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Hindi Nation: Amend The Constitution For Linguistic Equality

09/09/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Hindi, or more precisely Modern Standard Hindi, is a standardized and Sanskritised register of the Hindustani language. Hindustani is the native language of people living in Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan. Hindi is one of the official languages of India.

It wasn't the typical expression of pride you might find at this time of year. During the Independence Day weekend, Twitteratis logged on to find #StopHindiImposition trending nationally. Scores of non-Hindi speakers came together to oppose the primacy given to Hindi by the Union Government. Some others believed that this was a planned response to Prime Minister Modi's annual Red Fort address delivered entirely in Hindi. Whatever the reason, young Indians cutting across non-Hindi speaking states were united by a common policy cause: linguistic equality.

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One of the main demands of the online protestors is to give all 22 languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution the status of "Official Languages of the Union". This would mean that languages such as Tamil, Bengali, Assamese, Urdu, etc would be accorded equal status to Hindi and English, in terms of official use. This would require a straightforward amendment of Part XVII of the Constitution. But the ramifications of this, of course, would be massive.

According to the 2001 Census (the 2011 Census numbers on language data are not yet released), the number of Indians whose mother tongue is Hindi was 422 million or 41% of the country. Which means that most Indians cannot count their mother tongue an Official Language of the Union. If the government was to amend the Constitution to include these 21 other languages, then an additional 55.5% of the country would stand to feel included.

"A country which has neglected to establish linguistic equality within its own Parliament is lobbying for one of its languages in the global arena."

Theoretical considerations aside, there are some practical difficulties faced by non-Hindi speakers. For example, in-flight announcements for domestic flights are in Hindi and English only. So are train reservation charts which contain the passenger list. The government's TV channel for farmers (DD Kisan) runs all its programming in Hindi. Bank applications, civil service examinations and passports also only come in Hindi and English options. In all these cases, a simple option for a third language which can be chosen by the citizen-candidate-beneficiary would solve the problem, without much additional expense. In case of televised events, like the Red Fort address or Republic Day speech or the President's Address, they could be suitably sub-titled in the respective states.

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Pragmatic thinkers have flagged the alleged impracticality of including an additional third language. For a workable model, we need to look no further than the European Union, where 24 official languages are being used for all official communication. For example, a visitor to the European Parliament is greeted with the "Schedule of the Day" pamphlet in all official languages. Even the Members of European Parliament are allowed to speak in any of the 24 languages; interpretation services are available for all. In (poor) contrast, the Indian Parliament only provides interpretation in English or Hindi for the language used by the MP. So, in case of an MP speaking in Bengali, her counterpart who only knows Tamil will not even be able to understand the speaker.

In spite of these obvious concerns, the cry for linguistic equality seems to not have affected the Modi government a great deal. Only a few days ago, the government declared it was taking all steps to include Hindi as an official language in the United Nations. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj even said that the expenditure for providing infrastructure and interpretation services -- coming to around $41 million or about Rs 250 crore per annum -- would be borne by India. The irony of this is not lost: a country which has neglected to establish linguistic equality within its own Parliament is lobbying for one of its languages in the global arena.

Follow the author @manu_sundaram

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