NEW DELHI – The Indian government’s push to promote Hindi as a common language to unite the nation has stirred up a hornet’s nest in a linguistically diverse country where the spoken dialect changes every few miles.
The land of 1.3 billion people, who speak hundreds of languages in thousands of dialects, doesn’t have a recognized national language, as per its constitution.
The central government, however, uses Hindi as its official language along with English to carry out daily work.
The constitution gives Indian provinces the powers to specify their official languages from 23 recognized languages spoken in different parts of the country.
But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been making moves to hoist Hindi as the national language, drawing stiff resistance that stems from regional linguistic sentiments.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Sept. 14 – when the country marked Hindi Divas or Hindi Day – asked his countrymen to promote Hindi as a language to unify the nation.
“India is a country of different languages and every language has its importance but it is very important to have a language which should become the identity of India in the world. If one language can unite the country today, it is the widely-spoken Hindi,” Shah tweeted.
He also asked Indians to increase the usage of the Hindi language to realize the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel, the country’s first home minister.
Hindi is the mother tongue of just 26.6 percent of Indians, according to the latest census conducted in 2011. It is mostly spoken in the northern and central parts of the country commonly known as the Hindi Belt.
When other related-but-distinct languages and dialects – including Braj, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Kannauji, and Rajasthani – are grouped with Hindi, the number of its speakers rises to a little over 43 percent of the population.
The remaining 57 percent identify their mother tongues from over 19,000 languages or dialects, according to the census.
Many attempts have been made to promote Hindi as the national language since India won its independence from the British Empire in 1947.
And the home minister’s latest push in that direction has reignited the debate whether the government should promote Hindi or make efforts to preserve the ethnically-rich country’s multicultural and multilingual character.
“The BJP is slowly, subtly promoting Hindi ever since they came to power,” Purushothama Bilimale, a professor at the Centre for Indian Languages in Jawaharlal Nehru University, told EFE.
Bilimale sees a communal tone to the ruling party’s push for Hindi, which he said, was in line with its Hindutva ideology that underpins the politics of Hindu majoritarianism and places adherence to Hinduism at the very center of their idea of India.
“On new currency notes, on signboards on national and state highways, in banks, post offices, airports, railway stations and all places under the control of the central government you can see Hindi is strengthening its ground,” Bilimale said.
But such moves have always faced resistance, especially from non-Hindi states like in southern India, where regional languages trace their origins to the Dravidian linguistic family.
“The unity in diversity is a promise we made when we made India into a republic. We respect all languages but our mother language will always be Tamil,” veteran actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan, who hails from south India, remarked in one of his tweets in response to the home minister’s statement.
“Do not make an inclusive India into an exclusive one, all will suffer because of such short-sighted folly,” said the popular star, who has been in nearly 200 films in major Indian languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi.
Haasan originally belongs to the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which recognizes Tamil, one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world, as its official language.
Politician-activist Yogendra Yadav, a prolific Hindi writer, also questioned the government’s attempt to promote Hindi over other languages.
“One nation, many languages! Unity is not uniformity! This is what distinguishes Indian nationalists from those who borrow their nationalism from Europe,” Yadav tweeted.
BJP leader Sudesh Verma, however, seemed unmoved by the controversy. He reiterated Shah’s stance, saying: “We feel that one language is needed for the expression of the country.”
But the backlash from politicians and language activists forced the home minister’s clarification.
He later said he had “never asked for imposing Hindi over other regional languages and had only requested for learning Hindi as a second language after one’s mother tongue.”
But it may still be long before the language debate is over in a country where politicians and activists send their kids to study at English medium schools but fight for the promotion of Hindi or any other local language.