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India’s Hindi-English tussle, in charts

In a country of over 1.3 billion people, Hindi is the mother tongue of a small chunk of population, and English is fast becoming indispensable for professional setups (Photo: Mint)Premium
In a country of over 1.3 billion people, Hindi is the mother tongue of a small chunk of population, and English is fast becoming indispensable for professional setups (Photo: Mint)

The political push for Hindi ignores the reality that English is fast becoming indispensable for aspirational India’s professional and literary frameworks. The focus should instead be on languages that are dying or are losing dominance, linguists say.

Presiding over a recent meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee, Union Home Minister Amit Shah talked about the need for Hindi to be the “language of India" and to be used as an alternative to English as a lingua franca. However, in a country of over 1.3 billion people, Hindi is the mother tongue of a small chunk of population, and English is fast becoming indispensable for professional setups. Despite its colonial roots, English is seen as a language of emancipation by marginalized communities, and the government itself widely acknowledges it in India’s arts sphere. To what extent can English be downplayed?

1. Bridge language

According to the 2011 Census, about 27% Indians call Hindi their mother tongue, mostly in northern and central India. The present-day Hindi is among India’s youngest languages, having emerged only in the early 19th century. But the share of speakers of many of the oldest languages—Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Odia—has dwindled lately even as Hindi has grown due to markedly higher fertility rates in the north.

Activists feel a push for Hindi defies the constitutional provision of promoting it without harming other languages. “The committee should focus on the negative growth of other languages rather than Hindi’s growth," said Ganesh Devy, founder of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI).

English is preferred over Hindi in most states where the latter is not the dominant primary language. The law and the Constitution, the military, and the technology sector all depend on English for functioning, and English serves as a link language for people from different states, Devy said.

2. Necessity at work

English has also evolved as the language of corporate India. A 2016 study by the Cambridge University and global education network QS found that over half of Indian employers across sectors required advanced-level knowledge of English at work. Multiple studies have found that poor English skills make a job search tougher for Indian graduates. Better fluency in English also leads to better wages, said a 2013 paper published in the Economic Development and Cultural Change journal.

With this, English is also a key subject in India’s higher education. Business communication, which includes topics from English grammar, comprehension and writing, is a compulsory subject across professional courses, including all undergraduate- and postgraduate-level commerce and business courses. The civil services exam has English as a compulsory subject in the mains round: a candidate who does not clear it loses their claim to the interview round.

All this means English’s supremacy is unavoidable in today’s aspirational India.

3. Upliftment tool

Meanwhile, Dalit activists argue that English education not only opens the doors for the scheduled castes and tribes to better jobs but also helps them break free from the shackles of casteism. “English is not just a language, it represents civilization and progress for Dalits," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a writer and scholar. Social reformers such as B.R. Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule had also spoken staunchly in favour of English education for marginalized groups. The preference could be because English is an unbiased language whereas Dalits were historically denied access to older languages such as Sanskrit, argued a paper published in the Research Journal of Education Sciences in 2014.

“The present form of Hindi being pushed is a more Sanskritized Hindi which comes with its baggage of caste," said writer and activist Meena Kandasamy. “English-medium education should become democratised until every child can access it. Dalits should not find it harder to access it."

4. In pop culture

It is hard to miss the prevalence of non-Hindi languages—English included—in art, literature and popular culture. Vernacular films often shatter box office records: the international collection of RRR, which was made first in Telugu, crossed 1,000 crore, making it the top grossing Indian film of all time. Six of the 10 highest grossing Indian films were in regional languages, according to IMDb.

Indian English writing is also recognized by the government: since 1960, the language has had a separate category in the country’s top literary award given by the Sahitya Akademi. In 2018, Amitav Ghosh became the first Indian English writer to win the Jnanpith award. The National Film Awards also recognize English feature films.

The government’s sanction for English art is not surprising: after all, English is one of India’s official languages. What is worrying is any push to replace the language, which has an established history in India, with Hindi, as a lingua franca.

5. Saving languages

While the speaker strength of older regional languages has declined in the past three decades, linguists are also concerned about the dying languages. India lost nearly 250 small languages between 1961 and 2011 and is at risk of losing more, according to the PLSI. When a language dies, many forms of intangible cultural heritage also disappear, especially the “invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions" the Unesco has said earlier.

The Centre has pushed for Hindi’s spread in the northeast by recruiting 22,000 teachers and has also converted nine tribal dialect scripts to Devanagari. Linguists fear such measures could put indigenous languages at risk in the long run.

The Unesco has recorded 197 endangered languages in India, the highest in the world. Most are from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the northeast. “Primary education should be provided in local languages before English is introduced in higher classes," Devy said. “This would be a step towards language preservation."

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