The one nation, one language fallacy

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News: Recently, the Union Home Minister at the Parliamentary Official Language Committee urged the use of Hindu as the lingua franca, rather than English, in inter-State communication.

Background of demand for national language 

V.D. Savarkar articulated the slogan, ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’. He was first to advocate the idea of Hindi to be declared the national language.  

R.V. Dhulekar, a Constituent Assembly member, stated in the Assembly, “You may belong – to another nation but I belong to Indian nation, the Hindi Nation, the Hindu Nation, the Hindustani Nation.” 

Why should Hindi not be promoted as the official language? 

India is a multilingual society. Indians speak Kashmiri, Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit and others.

Hindi is spoken by not more than 30% of the population. Therefore, it is neither a lingua franca (a pan-Indian language) nor a dominant language of the people of India.”.  

As per records, the 2011 Census presented Hindi as the ‘mother tongue’ of over 52 crore people. However, it subsumed nearly 61 other languages (like Bhojpuri) spoken in parts of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.  

There is a linguistic pluralism in Indian society. As per the 1961 Census, there were a total of 1,652 ‘mother tongues’ in India. Out of the total only 184 ‘mother tongues’ had more than 10,000 speakers.   

There are power dynamics and identity issues related to languages. Therefore, it may lead to language-based discrimination. For example, Kashmiri language suffers in its land of birth by the dominance of Urdu (the state language). In addition, many other South Asian languages are dominated by Hindi.  

The imposition of one language is based on the misinterpretation of the political map as cultural map and linguistic or the misinterpretation of the cultural maps as political map.  

What is wrong with the idea of one nation, one language?

There are problems with the romantic notion of “one nation, one language” which means imposition of One language over a large geographic zone of multi-lingual landmass

The imposition of one language over others leads to hatredness against the imposed language. For example,

a) Sri Lanka declared Sinhalese as the sole official language with the exclusion of Tamil. It led to the eruption of the demand for a separate Tamil nation

– b) the Eastern Pakistan (later Bangladesh) partitioned from Western Pakistan because the latter was imposing Urdu on the former. Urdu was being imposed to unify them as Urdu will mediate between the two distinct cultural zones in which the former was a Bengali speaking territory and the latter was a Punjabi speaking territory. 

In contrast, the nations that accommodated linguistic diversity prospered. For example,

– a) Singapore has a multi-ethnic population (Chinese, Malay and Indian). In contrast, Singapore opted for English as the official language. English language proficiency also made the city state a global business hub. Otherwise, the country would have fallen apart

– b) South Africa’s national anthem is a five-language lyrical composition. It has accommodative linguistic policy which helped it to become the emerging leader of the African continent

Way Forward 

India should have a robust language policy. Their policy should emphasise on the quality of language learning in public universities.

Instead of focusing on how many languages or which language should be taught, the focus should be on how to study language structurally and systematically in a multilingual landscape like South Asia. 

India should emulate the multi-linguistic accommodative policy of Singapore and South Africa; instead of the disastrous linguistic chauvinism of Pakistan or Sri Lanka.  

Imposition of Hindi as a lingua franca would initiate the phonocide of other Indian languages. 

Source: The post is based on the article “The one nation, one language fallacy” published in the Indian Express on 30th April 2022, and the article “A step that would trigger language phonocide” published in The Hindu on 30th April 2022 

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