Essay on The Problem of National Language in India

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It is not surprising that there should be so much confusion and conflict over the issue of language. It is assumed that it is single problem with a unique solution. One group argues that English lan­guage owes its position to British imperialism and that it is inconsis­tent with national self-respect to continue to use it to the exclusion of our beautiful regional languages. A second group contents that, whatever the evils of British imperialism, English has helped Indian nationalism to achieve freedom; that it has been the vehicle of higher education, technology and scientific research and that it has been the invaluable link for forging the unity of India and any attempt to discard it will result in a breakdown of our educational system and take the country back by two centuries in all aspects of modern life A third group is convinced that as all regional languages of India arc well developed and have worth literatures, all of them should have equal status.

There is a lot of confused thinking going on in India today over the problem of finding a universally acceptable link language for the country. The debate on the subject rages ‘ad infinitum’ in all available forums like the parliament, the press, the platform etc; but none of the many points of view being put forward every day appears to be gaining acceptance. That is so mainly because most of the thinking on the subject is super-charged with emotion and the issues involved have been greatly clouded by the import of pre­judices which can be traced to extra-national loyalties.

What is precisely meant by a ”link language”? The term is of comparatively recent coinage. In the pre-independence years, the same connotation was sought to be conveyed through ‘national language’. But the expression underwent a change in meaning when the constitutions-makers of free India conferred the status of ‘natio­nal language’ on fourteen regional languages (now 15) in use in the country as also on Sanskrit. In the constitution, the term which came nearest to expressing the idea was ‘official language’. Over the last two or three years however, even this term has been replaced with another, viz., ‘link language’. The change is significant. It is symptomatic of the trend of popular thinking on the subject.

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The people were prepared to accept their own regional languages as the ‘official’ languages in their states. But when it came 10 accepting another Indian language for the purposes of inter-stale and state-centre-communications, they were not prepared to submit to the hegemony of another Indian language. In that context, the word ‘official’ in the expression ‘official language’ snacked for imposition and they were not prepared to brook any imposition whatsoever. Hence ‘official’ had to yield place to ‘link’ which was found to be more in accord with the spirit of the times.

The context in which the problem has to be considered has radically changed since 1950 when the founding fathers laid down official policy in the matter. At that time, the problem did not appear to be so intractable. The leaders of the national movement had almost unanimously endorsed the choice of Hindi as the official language of India. They were not, however, unmindful of the diffi­culties involved in a sudden change-over. Therefore, they made provision that English should continue to be used for all official purposes for 15 years after the introduction of the constitution, i.e. up to 1965. Even after that, the Parliament was given the option to extend the period, if necessary.

All these precautions were designed to cushion the shock of change by making it a gradual process. Even then, within a few years, the proposed change became the subject of nation-wide debate which has several time assumed the proportions of a law and order problem. In the main, it was a direct consequence of the ruling party’s disproportionate pre-occupation with linguism. That led to the reorganization of states on a linguistic basis in 1956 (and the process has continued since). The step, though taken with the object of creating conditions in which the regional languages could flourish and come into their own, encouraged separatism, and strengthened the forces of disintegration. It gave rise to a sort of linguistic patri­otism which gained precedence over nationalism in the affections of a large number of people.

The constitution-makers’ decision that English should be re­placed with Hindi in course of time was a sound one. Being under­stood by the largest number of Indians (40 per cent), Hindi was no doubt in the best position to serve as the hand maiden of all other national languages and as such, to replace English as the official language of India, But the new language consciousness injected into the body politic by the ruling party, combined with the aggressive attitude of some advocates of Hindi who insisted on calling it the national language, and a fear being at a disadvantage in the central services made the decision largely unacceptable to people whose mother tongue was not Hindi. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagara leaders called it “a conspiracy to relegate the people of the South to the position of second class citizens.”

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As the deadline officially fixed for the replacement of English drew near, representatives of the ‘non-Hindi speaking people’ as they were called bent their energies towards making sure that it did not happen. They even put forward suggestion that the language clause in the constitution should be suspended and English retained as the official language of India for all time to come. It was to allay their fears that, the late Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, speaking in a debate one the subject in the Lok Sabha on August 7, 1959 said that English would be retained as an alternative official language as long as those who did not know Hindi wanted it. Accordingly, the Official Languages Bill passed by the Lok Sabha in April, 1963 provided that “English may continue to be used after January 26, 1965, in addition to Hindi for all the official purposes of the Union.” The measure, however, did not satisfy people belonging to regions where the language in use was not Hindi. They wanted the assurance given by Pt. Nehru to be incorporated into law.

In his life-time, Pt. Nehru had opposed the suggestion for the excellent reason that such a step would ‘amount to limiting the powers of Parliament by giving only part of the members the right to decided. This notwithstanding, the demand was pressed forward by every available means—through violent agitation and otherwise. Ultimately, the government had to give in. A draft of a bill seeking to confer statutory status on Jawaharlal Nehru’s assurances to non-Hindi speaking people that English would continue as the associate official language of India indefinitely was circulated to state Chief Ministers. It would have been introduced in the 1967 budget session of the Parliament, but had to be held over as comments of some Chief Ministers had not been received before the session came to an end.

From all this, what have we gained? Have we moved forward or backward in the matter? What the opponents of Hindi have managed to secure after a prolonged struggle and many sacrifices can be described as a negative gain at best. They have not been able to suggest a better alternative to Hindi from among all the national languages of India. They have been harking back to English.

How this has come about would bear scrutiny. There are at least three main factors responsible for things having come to such a pass. Most responsible for bringing about this situation has been official in action in not preparing the country for the change-over. The Government failed to take advantage of the long period to create the necessary climate for the purpose. Its forte was inaction, and not action to support this group or that the fears entertained by people who dip not speak Hindi, of being dominated by the Hindi-speaking people in the event of Hindi becoming the sole link language in the country were not totally unfounded.

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The second factor which contributed to creating, the impasse we are facing were the protagonists of Hindi. They proved to be the worst enemies of the language for which they sought to gain acceptance as the official language. Instead of accepting it in all humility, they crowed over the role assigned to Hindi and displayed an attitude of arrogant superiority which could not but provoke adverse reaction The third factor which added to the confusion were the chauvinists who thrived on regional and sectarian rivalries. The language issue came handy to them and they used it to whip up popular agitations out of which they made political capital.

All these currents and cross-currents of emotions and motives naturally served to cloud the real issues which, simply stated, were; (i) the fear of domination by one linguistic group over the other; and (ii) probable effect on each region’s share in the central services. For lack of a positive approach to the problems, whatever is being done to resolve these issues, viz., retention of English for an indefinite period; the proposed introduction of regional languages as media for U.P.S.C. examinations and lately, their adoption as media of instruction for higher education, is bound to have a distorting influence on our political life and further undermine our already brittle sense of nationhood.

It is essential for the unity of India that graduates of all Indian Universities and technological institutes should form a single intellectual pool. Though, in the Universities of leach State, the medium of instruction may be the regional language to hold on to English at present as the necessary link language at the higher level and hope that at some time in the future, Hindi may also blossom info another such language is all that a far sighted Indian patriot can hope.

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