Language debate and lessons from South Korea

The row over Hindi as the national language within the south, especially Tamil Nadu, has a long history even while other states such as Karnataka adopted the three-language formula.
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations| Amit Bandre)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations| Amit Bandre)

The North-South divide in the treatment of Hindi as the ‘national language’ erupted all over again recently with the Twitter spat between Ajay Devgn, a popular Bollywood actor, and Kiccha Sudeep, a Kannada actor. The spat started when Devgn tweeted in response to a statement made by Sudeep to a Karnataka TV channel, where he opined that with south films like RRR, KGF2 and Pushpa recording box-office success in the Hindi heartland as well, Hindi was no longer a national language. Devgn’s tweet in Hindi said, “Hindi was, is and will always remain our mother tongue and national language.”

India does not have a national language. Article 343 (1) of the Indian Constitution states, “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.” The Constitution adds that English is also an official language and that the Union must promote the spread of Hindi to “serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India”.

The 2011 Census recorded the proportion of the Indian population speaking Hindi as the first language was only 43.6%. Little wonder then that the attempt to push it as the official language in the non-Hindi speaking belt has met with huge resistance.

The row over Hindi as the national language within the south, especially Tamil Nadu, has a long history even while other states such as Karnataka adopted the three-language formula. In Tamil Nadu, in 1937, when C Rajagopalachari, the Premier of the Madras Presidency, sought to make Hindi compulsory in secondary schools, E V Ramasamy (called Periyar), spearheaded a campaign against Hindi. The British government, however, made Hindi optional in 1940. The issue became a political hot potato, when in 1965, reports regarding the replacement of English with Hindi as the official language led to a fresh round of anti-Hindi protests. The DMK rose to power on the back of the anti-Hindi agitation in 1967. Chief Minister C N Annadurai repealed the three-language formula of the Central government and announced a two-language policy based on Tamil and English. This state policy has remained in place, irrespective of the political party in power. The Tamil Nadu government, recently, again rejected the suggestion of a three-language policy contained in the New Education Policy (NEP).

The creative media industry, where the present row has emerged, represents less than 1% of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, the direct impact of the industry, with an output of $15.6 billion and 7.4 lakh employees, hardly captures the extent of the sector’s impact. There is also an indirect multiplier effect on other industries like tourism and ancillary sectors. For instance, the movie 3 Idiots has many scenes set in Ladakh—reports found that this increased tourism in the region by 2.4 times. This would increase employment and also create other opportunities within the local economy indirectly.

One country that provides a role model for development through the creative economy is South Korea. The Chinese used the term Hallyu (literally translated as the Korean Wave) to refer to the growing global popularity of South Korea’s creative economy, especially the entertainment industry, including K-pop and other forms of music, television, dramas and movies. Through Hallyu and its cultural exports, South Korea has used a soft power strategy to grow not just its GDP, but also its appeal to a global audience. One has to think of K-pop groups like the BTS and Blackpink, Korean movies like Parasite, Silenced, etc. and their appeal to non-Korean audiences to get a sense of the extent of soft power wielded. The policy of cultural exports also helped the country break into the league of high income nations in a very short span of time, from a GDP per capita of $6,610 in 1990 to $31,610 in 2020.

It is clear that India and its creative industry have much to learn from its South Korean counterparts. Clearly, language can be no barrier to garner larger audiences, as the success of Indian regional language cinema within the nation and that of South Korean movies, music and TV shows across the rest of the world has demonstrated. Movie stars like Devgn must use their energy to think about how to increase the attractiveness of India and Indian culture in the rest of the world, rather than squabble over the use and superiority of Hindi over regional languages. With 22 scheduled languages (including Hindi), and the presence of its diaspora across the globe, India possesses a mine of soft power, which it should tap at the earliest.

Tulsi Jayakumar

Professor, Economics and Executive Director, Centre for Family Business & Entrepreneurship at Bhavan’s SPJIMR

(Views are personal)


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