Though many political interests are vested in proving it to be so, Hindi is not the national language of the Indian Union. Neither is it ‘rashtrabhasha’ – if you prefer that term. There is nothing called ‘national language’ or ‘rashtrabhasha’ in the Constitution of India. If you tell that to someone holds such a view, and cite the constitution and Supreme Court clarifications on that matter, some might be enlightened and correct themselves. Others, in my experience, however, will continue peddling the idea that Hindi is the national language of the Indian Union even after seeing all evidence to the contrary. That is because they are, after all, voicing a fantasy or a political intention when they say that Hindi is the national language of the Indian Union. And this fantasy is exclusivist because typically those who insist on making Hindi the national language of the Indian Union are also those who don’t want any other language like Tamil, Bangla or others to share that space with Hindi. Hence it is also the expression of a supremacist political mindset. No wonder, then, non-Hindi people have never supported the idea of Hindi being the national language in spite of non-stop imposition and promotion of that language. Hindi has never been the ‘rashtrabhasha’ of any ‘rashtra’ ever in the past. As to whether Hindi will get its own rashtra in the future, only time can tell.
An officially approved version of the Constitution is available in Hindi. It is not available in Bangla, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi or any other language of the Indian Union
The Indian Union is made up of States. The States were formed primarily on a linguistic basis. Thus, when we say, Indian Union is a union of States, what this essentially means is that the Indian Union is a union of linguistic nationalities. All of us, citizens of the Indian Union and of varying linguistic backgrounds have exactly the same right vis-a-vis anything that has to do with issues dealt with by the Union government. States are created on linguistic basis. The Union itself, however, was not created on a linguistic basis. The Union government cannot favour one linguistic group over another. It is by definition, the government of the Union. There is no language called “Indian”. No language is more “Indian” than any other. In a linguistic homeland, languages other than that of that land are ‘foreign’ as evidenced by Gujarat High Court’s statement that Hindi is a foreign language in Gujarat. Similarly Tamil is a foreign language in Nagaland. Language is, after all, the primary means of communication. And thus, when a government communicates with the people in a democracy, the idea should be one of saying things in a language that people can understand. In a land where the government speaks a language that is different from the people, it means that the government is distant from the people. The closing of this gap can happen in two ways. One way is to change government policies so that they are more in line with the people. This is democracy where the people are more important than rulers. One can also try to close this gap by changing the people to suit the government. That is, in other words, a tyranny – where rulers are more important than people. Thus, in a multi-lingual political union like the Indian Union, when the Union government pushes Hindi down the throats of non-Hindi people, actively discriminates against non-Hindi people and treats non-Hindi people as second class citizens, it is a painful and insulting situation for non-Hindi peoples.
Admittedly, I feel it too. I am a non-Hindi citizen of the Indian Union. I am a Bengali. When I cry ‘discrimination’, when I say I am treated as a second-class citizen on the basis of my mother tongue, a Hindi speaker has every right to ask me: Can I prove that? Can I give examples? These questions have become especially relevant in face of the renewed Hindi imposition measures that are contained in the recent Presidential order. That set of Hindi-imposition measures have provoked protests amongst various non Hindi political and civil society groups.
This article is about some examples of how a non-Hindi person in the Indian Union is a second-class citizen of the Indian Union.
Imagine two people: one knows his non-Hindi mother tongue and no other language, whilst another knows his mother tongue Hindi and no other language. I hope to show how the Union government actively discriminates against the former and actively favours the latter.
First and foremost, an officially approved version of the Constitution of India is available in Hindi. It is not available in Bangla, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi or any other language of the Indian Union. So, the basic treaty between the various linguistic groups that bind them together as co-citizens is not available to a person who knows only Tamil, but it is available to a person who knows only Hindi. The non-Hindi person can’t write to parliamentary committees in their mother-tongue (thus cutting out majority of people from the legislative process). The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect public sector banks to provide forms, documents and ATM choices in their mother-tongue even in their own states and areas. The Hindi person gets such facilities all over the Indian Union. The non-Hindi person cannot apply for a passport in their mother tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect air-plane safety announcements in Bengali or Nagamese in flights between Bengal and Nagaland. The Hindi person gets it on every flight.
Imposing Hindi and excluding others’ mother tongues is not due to some technological problem. It is a political and ideological problem
The non-Hindi person can’t argue in High Courts in their mother tongue in non-Hindi states. The Hindi person can do so in Allahahad High Court. The non-Hindi person can’t take competitive exams like IIT, IAS and other ‘national’ exams in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect special coaching classes after their entry into IIT. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t have the Income Tax website or Income Tax return form in his mother tongue (non-Hindi people are the majority of tax-payers). The Hindi person can. A Malayali central government or PSU employee is not paid cash incentives to learn Bengali but he is paid money to learn Hindi (hence non-Hindi speakers fund the cash-incentive based promotion and learning of Hindi — clearly an Odiya-learning Tamil won’t link anyone or result in ‘national integration’!). The non-Hindi person can’t expect Kannada signage in trains and metros of Delhi. Hindi signs exist everywhere in Namma Metro of Bengaluru, a city where Hindi isn’t even among the top three most spoken languages in the city. The non-Hindi person can’t expect that most CISF, CRPF, RPF, Army andBSF personnel posted in West Bengal will speak and understand the language of non-Hindi locals, but a Hindi speaking person can communicate with such people posted in his linguistic homeland or outside of it in his mother tongue. The non-Hindi person can’t expect government adverts about Clean India, Green India, Skill India, Startup India or Make in India in their mother tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect “national” channels like Doordarshan, Rajya Sabha TV, DD Kisan programmes to be available in their mother tongue. The non-Hindi person can’t expect to view government websites that cater to the poorest (like MNREGA) in their mother tongue. The Hindi person can. As Mohammed Shafi says, poor labourers and farmers of non-Hindi states have real challenges to overcome. To include ‘learning Hindi’ is to ridicule them further.
To continue with the examples, the non-Hindi person can’t expect the Union government to promote higher education in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect Passport Offices to have signs, forms and directions in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can.
Incidentally, US embassies in the Indian Union provide forms and directions for Visa applications in multiple languages. Kolkata has Bangla. Chennai has Hindi.
The non-Hindi person can’t expect the Union government to produce any magazine in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect currency notes to have legible content in their mother-tongue beyond the small font decoration in the back of the note. The Hindi person can, however: in large fonts, all over the currency note. Incidentally, under British rule, this discrimination was absent and all the languages were printed in equal sized font.
The non-Hindi person can’t expect train tickets to have origin and destination information printed in their mother-tongue even when the train runs fully within their linguistic homeland. The Hindi person can expect this, however: within the Hindi belt and everywhere else. The non-Hindi person can’t expect Union government schemes to be named meaningfully in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can.
The non-Hindi person can’t expect Union government to hold celebrations of any day or week or fortnight or month to recognize and promote their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. Tamils can’t expect office forms in IIT Chennai to be in Tamil in addition to other languages. Bengalis can’t expect office forms in ISI Kolkata to be in Bangla in addition to other languages. The Hindi person has all forms in IIT Chennai or ISI Kolkata available in Hindi. The non-Hindi person can’t expect Union government agencies like BSNL or Indian Railways celebrating their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect to get a customer service agent speaking their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect the Institute of Banking personnel selection to allow them to write an examination essay in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect most Union government apps to be in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect Post Office forms, money order forms, Post Office banking forms, etc. to be in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can.
The non-Hindi person can’t expect even forms and information in Union government-run health services institutions and medical colleges, even those in their own non-Hindi linguistic state, to have information in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can. A Marathi can’t have Marathi forms in Bank of Maharashtra. A Punjabi can’t have Punjabi forms in Punjab National Bank. A Hindi person has Hindi forms and services in each of these banks. The non-Hindi person can’t expect expansion of digital literacy and computing technology expansion in their mother-tongue to be funded by the Union government. The Hindi person can. The non-Hindi person can’t expect information about tenders, schemes, fellowships, grants and various other Union government projects from which they could economically benefit to be available in their mother-tongue. The Hindi person can.
The list, you see, is unending.
One can only hope that Hindi people will put themselves in the shoes of non-Hindi people. Perhaps then they would be able to understand why Hindi-imposition has turned the non-Hindi peoples of the Indian Union into second-class citizens.
A majority of the citizens of the Indian Union do not understand Hindi. Discriminating against the majority, pushing the majority into second class citizenship – these are all things that have happened elsewhere in the world. It has typically ended in disaster. One wonders if, for instance, the Indian Union learned anything from the linguistic policies traditionally followed in Pakistan, when it came to promoting Urdu at the expense of the mother-tongues of the various peoples of the country. In Pakistan too, Urdu was imposed under the banner of unity. There too, those who questioned such linguistic policies were branded anti-nationals. In Pakistan too, policy-makers thought that the promotion of Urdu as a ‘linking’ language would strengthen the ideological and political unity of Pakistan.
India’s government would do well to learn that it never works like that. A mother tongue is the most fundamental identity of a people. When the administration moves against this fundamental identity by forcing the use of someone else’s mother tongue, the result is what happened in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh.
In this age of technology, live translation is easy. Content translation is fairly convenient and imposing Hindi and excluding others’ mother tongues is not due to some technological problem. It is a political problem. It is an ideological problem.
If the Government of India – which can send a mission to Mars – is unable to provide Tamil or Bangla versions of all its websites but can do so for Hindi speakers, one must ask whether it is because it does not want a Tamil or Bangla speaker to have the same rights as a Hindi speaker. “Unity is Diversity” has two pre-conditions: equality and dignity. Unity at the cost of dignity is slavery. Unity at the cost of equality is imperialism.
For a multi-lingual federal democratic union like the Indian Union, in short, unity with equality and dignity is the only peaceful way forward.
Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at hajarduari.wordpress.com