The identity of an Indian and the role of his language

A language is simply an agent for the purposes of advanced communication. Its life solely depends on repeated use and necessity. But, A language is also a carrier of history and a unique way of expression.

It instills a sense of sustainable self-esteem- the ability to confidently express oneself in their indigenous form instills a strong belief and drive toward development.

India, a country that is largely remembered as a British Colony that ‘fought’ for its independence in a non-violent and orderly manner. Since then, India, or Gandhi as a representative, has been an icon for non-violence to the rest of the world, however, India remains an icon of poverty and violence against women. Many Indians would fight to censor those words, not because they are untrue but not the whole truth. The intention of censoring, then, seems fair. But, can we truly censor the grievances of those Indians who have an equal right to the Identity of being Indian as do those from the Hindi belt?

Diversity is a never-ending wave of life on the Indian Subcontinent. Amidst that diversity, we have sustained a democracy that is not in absolute turmoil and internal conflict. The type of unity that we foster in India is unique and somewhat functional but not healthy for the well-being of its constituents. The determination of nation has inevitably given the world an impression that Indians are simply one homogenous entity only differentiated by caste and religion. Indians speak Hindi and look a certain way. This is simply how the central government represents itself. It becomes a major problem when Indian citizens also buy into this false perception of what India is. India is a ‘nation of nations’, each with a long and contributing history. This projection of a certain identity by the majority alienates the rest and leaves them believing that ‘Indian’ is a label that can be attained but not given. A determination of right or wrong is a relative assessment, and so, I will use examples of countries who are just about or equally diverse as India, linguistically, culturally or otherwise, to comparatively assess how India has decided to move forward in the past 70 years.

We have constantly chanted the words ‘Unity in Diversity’. Rightly so, we remain unified in diversity but for how long? The Indian subcontinent, over millennia, has been ‘united’ under one empire only a few times and for brief periods of time by the Mauryas, Guptas, Mughals, Maratha, and to a lesser extent Vijayanagar. Of course, there was never a time when the entire subcontinent (or even India in and of itself) was under one rule. Therefore, when I refer to the unification, it suggests a significant proportion but not all. The lack of a unified rule for long periods of time like the Europeans or the Chinese led to the sustenance of many developed languages and cultures (this is ignoring tribal and other languages). Some of the languages that India boasts have a long history behind them. For instance, Sanskrit and Tamil are two of the oldest living languages in the world (if we consider Sanskrit to still be living).
Given all this diversity, we find ourselves in an awkward position where we are trying to adopt the new-found European approach of ‘one land, one language’. Where would one start for the creation of that language? Do we do what the Indonesians did?

What has India done?

Looking at the mammoth constitution of the Republic of India, or as I would prefer to call it – the Union of India (this is an important perspective which reminds us that India was not conquered, by any one of us, but was formed by all of us with consent.). It is quite clear that Hindi was intended to be phased in as the national language with English as a temporary language of the Union.[1] They intended to stop the use of a foreign language for basic formal use, and that intention is fair. However, one could easily argue that the prevalence of English in India has allowed for easy transition into Global markets. This has, in turn, helped establish the economic boom for the past two decades. But whether the phasing in of Hindi would have stopped the use of English, especially with its growing importance, is impossible to prove.

The constitution states that Hindi was to be phased in, all over the country, after a period of 15 years. In 1965, the state of Madras (a grouping of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu), mostly in the Tamil regions, protested (it is usually referred to as the Anti-Hindi Agitations) the ‘imposition’ of a foreign language, in this case- Hindi, as a compulsory language to be taught in schools. This threatened the survival of other languages in India in that it would serve no purpose. With no political, or academic use, a language is doomed to break apart and mold into an unstructured ‘trend’. This, rightly so, does not sit well with those cultures (i.e. the South and the North-east) who don’t have a largely unified evolution of their languages with the north and west. This is not a theory or a superstitious fear but a witnessed consequence of a top-down language policy. When Mexico gained its independence, in 1810, the majority of the country did not speak Spanish. History teaches us that the fear of losing the language, not to evolution but to power, is justified.

China

Didn’t think that China had more than one linguistic group? There are approximately 9 linguistic families in China. I don’t want to go into much depth, but I will simply state that China is not as diverse as it was or could have been. A 2013 report even states that 400 million (30% of the population) Chinese citizens could not speak Mandarin (The official language of the Republic). Need I remind you that majority of the Indian populous does not speak Hindi.
With Mandarin mostly being the language of education, government, business, media, the minority languages have lost its importance. Indeed, few of these languages are close to extinction. That said, we cannot save every language spoken, especially, if too few a people speak the language. It would, generally, have no market, media, or societal influence. Nonetheless, there is no effort to save these languages after a prolonged unitary use of Mandarin for all official, academic, and commercial purposes.

China is an example of an extreme version of events of what India has tried to accomplish with its constituents. China hasn’t shied away from the principle of ‘Might is right’.

Indonesia

Indonesia is easily a big contender for population diversity. In 1945, the year of its independence, Javanese was spoken by the greatest proportion of the population, however, it wasn’t adopted as the national language. Instead, the then government of Soekarno used Malay to create a language for Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia) whilst incorporating words from various linguistic groups from within the country. They were quick to understand the importance of language to bring the country to together as one. While this was a middle ground, major languages like Javanese and Sundanese have largely no use and this has fueled the younger generation to not bother learning it. Nonetheless, this approach does not pick one linguistic culture over the others, all of them began with the same disadvantage.

Nigeria

Another country formed after ruthless British colonial rule is very similar to the Indian demographic in terms of diversity and culture. With over 400 languages, Nigeria operates with English as an official language as there are 3 big players in language politics- the Ibo, Hausa, and Yoruba.

The common denominator in the Nigerian and Indonesian case studies is their fair attempt to achieve common ground. Regardless of what happens, the minority languages will die due to the achieved irrelevance. The same can be said about 1000s of languages in India that don’t have an official use, either in states or otherwise. Languages are going to die and there is not much we can do about it, but we can stop the intentional obstruction of development of other large languages such as Bengali, Punjabi, Telegu, and Tamil, among others.

English is a middle ground just like Bahasa Indonesia is a middle ground for a diverse population to meet at. Language politics has been gaining momentum in India because of the growing presence of Hindi in states that have no historical affinity or special use for Hindi. Hindi simply exists to provide ease of access for those who speak Hindi. Those who are familiar with the history of the subcontinent should know that the Indian subcontinent consisted of independent, yet united, nations. While it is true that having one language creates a bond that mimics that of family, it shouldn’t form because of the death of other rich histories.

The Tamils are specifically known for opposition to the use of Hindi. This is not unique to them but their knowledge of the fact that their history spans so far back gives them the self-respect to not allow their way of expression or their people to become second class. India is a creation, so is the idea that we have one language that carries all our history and represents our way of expression. Being multilingual is an amazing trait and one that I admire. If nothing stops us from learning French, then nothing stops us from learning each other’s language out of interest rather than top-down imposition

From safety instructions on a gas cylinder, domestic airline announcements, government examinations, embassy communications all in two foreign languages, it has the power to alienate. This is evidently not a level playing field because non-Hindi speaking Indians must learn an extra foreign language, which happens to be the mother tongue of almost half the population. Although trivial, the addition of Hindi in railway stations in states that do not speak Hindi only aim to gain acceptance and simplify travel for Hindi speakers. What about the simplification of travel for almost half of the population?

Imagine that either the official languages that your country worked in were foreign languages. Not only, are you left feeling less Indian, you do not have the ease of access into government jobs. The presence of English makes it possible to counter this disadvantage. Like I stated before, English is the language of international trade, therefore, it would still remain a language that we would have to learn anyway. Furthermore, while it is still a foreign language, it is that for every Indian.

Nonetheless, this creates inequity of access for different classes of people and creates an image of English being the language of the clever and rich. Having such an image should be left in the past in the horror of colonialism. The British may have left, but their institutions remain, our heightened view of their language, skin color, and demeanor still exist. So, why are we surprised that we use a language that happens to be theirs?

[1] The Constitution of India, Part V- The Union, Article 120 (2); Part XVII, Chapter 1, Article 343 (1)
[2] https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/enough-hindi-imposition-stop-wasting-time-and-money-shove-it-down-our-throats-49903

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