New Internationalist

The Empire Is Dead. Long Live The Imperial Lingo.

Issue 191

new internationalist
issue 191 - January 1989


The empire is dead.
Long live the imperial lingo.

India has at least 20 languages in common use and many others are widely spoken.
The language diversity of its 80 million people makes the communications problems of most
other countries seem trivial by comparison. Ashok Mitra explains the predicament. 

Every evening at prime time I switch over to Bangladesh television from Doordarshan - the Government of India's television monopoly. Prime-time programmes over here are mostly in Hindi. On Bangladesh television they are in Bengali, my own language. During the evening's jaded hours one does not like to listen to an alien tongue.

This is just one of the predicaments of belonging to a polyglot nation. Eight hundred million Indians between them speak at least twenty different languages, each having its different script and each marked by umpteen dialectical variations. The Constitution stresses the primacy of Hindi which, written in Devanagari script, is the nation's official language. But English remains in widespread official use.

There is a kind of functional anarchy. Nearly two-fifths of the nation speak and write - when they can - a variant of Hindi. But other languages like Telegu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada and Malayalam can hardly be ignored; each is probably spoken by more people than the population of 145 of the member-states of the United Nations.

There is, besides, the issue of cultural pride. The other linguistic groups are reluctant to accept the position of Hindi as primus inter pares. And the situation is complicated by the embarrassment that Hindi is relatively under-developed, with a limited vocabulary and a crude grammar.

Much of the controversy is actually mixed up with the nation's political history. No unified Indian nation existed before the arrival of the British. The Raj brought the different linguistic groups together under one administrative umbrella. A political union was imposed through imperial fiat, and the Indian nation emerged. And while the Empire disappeared in due course, the Indian nation continues.

India has a quasi-federal set-up, with a central government and a number of states organized according to language. But power and resources have gradually concentrated at the centre, leading to fierce political bickering in recent years. The two controversies - one over the distribution of power between the centre and the states, the other on the issue of language - have overlapped.

Radio and television, for instance, are the central government's monopoly. They have been used not only to propagate the virtues of tightly-centralized administration, but also to emphasize the dominance of Hindi. The non-Hindi-speaking populace have resisted; the political and linguistic battles have intermeshed.

A common official language might hasten the pace of integration for a nation burdened with India's diversity. On the other hand, forcing such a language on men and women not born to it can have the perverse effect of increasing the number of languages. This is precisely what has happened in India. In most parts of the country there are now three languages: the local language, English and Hindi.

In the northern states, whether in the sphere of education, in official files or for the purpose of business, Hindi has largely displaced English. Elsewhere, Hindi is at best tolerated, and English and the local language rule the roost.

Railways, airlines, banks, and insurance companies are all controlled by the central regime. From time to time these institutions are instructed to speed up the introduction of Hindi. So notices for insurance premia arrive at Trivandrum in South India, say, printed only in Hindi, which no-one in the area can decipher. All hell breaks loose. Indignant letters appear in newspapers, angry questions are raised on the floor of Parliament, and occasionally fights break out. The police have to march in to quell the riots; when the police fail, the army.

This is very different from the United States where English was already the language of the thirteen original States; as others joined the Union, English was accepted as a matter of course. Migrants came in waves with their babble of tongues. But they knew that in order to get assimilated into the great American nation and imbibe of its great opportunities, they had to master English. The Indian situation is also quite unlike that of the Soviet Union following the October Revolution. There a single-party State was able to enforce decisions although, even as the use of Russian spread, equal attention was also given to the development of local languages.

So what does the Indian nation do? If you try this linguistic experiment some groups object, you try out that, some other groups object. So you abandon both, and try another tack. It is considered unwise to burden girls and boys with more than two languages at school. So English falls by the wayside - or Hindi, or the local language. Whatever happens, the implications are serious. If the use of Hindi is soft-pedalled, the prospect of evolving a common national language recedes further. If English is to be dropped, parents worry over the ability of their children to hold their own in the jungle of career-making, where a knowledge of English carries a premium. Should the suggestion be to drop the mother tongue, local patriotism is immediately aroused and a whole quantity of scientific and technical evidence brought to bear to prove the point that a child's intellectual development is the fastest when instruction is provided in its own language.

The result is a stand-off. There are government and other agencies which exist to foster exchange between Hindi and the other Indian languages. But apart from spasmodic translations of some popular fiction and poetry, they don't do much work. Each language is seemingly happy to stay perched on its insularity.

Since Indians have been unable to resolve their intra-mural debate, English, the language from six thousand miles away, continues to hold sway. It remains the means of official communication between the central and state governments, and between individual state governments. Most universities and higher technical institutions use it, and of course it maintains its position as the link with the rest of the world.

English-medium schools are proliferating. And not just in the towns and cities. With agricultural prosperity, such schools are appearing in villages too. In examinations for entry into the national civil service, the choice for writing the answer scripts is between Hindi and English. Those with Hindi as their mother tongue thus enjoy an advantage. There is much heart-burning on this score in the other parts, accompanied by intensified efforts to improve the quality of English instruction. For non-Hindi households, English is now the weapon which will enable them to have a sufficient say in national administrative affairs.

English therefore flourishes. Major newspapers are published in the language, their print order increases every year, they take pride in designating themselves as the 'national press'. There has of late been an avalanche of slick-looking journals and magazines in the language. At least forty million people speak or read some sort of English, a not inconsiderable number when you remember that close to three-fifths of the nation are without letters and cannot sign their name in any language.

The English that has developed in the country - certainly its spoken version - will not be readily comprehensible to those from outside the sub-continent. It has its own flavour just as Caribbean English has, and phrases and expressions with essentially local roots have filtered through. The grammar is occasionally suspect. The syntax is often disjoined. It is however the language politicians have grown accustomed to, as have businessmen and industrialists, for cross-country communications.

As far as the spoken word is concerned two parallel traditions are being established in the country. The first is a loosely-structured Hindi. This is spoken in the north and also understood in the eastern and western states; but it receives short shrift once it ventures to enter the south. The second oral tradition concerns English. A variant of the language has evolved in the course of the past half a century or thereabouts, and is used everywhere. People do not sit down to write it, but those who need to communicate with people in the other parts of the country love to speak it. And it enjoys a laissez passer in the south which Hindi does not.

Indians have discarded the Empire; they have clung to the language of the imperialists and shaped it in their own manner. They use it for official purposes and are likely to continue to do so for some considerable while. Even the most obtuse of the Hindi fanatics will have to, willy nilly, sooner or later, accept the logic of the situation: if they want to save the nation, they have to put up with English. India is a battlefield. Its languages are at war; English operates as the International Red Cross.

What happens to national development in such a milieu, did you ask? Well, skirmishes over language are certainly a distraction, they prevent you from pursuing other national goals. To assuage the tension resulting from linguistic warfare, you have to go on humouring group A or group B or group C or group D, and conceivably all of them together. Resources also have to be diverted to strengthen the police and paramilitary forces who are needed to subdue the language rioters. But, have a heart, you first have to keep the nation together before you can think of developing it.

Ashok Mitra is a former Finance Minister in the Government of West Bengal.

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