Why language diversity matter?

Not surprisingly, however, as questions of political reform and responsive government gained ground, provincial reorganisation soon got linked to the idea of culturally unified provinces.

Published: 01st January 2023 06:54 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st January 2023 06:54 AM   |  A+A-

GN Devy

GN Devy, People’s Linguistic Survey of India Chairperson

By Express News Service

Sir Herbert Risley, then British Home Secretary, wrote to Lord Curzon in December 1903 proposing the transfer of Chittagong, Dacca and Mymensingh divisions to Assam to allow for the reorganisation of the Bengal Presidency towards administrative efficiency.

Not surprisingly, however, as questions of political reform and the responsive government gained ground, provincial reorganisation soon got linked to the idea of culturally unified provinces. As a result, Bengal was proposed to be partitioned in 1905 into East Bengal and West Bengal. This created stiff resistance from the people.

A decade later, when the question of deciding on the defining principle for demarcating provinces was discussed in the Congress Session of 1917, Annie Besant strongly opposed religious segregation. In 1928 at the Lucknow Congress meeting, the committee to prepare a draft constitution headed by Motilal Nehru proposed that the free Indian state shall have no religion.

It also adopted a resolution to permit the use of English along with Hindustani for the work of the Centre. Both these ideas found an honourable place in the Indian Constitution in 1949. 

After Independence, though Jawaharlal Nehru accepted the principle of linguistic and cultural identity as the determining principle for state formation, he cautioned against excessive language pride becoming a threat to India’s national unity. Andhra Pradesh became the first such linguistic state to be created in the wake of violent popular agitation. In 1953, the State Reorganisation Commission was set up and SG Barve was deputed to the USSR to study the Russian experience of handling language diversity.

During the 1950s, 14 States and nine Union Territories were created. In the 1960s, Punjab was created as a result of the agitation led by Sant Fateh Singh and Master Tara Singh, and during the 1970s the North Eastern States was created. 

‘Govt should not impose Hindi’

In recent years, the process of creation/ demand of smaller states, as largely monolingual entities, has continued, Telangana being the last such instance. The entire process indicates clearly that though India accepted nineteenth-century ideas of nationalism for its freedom struggle, it has never endorsed the one nation-one language theory.

The Constituent Assembly debates show a great understanding of India as a linguistically plural nation. Often the question asked is, how many languages does India have? It is difficult to provide an answer with any certainty. The 1961 Census presented a list of 1,652 ‘Mother Tongues’. Fifty years later, the 2011 Census admitted 1,369 ‘mother tongues’. It is necessary to note that what the Census lists as ‘Mother Tongue’ does not get listed in its final report as ‘Language’.

The Census filters the name by applying a variety of nonlinguistic criteria such as the minimum number of speakers (10,000 or above), having a known grammar (reported by professional linguists) and so on. Yet, it is clear that India lost in the period of fifty years between the two Census exercises 283 ‘mother tongues’, at the mechanically averaged rate of some 5.6 mother tongues a year.

The ‘mother tongues’ of the 1961 Census were ‘grouped together’ under 109 ‘language heads’, of which 10 were names of languages and the 109th was titled ‘all others’. The 2011 census had grouped the mother tongues under 121 ‘languages’, of which 22 are included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution and 99 ‘non-scheduled’ languages. Going by the final figures, one may get the impression that the number of ‘languages’ increased from 108 to 121 during the span of half a century since Independence. In reality, India has lost several hundred languages in that very span of time.

Language is one issue for governments, quite another for the people. Governments look at language as a burden on the exchequer, a potential trigger for disputes, agitations and law and order matters. People think of languages as a matter of inheritance, cultural traditions and their intimate means of expression, rights and social relations.

No pro-people language policy can allow indifference to a people’s choice of language. BJP’s insistence on promoting Hindi at the cost of other major languages is as anti-people in a multilingual society as is any particular state’s policy of neglecting the languages of the linguistic minorities within that state. UNESCO accepts that at present there are about 7,000 living languages in the world.

If one were to look at the top 30 of those in terms of the number of speakers, Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati and Punjabi fall within that group. Of these top thirty, if one were to look at the five languages with the longest histories, Tamil, Kannada and Marathi fall in the category. Hindi is probably the newest/ youngest in the top 30.

If that is the case, the Central government must make extra efforts to promote Tamil, Kannada and Marathi rather than constantly raising the war cry in favour of Hindi. Nobody in India is against Hindi, but people of all other languages will most surely be against its imposition.

The BJP’s Hindi-Hindutva equation is, therefore, fundamentally flawed from the perspective of history, Linguistics and also of enlightened and democratic governance. One would like to hope that the coercive language policy and language promotion will be brought to an end allowing India to sustain itself as a ‘union of states’ as the Constitution defines it.

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