Many countries in the world have official languages. Official languages are often deeply tied into the political, linguistic and historical states of these countries and give an interesting perspective about the land. Canada, for example, has two official languages- English and French, a nod to its colonial past.
It may come as a surprise to some that India doesn’t even have an official language at the international level. Most would even go as far as to assume that Hindi would be the designated national language, however, be surprised that it is not. The reason behind India’s refusal to select an official language is based on complex historical, political and cultural issues.
Why doesn’t India have a national language?
The first and most obvious reason is India’s immense diversity. India is home to more than 19,500 native languages and dialects. More than 121 languages are spoken by at least 10,000 people. India is an ancient country and therefore each of these languages has centuries of history attached to them.
Each of these languages has its own unique script as well as cultural history. And no one language is shared as a common linguistic bond between the different citizens of countries. With the absence of a clear dominant language, choosing a ‘national language’ is of some difficulty.
WHY NOT HINDI?
So why is Hindi often thought of as the national language?
Well, while Hindi isn’t the mother tongue of a large part of the population, approximately 35-50% of Indian citizens speak the language as either a second or third language. The fact that Hindi is quite similar to other Northern, Western and Eastern languages makes the learning bridge a little easier. For example, someone who speaks Odia or Maithili might not be fluent in Hindi, but could certainly understand and communicate to a large extent. Bollywood and Hindi media are also very prolific producers- distributing staggering amounts of literature, music and films in Hindi. This aids in increasing the popularity of the language. Almost all Indian schools offer Hindi as a second language and it is a well-known fact that employment in the country is facilitated by knowledge of Hindi.
With this, there was and has been an immense push to make Hindi a national language. Aside from simplifying administrative tasks, it would also act as a mechanism to unite the country. It is easier to rally nationalistic ideals around a single language rather than juggling various languages and their connected politics. When you travel from state to state, it is hard to communicate with the locals, however, Hindi often does act as the bridging gap and is, therefore, a useful tool in bringing communities together.
However, this issue isn’t just black or white. Making Hindi the national language would involve forcing it upon the population, and that would destroy the many native languages of the country in the pursuit of unification. While the West, East and North may grudgingly accept the language, the Southern part of India will surely not.
THE NORTH/SOUTH DIVIDE
South India is markedly different from the Northern half on a variety of accounts and language is just one of them. Dravidian languages are spoken there and these languages don’t have the similarities that Hindi shares with other Indian languages, and as a result, Hindi remains a largely ‘foreign’ language to the people.
The people of South India, therefore, think of appointing Hindi as the national language, as a forced imposition. They believe it would pave the path for more changes to suit the needs of the North and oppress the unique characteristics of Southern India.
Even if the language of choice isn’t Hindi, ( and there aren’t any other clear competitors), the appointment would always be tainted with politics and would be seen as catering to a particular community. If Sanskrit was appointed, it would divide the Muslim community. If Bengali was appointed, it would ignore the reality that most of India doesn’t speak Bengali and so on.
Even right now, the proliferation of Hindi is used predominantly by Hindu Nationalist parties.
THE CASE FOR ENGLISH
Another solution would be to appoint English as the national language. Around 125 million people speak English in India, making it the world’s 2nd largest English speaking country ( however, 125 million is only about 10%). Choosing English would reduce community tensions and would do away from political partiality. Moreover, as the world increasingly comes together, using English makes it easier to connect at a global level.
However, English comes with its own baggage. Education in English is only available to the upper-middle class and poorer communities have little to no access. This would effectively cut the rural communities off legal facilities and would be discriminatory in practice. There is no point in using a language that the majority cannot speak.
Moreover, as a remnant of India’s colonial history, English is a bittersweet language. It has made India’s integration into global industries easier, however, it also carries with the history of oppression, racism, colonialism, slavery and genocide. Why should India choose a language that has been used to oppress it for centuries? And what kind of message would it send to its 1.3 billion citizens? That the British had once again succeeded in dividing and ruling India.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The clearest road ahead for India is to maintain the status quo. This would quell the possibility of community conflicts and ensure unity is maintained as best as possible. As of now, most places already display information in the local languages, Hindi and English. Official documents tend to be written in Hindi and English while internal matters of the state are additionally displayed in the local language. There is still scope to make administrative tasks easier, however that issue may be also solved by the aid of computers and AI.
While India might not have an officially designated ‘national language’ it sure has a lot of linguistic diversity and history to be proud of.