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This seems like one of those things you take for granted about India…but read on and the answer might surprise you!

What’s India’s National Language?

Did you say Hindi?

Well…that is the wrong answer. The right answer is that India has no National Language!

This may come as a bit of a surprise to many – but India its true that India does not have a designated national language.

While many believe that Hindi is the national language of the country, it is nothing more than a widely held impression. While a list of scheduled/ official languages has been set out in the Indian Constitution, there is no reference to a national lingua franca.

Why does India not have a national language?

As one knows only too well, linguistic diversity is one of the remarkable features about India. While there are 22 official languages, there are several more in reality and if one includes dialects, the list runs into several hundreds.

All the languages being regional however, make it impossible for using in official work between the central government and the states. For interstate communication would require a common language and the need for a common official language was born.

When the Constitution was drafted in the late 1940s, there was no single language spoken across the Indian territory.

“In the months after independence, the choice of a national language, got mired in acute controversy; emotionally, it has still not been resolved. What prevails is only a temporary truce, with two official languages (Hindi and English) in one nation!”

Fali Nariman, The State of the Nation

In accordance with the prevailing conditions, the Constitution created a provision for English to be used as an official language for a period of 15 years along with Hindi.

In other words, while English was to be permitted temporarily, at the end of 15 years from the passing of the Constitution i.e. from 26th January, 1965, only Hindi was to become the official medium of communication between the Centre and the States.

As the 15 years were coming to a close, massive protests began across South India.

Owing to these protests, the duration for the usage of English as an official language, was extended indefinitely.

The case for and against a single national language

A look at the map of Europe seems to suggest that each nation ought to have a single language. While India is not the only multilingual nation in the world, linguistic diversity is one of the remarkable hallmarks of the country.

While one may feel that having a single national language is essential, many leaders like C Rajagopalachari and E.V.Ramaswamy warned about its potential dangers. Others like Ram Manohar Lohia argued vehemently against the use of English as an official language.

The advocates of Hindi argue that English is a foreign language. Further that it is wrong for India to have the language of its colonial oppressor as one of its official languages.

Ram Manohar Lohia, one of the greatest advocates of the anti-English movement formed an ‘English Removal Committee’ as he saw English as a language of the Indian elite and of foreign origin. He said  “An Indian child is driven mad right from the age of 5 and he suffers this disability throughout his life. Overburdened with the learning of a foreign language, he hardly reaches the core of a subject and attains depth…. Rescue the Indian schoolboy, his mind and body, from the inhuman burden of English… English is a compulsory subject in our educational curriculum. A majority of candidates failed in it and their careers are shipwrecked. What a colossal waste of national wealth and time!”

Ram Manohar Lohia was an advocate of Hindi and argued against the use of English

On the other hand, we have C Rajagopalachari, said “Let no one imagine that I have lost my love for India or my concern for all its parts. Indeed it is greater than ever, and it is that which now makes me talk and write in this unpleasant way. The Hindi-speaking people injure themselves in the long run by pressing that their mother tongue should be accepted as the Union official language by those who do not speak it. I beg of them to concentrate on their work at state level and declare the match drawn at the Union level and leave the status quo intact with no threats hanging over the heads of people. Let English continue.”

Why do some states in the south have a problem with Hindi? How different are the languages of the south from those spoken in the north? I will be writing about the languages and linguistic diversity of India in another post. Sign up for the Site Newsletter to stay posted.

According to Census 2011, Hindi is the language of less than 44 per cent Indians and mother tongue of only little over 25 per cent people in India.

India Today

In the meantime, lessons for the dangers of imposing a single language on a nation are not too far at hand. Jinnah and the Pakistani state tried to impose Urdu as the single language of its citizens. That became a cause of resentment for the Bengali speakers of East Pakistan, leading finally to cessation and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Likewise the imposition of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka led to the Tamils feeling excluded, adding fuel to the separatist movement in the country.

 “That is the greatest fallacy of all, the notion that unity is brought about by the adoption of Hindi as the official language of the Union. What is brought about is protests, dissatisfaction and discord, not unity.”

C Rajagopalachari (as quoted by Ramchandra Guha in Makers of Modern India)

To conclude, one may well ask – Is it necessary for a nation to have a national language? Yes, everyone else seems to have one but can we not be different? Some have more than a single national language…should we follow that model? Is it really a loss of prestige to have English as our official language? What’s the harm, What’re the gains for each scenario?

Food for Thought. Food for Debate. One of the many things about India that leave you stumped!

This episode is now also available as a Podcast.

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Comments(2)

    • v.ramesh

    • 1 week ago

    India is more a union of several states and regions which chose to come under the banner of one nation, because of the several shared values and cultural commonalities with the Hindu religion as the binding force. Even though vedas and other literatures mention about Bharatha Kandam , it was not a single nation but a conglomeration of several kingdoms. Most of the Indian states are as big or even bigger than many european nations. So each can and should have its own language for communication and other purposes within the states but can have an official language to communicate between them. No need for a national language! A single National flag unites but a single National Language divides!

      • mallikashashikanth

      • 2 days ago

      Well said! Growing up in Mumbai which is a bridge in many ways between north and south, I see good reason on both sides of this debate. And am happy that I can understand and speak in languages of both north and south. Hence I chose to present both sides and leave the question to the reader 🙂

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