The Speaker, thereupon, observed: “If the hon. Member can write in English and he knows English, how can I allow him to make a speech in Tamil? Unless he satisfies me that he cannot express himself in English or in Hindi, I cannot allow him to speak in Tamil."
Thereupon, the Member spoke in English.
—An extract from the official record of Lok Sabha debates, 10 April, 1963.
India’s minister for information and broadcasting Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu is one of a small number of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians from South India who are prominent on the national stage. In many of his public appearances, this genial BJP stalwart makes speeches in grammatically correct, if heavily accented, Hindi. English comes more naturally to the 68-year-old veteran from Andhra Pradesh; but recently he has been singing the praises of Hindi. In order to do so, however, he ran down English.
Calling Hindi the rashtra bhasha, or national language, Naidu said, according to a Press Trust of India report quoted in The Indian Express: “I want that in our education policy we should consider (promoting India’s own language). It is our misfortune that we give too much importance to English medium.
“Dheere dheere angrezi seekhte seekhte angrezi mind bhi aa gaya hamare mein. Ye acchha nahi hai, desh hith mein nahi hai"—meaning, “Gradually, as we picked up the English language, we also developed an English mind (mindset) along the way. This is not good; this is not in the national interest."
Naidu got a crucial bit of his thesis wrong: Hindi is not in fact the national language in India. It is one of two “official languages", the other being English. But this is a mere technicality. The men and women who wrote India’s Constitution, mindful of the passions that the issue of language had inflamed in their Constituent Assembly debates, fudged this bit mightily. Conjuring up the magic of draftsmanship in a classic compromise between competing claims for linguistic supremacy, they succeeded in allaying the fears of everyone all of the time. Well, nearly everyone.
Former minister Shashi Tharoor, who speaks in a formidable English accent, rounded on Naidu. Tharoor, like Naidu, comes from southern India, where Hindi has had a difficult and violent past owing to fears of North Indian cultural domination.
Tharoor tweeted Hindi is not India’s national language. But, just like Naidu, he, too, got it fundamentally wrong (owing to the aforementioned genius of draftsmanship). Technically, of course, there is no national language and the Indian Constitution has no section called National Language.
What the Constitution has is a section called ‘Official Language’. And the “official language of the Union", it says, “shall be Hindi in Devnagri script." There it is, clause (1) of Act 343, in black and white. It couldn’t have been clearer.
English does figure, but it’s a distant second. It is not the official language, but a language that shall be used for “official purposes". And that, too, for a limited period of 15 years (there was much debate among the Constitution’s founders on the exact length of this period), which has since been extended.
The framers of India’s Constitution sought to strike a fine balance. On the one hand, the document calls for the “progressive" (meaning increasing) use of Hindi and “restrictions on the use of English". On the other, it declares, the “authoritative texts" of court judgements, bills and ordinances, all rules, bye-laws and regulations issued by both Parliament and state legislatures “shall be in the English language".
English usage was also framed in a positive context, urging “…due regard to the industrial, cultural and scientific advancement of India, and the just claims and the interests of persons belonging to the non-Hindi speaking areas in regard to the public services".
Essentially then, in India Hindi is as good as the national language, while both Hindi and English are the lingua franca. Notions of governance, terminologies of jurisprudence, economy and business as well as the technical language of science and technology (not to forget cricket—there’s no Hindi for “spin", leave alone “off-spin") are all better expressed in English.
This may look like a peculiar language policy but it reflects the compromises the founders of modern India made between the English-educated leaders of India’s freedom movement and the traditionalist majority from the Hindi-speaking heartland.
With his comments, Naidu touched off a sensitive chord in the Indian imagination. Coming as they did in the middle of a violent maelstrom in the state of West Bengal on the issue of Bengali versus Nepali language in the hill district of Darjeeling, the topicality of these comments could not be ignored.
Happily, however, tensions between English and Hindi no longer make up the political fault lines they did in the first quarter century after India’s independence.
The framers of India’s Constitution realized in the process of drafting the provisions just how divisive the issue of language could be in India. In the Constituent Assembly, members’ positions hardened, then softened, militant advocates of Hindi stuck to their stand, then the Hindi-as-national-language lobby turned moderates and joined ranks with colleagues from non-Hindi-speaking states and gradually a three-language formula (Hindi, English and mother tongue) policy emerged, the effective policy till this date.
Naidu’s mother tongue—one of 22 listed in the Constitution—is Telugu, the third most spoken language in India after Hindi and Bengali. He will know better than anybody else the heavy sacrifice made by a Telugu speaker—freedom fighter Potti Sreeramulu—in support of the reorganization of Indian states along linguistic lines. Sreeramulu’s death from fasting in December 1952 settled the issue, and there is little appetite in India today for linguistic strife.
The founders of the Indian Constitution give us an extraordinary lesson in how to preserve and promote unity in a diverse land. Let their fudged solution live on, undisturbed.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1