Few Constitutions have such elaborate provisions dealing with the official language as the Constitution of India. Ordinarily, official language is not a subject which requires any special treatment in a constitutional enactment.
This is because, in most countries, a single language is employed as the common medium of expression of the entire population, or at least of an overwhelming majority.
There are, of course, exceptions to this general pattern in some parts of the world, and some countries have made even special provisions to solve the problems arising out of bilingualism or multi-lingualism within their borders. India belongs to the latter category, hence a special chapter in the Constitution dealing with the official language.
In the words of the Official Language Commission:
“The difficulty and complexity of the language problem that the country has to tackle are manifest. We seek to find a medium of expression for the strong elements of identity in the cultural life of the country and as a linguistic counterpart of the political unity which the country has rediscovered after many centuries.
In doing so, we seek to replace a working system based on the English language which, albeit foreign to the people, is one of the world’s richest and most widely spoken languages and has many general merits to recommend it.
The languages we can replace English by are at present insufficiently developed for the multifarious occasions of official and non- official intercourse that arise in a modern community.
Several of these dozen or so languages are, however, spoken by numbers in excess of many current European languages claiming to be advanced means of communication and are thus, in point of the number of people who speak them, entitled to a high place in the world’s roll of languages.
Hindi has been chosen as the Union language on the principle and, we think, sufficient ground that amongst the regional languages it is spoken by the largest number of people in the country.”
During the course of the discussion on the official language, the Constituent Assembly witnessed some of the most agitated scenes, surcharged with emotion riding on the crest of linguistic fanaticism.
Nevertheless, the Assembly produced a compromise formula after a long and heated discussion. The provisions dealing with official language are the product of this compromise formula.
Language of the Union (Arts. 343 and 344) The main provisions dealing with the official language of the Union as embodied in Articles 343 and 344 are as follows:
(1) Hindi written in Devanagri script will be the official language of the Union.
(2) For a period of fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution, however, the English language will continue to be used for all official purpose of the Union. But during this period, the President may authorise the use of Hindi in addition to English.
(3) Even after fifteen years, Parliament may provide for the continued use of English for any specific purpose.
(4) At the end of five years from the commencement of the Constitution, the President shall appoint a Commission to make recommendations for the progressive use of the Hindi language and on the restrictions on the use of English and other allied matters.
The President is obliged to appoint such a Commission at the end of ten years after the commencement of the Constitution for the same purpose.
While making their recommendations the Commission should give 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.
(5) The Commission’s recommendations will be examined by a thirty-man Committee o Parliament (20 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha) elected in accordant with the system of proportional representation and the Committee will make a report to the President. The President may issue directions on the basis of the report of the Committee.
In accordance with the constitutional provision, in June 1955, at the end of five years after the commencement of the Constitution, the President appointed a Commission consisting of twenty-one members with B.G. Kher, a former Chief Minister of Bombay as its Chairman.
The Commission submitted its report to the President by the middle of 1956. The report which runs into five hundred pages is an impressive document dealing with every one of the questions referred to the Commission in a thorough going manner.
The Report, however, set off one of the bitterest controversies in the country. One of the serious defects of the Report was the strong and utterly uncompromising minutes of dissent by two of its prominent members representing two major languages of the country, namely, Bengali and Tamil.
Nevertheless, the Report is a very valuable document for understanding the immensity and complexity of the language problem of India. As provided for in the Constitution a thirty-member Committee of Parliament with the Home Minister of the Union Government as its Chairman examined the recommendations of the Commission.
The Report of the Committee was submitted to Parliament on 8th February 1958. While the Committee has expressed the definite opinion that adherence to the constitutional settlement which envisages the replacement of English by Hindi for Union purposes and the regional languages for the official requirements of the States is the only safe and practicable course to adopt, the approach to the question of final change-over has to be flexible and practical.
Thus, the Committee has in general endorsed the recommendations of the Official Language Commission except that it emphasises the necessity for flexibility in the change-over.