—Odia will be the language for administration, and if necessary, the Odisha Official Language Act will be amended to implement the order. Use of the regional language is not only a definitive symbol of identity, but also helps in making governance more accessible to the people, empowering them to voice opinions without a linguistic barrier.

Odisha achieved its provincial status in 1936 purely on linguistic basis. Yet, the state has struggled to use Odia as its official language even 77 years after independence. It was among the earliest states to have an official language legislation in 1954, which has been amended at least five times. The previous Naveen Patnaik government that ruled the state for 24 years was at a loss to explain its stand on not using Odia for all administrative work despite being a regional party. This was successfully used against it during the recent elections.

It would be prudent to go back to the history of the Odisha Official Language Act to know why it has faced an undercurrent of resistance. Language historians have pointed out that when Nabakrushna Choudhuri, the state’s first elected chief minister, mooted the plan, the opposition was from the top bureaucracy. The Gandhian freedom fighter, though, was not one to be deterred and pushed ahead with the legislation in 1954. Over the years, the resistance kept rearing its head through different amendments.

The law was amended in 1963 to allow the use of English for transactions in the state legislature. In 1985, another amendment barred the use of Odia numerals and permitted the international form of Indian numerals. The latest change in 2018 introduced both reward for officials using Odia and punishment for those who did not; but it never laid out a clear framework for enforcement, making it ineffective. In his push for Odia, Majhi has to do two things—amend the law if needed and ensure his bureaucracy is ready for the change.

Odisha CM  Mohan Charan Majhi
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