Home/ Politics / Policy/  What census data on languages shows about migration in India

New Delhi: The economic centre of the country is shifting to the South, according to the much delayed newly released census 2011 data tracking the movement of languages.

Since liberalization, there has been a steep drop in the movement of Tamils and Malayalis toward the hubs of Mumbai or Delhi. But the flow of people to the South from northern and eastern India has been on the rise (See Chart I), according to the linguistic trail left by migrants.

Even as the economic geography is shifting, the linguistic terrain is also transforming with the rise of right-wing nationalist politics.

This trend is most visible with Sanskrit and Urdu—both languages saw seminal shifts in 1991 when the census was conducted in the run-up to the Rath Yatra to Ayodhya.

The number of people who claimed Sanskrit as their mother tongue in 1991 rose steeply (See Chart II), with speakers in Uttar Pradesh alone rising from a few hundred to over 40,000. The proportion of Urdu speakers in the population, on the other hand, has fallen with every census since then, including the most recent in 2011.

Since census figures are self-reported, they are a good indication of how people feel, says Ganesh Devy, a linguist and founder of the Bhasha Trust, a research collective. In Maharashtra, for example, the political thrust behind the son-of-the-soil Marathi Manoos movement may have compelled a number of people who actually speak Urdu to report their mother tongue as Marathi, he says. In the newly released census, Marathi edged past Telugu to become the third most spoken language in the country for the first time.

The main beneficiary of such shifts in the Gangetic belt —of reported preference guided by political compulsion—is Hindi, which is among the country’s fastest growing languages.

The political project to impose monolithic languages has begun to have another impact: India’s rank in the language diversity index has fallen from 9 in 2009 to 14 in 2017.

Despite this slip, the recent census recorded an astonishing 19,500 distinct entries for “mother tongue", of which only 121 were categorised and even fewer (22) constitutionally recognized.

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Updated: 05 Jul 2018, 09:02 AM IST
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