The problem with Hindi as a ‘national’ language

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If there is one thing that could hopelessly divide India, it is language and too many people been injured or killed over the years due to language agitations.

The first anti-Hindi imposition agitation happened in Tamil Nadu back in 1937, when the teaching of Hindi was made compulsory in the schools of the then Madras Presidency by the first Indian National Congress government led by C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji).

That move was met with riots, agitations and unrest. Since then there have been many such agitations and eruptions of violence periodically in non-Hindi speaking states of India and could well happen all over again in the months and years to come. Language should be a medium to bring people and ideas together, but in India, it has been used as a weapon to divide people along language lines. So it is not uncommon for Indian states to openly favor those who can speak and write in the regional language, which automatically confers second-class status to those who speak other languages and hail from other states. We Indians discriminate against each other and will use any means, language is only one of them.

The language issue became prominent once again recently during Question Hour in the Lok Sabha when Shashi Tharoor, the Congress’ MP from Thiruvananthapuram questioned why India should make Hindi one of the languages spoken at the United Nations.

“If tomorrow someone from Tamil Nadu or from West Bengal becomes the prime minister, why should we force him to speak in Hindi at the UN?” he argued.
Responding to Tharoor and the BJP MPs, Swaraj said Hindi was an official language even in Fiji, and was spoken widely in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago and many other countries. I might add, even Canada where Hindi seems to be heard on the streets of major cities like Toronto and Vancouver, in fact many Indian immigrants in the west despite knowing English go out of their way to speak exclusively in their mother tongue at home and among their friends. English is only used to communicate with ‘outsiders’, which means non-Indian Canadians.

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Ms. Swaraj enthusiastically pointed out that the government was sparing no effort in popularising Hindi worldwide for the acceptance of Hindi as one of the U.N. official languages. In a breakthrough the United Nations has begun broadcasting its programs on the U.N. Radio website in Hindi.
While there is no doubt Hindi is the most widely understood Indian language among Indians and the diaspora spread out around the world, the 2001 census showed that Hindi was spoken and understood by just 45 per cent of Indian citizens and just 25 per cent listed it as their mother tongue. One major reason for its enduring popularity has to do with Bollywood which mostly employs

Hindi or increasingly Hinglish or a mixture of Punjabi, English and Hindi.

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The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India lists 22 official languages.

This explains why English, currently spoken and understood by about 10 per cent of Indians continues to play an important role.

The UN has six official languages in the U.N., only two — English and French are working languages, just like Hindi and English in India.
Many experts believe that the knowledge of English has given Indians the edge in technology and has played an important role in the economy. But that has not stopped regional language chauvinists from spending crores of rupees and efforts toward reviving and popularizing the use of regional languages over Hindi or English.

While politicians and bureaucrats in India go into overdrive in their efforts to obliterate English, they themselves ensure their own children attend private schools where the language of instruction is English.

Meanwhile the middle-class and the lower-middle class hoping to find jobs in call centers and multinationals where knowledge of English is a must are forced to take English language classes and spend a small fortune on private English tutors.

Thousands of Indians who hope to immigrate to Canada have to do the same. I’ve met Indian immigrants who attended English classes in India so they could meet the Canadian immigration requirements. Once here, they went seeking tutors who could teach their children their own regional languages. “It is important that our children know to speak our great mother tongue fluently.

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It is a matter of our rich culture and heritage,” one parent explained to me.

But while Indian politicians spend taxpayers money on popularizing Hindi and other Indian languages, millions of Indians are turning their backs at these efforts and are instead doing the one thing that would give them an edge in the workplace- mastering English.

Meanwhile the Chinese government insists that all state employees master atleast 1,000 English phrases. All schools will teach English beginning in Kindergarten and millions of dollars is being spent on efforts to make the next generation of Chinese fluent in English. This is seen as an economically imperative.

Some year state-run TV launched an “American Idol”-type of reality show where kids had to sell themselves in English to clinch the judges’ votes.

The Chinese are proud of their culture, language and economic prowess but they are also very pragmatic. They aren’t going to be wasting time and resources trying to popularize their languages in the country or out of it, instead they would rather invest in efforts to bend public opinion about their policies and deepen economic cooperation.

Now that explains why China continues to make giant strides while India struggles to be heard with one voice and one language.

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