Limits of state power in language policy

The federal texture of our polity, which is already under strain on various fronts, will be further weakened by the perceived hegemony of Hindi.

Published: 23rd April 2022 01:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd April 2022 01:09 AM   |  A+A-

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For representational purposes (Express Illustrations| Amit Bandre)

Governments survive and act on the notion that the state is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Of course, a sovereign state has constitutional legitimacy and legislative authority backed by the executive machinery, muscle and financial resources to be omnipotent and omnipresent. It can lawfully interfere with the lives of individuals and their guaranteed freedoms for larger causes.

In our democracy, anchored in an elaborate and sensitive Constitution, the tendency of the state to play the Almighty is properly curbed, though all governments instinctively try to weaken these restrictive and cautionary strands. In our history of the past seven decades, we have often witnessed governments in power - at the Centre and states, emboldened by electoral victories and the advantage of numbers in Legislature and Parliament - embarking on policy misadventures.

It is often said that real strength lies in recognising not only one’s power but limitations as well. Oblivious to the limitations of state power and obsessed with its might, governments have often invited social disquiet through myopic policies. Nowhere is this folly proven more strikingly than in matters that touch people’s culture, faith and emotion. Language is one such emotive domain where the authority-driven decisions of the state have floundered in the past and shall falter in the future.

The recent observation by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on the desirability of Hindi as the link language and discontinuing the use of English is a typical example of power overlooking limitations. In a multi-linguistic mosaic that is India, any policy prescription on language by those in authority is fraught with dangers.

Every state in India created on linguistic lines is proud of their tongue. Almost all Indian languages have a rich heritage and vibrant literature. With 22 constitutionally recognised languages, we as a nation have survived and walked together by devising unique communication strategies.

These preferences are reflected in our educational institutions, official communication systems, and in our willingness to accept and respect each language. The moment one tongue, primarily on the basis of the numerical strength of the speakers, is suggested as the link language, this hard-won accommodative peace is unnecessarily disturbed and ominously threatened. English, though a foreign tongue, is as much Indian today as any other Indian language. Over a period of time, non-Hindi speaking people have found English to be the most convenient medium to communicate across language barriers.

It is important to remember that this arrangement did not come about following any government diktat. It is the outcome of operational convenience. People follow what is comfortable and convenient in matters of culture and language and not what the government directs. This is not a paean for English or a denunciation of Hindi. The latter is a rich and beautiful language and is appreciated by all Indians without any hesitation.

That acceptance is of course not the outcome of the Hindi promotion policy of the government. More than any government, it is the Bollywood films and songs that have done great service to Hindi and won it widespread and willing acceptance. But the moment the government intervenes and commands, 'from now onwards Hindi shall be the link language', the equation changes.

Languages in the states too have flourished not because of government policies and support but by the cumulative contribution of the writers, performers, cinema, print media, TV, publishing houses and other non-state interventions. Of course, governments have a role in ensuring a language gets its rightful place in education and administration.

Many states have done well to protect and promote their mother tongues against the social poaching of English at the expense of the mother tongue. The National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 has rightly underscored the need for encouraging education in the mother tongue. It may not be entirely misplaced if this prescription in the NEP is interpreted as a long-term strategy to ensure the hegemony of Hindi. No one can be blamed if the home minister's wish to replace English with Hindi as the link language is seen as part of a larger design.

As mentioned earlier, no Indian is against Hindi or for that matter any other language, but even the faint suggestion of imposition of a language backed with the authority of the state instantly touches raw nerves. It is not because there is anything against a language. It is the role of the government and the perceived intent that evoke resentment. In the present instance, the suggestion to replace English with Hindi is rebuffed and resented not out of love for the former but out of the fear of hegemony of a majority language.

It might also have cultural connotations in the present climate of mistrust. English on the other hand is culture neutral. The federal texture of our polity, which is already under strain on various fronts, will be weakened by the perceived hegemony of Hindi. The apparently innocent suggestion of the home minister with umpteen ramifications has been predictably seen as yet another instrument for over-centralisation.

English as the link language is an admirable arrangement that has come to stay. It developed spontaneously and is being practised willingly. Any suggestion to tinker with it (for whatever reason) is unwise and unwanted. The country has hundreds of painful issues craving for the attention of the mighty state. In matters relating to language, the last word has never been that of the government.

(The writer is former Kerala chief secretary & ex-VC of Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University and can be reached at


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