Linguistic hierarchy and multilingualism

The hullabaloo over Shashi Tharoor’s Twitter comments, at least in cyberspace and the English language television channels, makes me wonder: what is a subject worthy of “national debate” and who decides? Like the vast majority of people in this country, I travel by train, II class, so the “cattle class” debate (as indeed the austerity drive) means little to me. However, that the debate has now become one about (not) knowing English disturbs me profoundly because an earlier issue of a Union Minister’s inability to speak English merited little attention. MK Azhagiri, minister from Tamil Nadu, put in a request to be allowed to speak in Tamil during the Question Hour in Parliament because of his professed lack of fluency in both English and Hindi. The Parliament Secretariat turned down his request citing “practical difficulties” as the reason. Apparently he cannot avail of the services of a translator because this is a privilege only MPs enjoy.

Yes, Hindi and English are the designated official languages, so insisting on their use for official purposes (such as in Parliament) is well in keeping with the law of the land. But isn’t it patently unfair to non-Hindi speakers that English and Hindi are covert requirements for becoming Union Ministers? I see no reason, other than sheer cussedness, why he shouldn’t be allowed a translator.

This is an old debate I know. Those of us south of the Vindhyas have Tamil Nadu to thank for the fact that Hindi hasn’t been imposed on us. But what has the other option, English, given us? Wasn’t English supposed to dilute the obvious discrimination against non-Hindi speakers that the official status of Hindi entails?

I don’t particularly fancy Azhagiri; he’s Union Minister today only because his father had bargaining clout with the Congress. But let’s for the moment forget this, and just focus on the predicament of a minister from Tamil Nadu (it could very well be Kerala, AP or Karnataka).  Hindi is out of the question, given that he’s from Tamil Nadu. But why not English? In fact the man holds a postgraduate degree which means that he must know English — the de facto medium of higher education in this country. However, here we enter thin-ice territory. “English medium” is one of the great Indian farces – that sacred cow which, to paraphrase S. Nagarajan1, we will neither take care of nor let die in peace.

I can very well imagine that the minister would have been reluctant to display his inadequate English in Parliament for the simple reason that lack of command of English in this country is very often seen as a sign of inferior education and abilities. Legend has it that Indira Gandhi once came back from a UN conference livid because she was unable to understand the English spoken by an Indian delegate. The fact that the delegate was at that distinguished diplomatic level suggests that he would have earned his stripes, but not necessarily English as expected from the elite of this country.

The upshot is that those who enjoy the benefits of private-school education will corner the best jobs. For the vast majority of non-Hindi speakers, the choice between Hindi and English is a choice between Scylla and Charybdis.

I’m not of course denying the importance of English. Whether or not we like it, we will have to persist with English; the educational system has to be made to deliver. That is of course the most obvious solution, though not the best one. But then linguistic chauvinism is probably one of our defining traits as a people: no linguistic community can bear to have another community’s language higher up in the complex linguistic hierarchy that our multilingualism has generated, even if that means adopting a foreign tongue, the tongue of our former colonizers, a tongue spoken, with any degree of comfort, by less than 10% of the population. Thanks to this chauvinism, English monopolizes domains of power — education, governance, commerce.

In multilingual societies, languages naturally exist in hierarchical relationships that are often institutionalized. English in India is often spoken of as the default language used because it is the only language shared with another speaker; this is only deceptively innocuous. English is also used because it is regarded as the appropriate language for a particular communicative context.

As P.D. Tripathi2 argues, the universal importance of English is an ideological production:

To think of English as the language of inter-state communication (except perhaps at the miniscule top) is to ignore the reality of everyday life, and to assume that before its advent there was no communication and that there cannot be any now without it, between one part of the country and another. The lowly worker from Bihar based in Calcutta or Bombay does not use English, which he does not know, to relate with fellow workers, equally deficient in English, from other parts of the country.

With Kapil Sibal threatening to fortify this hierarchy, with his English-Hindi-regional language formula, I shudder to think of what the future holds.  What makes such a position atavistic is that in the world outside multilingualism is gaining ground.

Let me point you to this study (tedious download required, but worth it) commissioned by the British Council to forecast the future of English in the 21st century. It suggests that the monopolistic position that English acquired in the 20th century is set to change by the middle of the 21st century, as it will become part of an oligopoly with a few other languages, each with its own sphere of influence.

The World Wide Web, which was largely instrumental in the rapid rise of English in the last half of the 20th century, is already today a far more multilingual space than it was in the 90s, and this trend can only grow. The study predicts that the languages that will increase in terms of number of speakers are Hausa and Swahili in Africa, the regional languages of India, Tok Pisin in Oceania, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic. If this is the future of the world, then the argument that Hindi will be a national unifying force only seems pernicious: why should the onus of achieving such national unity lie more heavily with non-Hindi speakers?

There are no easy solutions, I grant, but here’s one that I have:  give official status to a few more regional languages, specifically, one each from the four corners of the country — Tamil from the south, Bengali from the east, Gujarati/ Marathi from the west and Assamese/Manipuri/Mizo from the NE. Along with English and Hindi.

All of these need not compulsorily be taught in school; however,  all official transactions and communication can take place in and will be translated into these languages. While this will not do away with the hierarchy altogether, we’ll at least be casting the net wider. Complete linguistic justice is perhaps a pipedream, but we must take steps towards making the situation more egalitarian.

More importantly, what such a solution will also accomplish is to give translation and the teaching of languages the much needed shot in the arm, as more and more translators and people who speak two or more Indian languages will be in demand. In other words, employment generation based on intrinsic, internal needs.

For those who scoff at the idea of a market for Indian languages, here’s an interesting question from Graddol’s study (cited above): Jurassic Park grossed 6m $ in India in 1994, but in which language?

1 Nagarajan, S. 1981. “The Decline of English in India: Some Historical Notes.” College English 43, no. 7: 663–670.

2 Tripathi, P.D. (1992) “The Chosen Tongue”.  English Today, vol 32, no. 8, 4 October, pp 3-11



  1. hokusai09 said

    Life being what it is, the minister should have chosen to remain at the State level until he acquired proficiency in Hindi and/or English before aspiring to serve all of India.

    And why would you pick Tamil as a suggested additional national language, I would insist on Telugu or Kannada, for after all they do represent the global face of India through IT, while Tamil Nadu us surely an atavistic enterprise (wherein only a name such as Stalin could be used without irony or ignominy)

  2. hokusai09:

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your views. Your first comment is a reaffirmation of the bias my post speaks of, so I will not respond to it, except to say that what happens to ministers is visible (though some are clearly more equal); ordinary people suffer such discrimination all the time, which one scarcely hears about.

    Regd. your second observation, my reasons for the choice of these four languages is firstly demographic (no. of speakers, which is why Bengali and Guj/Marathi); secondly severity of non-representation (which is why the NE lang).
    Now, my choice of Tamil is because they represent the strongest anti-Hindi lobby. I’m not talking about “international status” for these languages, so Telugu/Kannada’s ‘global face’ is irrelevant for me.

    You are welcome to your views about Tamil Nadu. I have the greatest respect for the Tamil people because of the manner in which they promote and preserve their language and because they have a far more ancient secular tradition than any other as seen in works like the Silappadigaram and Thirukkural. (FYI I’m Telugu.)

  3. apu said

    SS, the first comment illustrates exactly why your solution won’t work 🙂 Nobody can bear to see another state being chosen over their own, whatever be the logic! Which is why, we’d rather have a foreign language than let Hindi be a common medium across the country. I am Tamil and I can see why TN was (at one time) so paranoid about Hindi domination, but it hasn’t resulted in Tamil being favoured in any way; in fact if television is any indicator, the quality of Tamil being used in public life is abysmal.

  4. apu:
    Perhaps the working or otherwise of my solution depends on its being implemented? It may not be acceptable, yes, due to our inherent linguistic chauvinism as I’ve already pointed out in my post. That is a hurdle we’ll need to educate ourselves across.

    It’s unfortunate that we use the term “anti-Hindi” for a movement that is essentially pro-mother- tongue, which is how I interpret the Periyar movement as well. Also, I don’t think the movement was about supplanting or challenging Hindi at the national level; I see it as a fight to use the mother tongue for all official purposes. That is the favour that has accrued. About the quality of Tamil today – well, change is a sign of growth!

  5. Prasanth said

    I doubt the addition of more official languages will really help, one because of the chauvinism mentioned above, and secondly because at a practical level, it doesn’t help anyone except the Tamils (in this case). Of course, it spreads the net wider but that alone cannot address the larger issue you address.

    Will more jobs being created via translation and teaching via the government enhance/enrich the language in any way? Will freshly recruited translators or teachers of Tamil see any potential for emancipation/mobility in the language as opposed to English?

    Ironic, isn’t it, that the southern states which were in the forefront of the fight for linguistic rights are the location for so many of the debates about the death of the vernacular as well as the centre of an entire industry that thrives within the interstices of these debates?

  6. Prasanth:

    Hmmm. You raise valid reservations. My solution is just beta! A lot more work/thinking has to go into it, which I will do in subsequent posts perhaps. But a few thoughts:

    Adding additional languages – anything would be better than the current highly discriminatory situation. We need to get out of this “it will only help Tamils” mindset. When Hindi was thrust down our throats, we knew it would benefit Hindi speakers, but we swallowed it, didn’t we? Exposure to Hindi through official channels has certainly ensured that a lot of south Indians pick it up; a large number do speak some kind of a pidgin Hindi.

    As Kanimozhi very rightly pointed out on TV the other day, those wishing to study/work in the north need to know Hindi. What about those coming south? Shouldn’t there be a language from the south they should learn?

    Any language will grow and thrive primarily when it has state support. Right now the state’s support , overtly, covertly, every which way, is for Hindi and English. In Central Schools all over India Hindi is compulsory. Doesn’t that mean state-supported employment opportunities in terms of teaching, textbook production, even private language teaching centres? Now if Tamil were the official language of the south, then you need more teachers to teach it as a foreign language to other speakers. Depending on the region one is in, the third language could be Tamil/Assamese/Bengali/ Marathi instead of the thoroughly useless Sanskrit and even French that we currently have.

    But note, I did not say that all of these have to be taught; only that they should be of official status so that their use as alternatives to Hindi can be promoted.

    Indian languages can only compete with English when opportunities are created for use and employment in those languages. When this is done, who knows? We may even have private institutes teaching Indian languages as well, not just English! The current scenario allows that only for Hindi. All other languages are abandoned after 4/5 years as a second language. And those from a regional medium background are at a terrible disadvantage.

    Language planning is such a thorny issue in India because we tend to get intimidated by the sheer number of languages. Let’s bear in mind that despite this, Hindi was chosen and imposed as national language. Many of us are, willy-nilly, resigned to it. I don’t see why there will not be acceptance for more languages by and by. It’s just that, like a lot of things Indian, those who stand to gain by the current situation are unwilling to change the status quo.

    Most Indians are intrinsically bi-or trilingual. That is half the battle won already! And translation is not really such a hurdle now with machine translation. Our languages are a resource, not a liability. We have to learn to tap them. Education will reach far greater numbers when it is conducted in Indian languages instead of exclusively in English. But yes, that requires planning, policy changes, mindset changes, resources, teachers, materials . . . There’s plenty of work if we want to do it.!

    I still have a lot to think about on the issue, so thanks for the thought-provoking questions.

  7. […] smokescreen’s interesting post offering a novel solution to link the indian nation. don’t understand why 1) we need to link the indian nation through 1/2/3 languages, 2) if it is a nation, why does it have to be linked through synthetic policy solutions? […]

  8. Kiran said

    few points SS,

    Hindi and English are official languages of central government only – India does not have a concept of national language.
    kapil Sibal is an ….. of the first order to make such an arrogant statement.

    Its not just TN which ensured the survivability of non-hindi languages of India – Ap which was the first to raise the banner of lingusitic has as much if not more role in ensuring that.

  9. Kiran:

    First, thanks for dropping by and commenting.


    >>Its not just TN…

    I’ve not said that Indian languages other than Hindi (not non-Hindi; I have serious probs with defining something by what it’s not!) have survived because of Tamil. What I said was that it’s because of TN’s vociferous opposition that Hindi hasn’t been imposed on us. Different things, really.

    >>Hindi and English are official languages of central government

    Hindi and English are India’s national, official languages as decreed by the Constitution, not just the languages of its central government.. Regional languages have official status in their respective states, and are therefore the languages of the state governments.

    Now, the Indian people certainly have no concept, by and large, of an “Indian language” and use whichever language they deem fit, irrespective of what the Constitution decrees. Different things, really.

    You may disagree with the concept of an Indian nationality, but the official position is that Hindi is our national language.

    And oh, I have little respect for Sibal, too, but I can say so without stooping to abuse. And since this is my blog, I’ve taken the liberty of deleting your swear-word as well. I’m sure you’ll understand. 🙂

  10. Kiran said

    Its my pleasure to post here.. Now this from wikipedia “The official language of the Republic of India is Hindi with English as a secondary official language;[1] states in India can legislate their own official languages.[1] Neither the Constitution of India, nor any Indian law defines any national language.”

    No India does not have a national language – lets be clear about that. The claim that hindi is a national language is propogated by hindi chavunists (often with connivance of central government) to put other languages at a disadvantage in some aspects. Hindi is only (one of the) language of Indian federal (or central) state not Indian nation.

    Also I do think Indian people have the concept of Indian languages – Telugu, Tamil, Marathi are definetely Indian language. but what is objectionable is forcing on the indian people a concept of national languages – that has no place here.

  11. Kiran:

    Thank you but I don’t read Wikipedia for such purposes. The Constitution of India is online here:

    And this is the relevant section:

    Hindi is the official language of the Union. Since the states haven’t as yet seceded from the Union, the Union does mean the nation.

    And I seriously don’t see what the bee in your bonnet is. My entire post is precisely that the declaration of Hindi as official language for the nation puts states at a disadvantage.

    Also, please re-read my comment. I put Indian language (note the singular) in double quotes, to mean one 1 Indian language.

  12. Kiran said

    Wikipedia does not contradict what you have written. In your post the UM was not allowed to make his reply in Tamil citing practical difficulties and not because it was unconstitutional. Your solution of more official languages of the union governement may lead to more resentments. The solution in my mind is more federalism..more independence from the center. Culturally and socially India not a nation anyway as NTR said Kendramu oka midhya.


  13. Kiran:

    Federalism – yeah, that’s kuffir’s view. And what I was suggesting was greater decentralisation than the existing monopoly. I don’t essentially disagree with complete federalism; I just don’t think it is feasible. Can one have more or less independence? You are either independent or dependent, no?

    And there are at least some issues for which states are dependent – defence, water sharing, foreign affairs…Rather than think of utopias shouldn’t we focus on more workable solutions?

    Anyway, thanks for engaging in the debate, and broadening my perspective. My solution is certainly not perfect, and every new point of view is much grist for the mill, so thanks! 🙂

  14. Bengali chauvinism feet of clay said

    1. Famous Hindu mathematicians, poets, and philosophers:

    Aryabhatta (Kerala), Aryabhatta (Bihar), Bhaskara (Andhra), Brahmagupta (Gujarat), Susruta (North), Panini (Punjab), Kalidas (MP), Tansen (MP), Baiju Bawra (MP), Jayadeva (Orissa), Guru Nanak (Punjab), Buddha (Bihar), Mahavira (Bihar), Vatsyayana (Gujarat), Kabir (UP), Soordas (UP), Amir Khusrau (MP), Ramanuja (Tamil Nadu), Adi Shankara (Kerala), Mirabai (Rajasthan), Tulsidas (UP).


    2. Famous Indian kings and emperors:

    Ashoka (Bihar), Chandragupta Maurya (Bihar), Samudragupta (UP), Bimbisara (Bihar), Raja Raja Chola (Tamil), Akbar (Delhi), Krishna Deva Raya (Karnataka), Tipu Sultan (Andhra), Shivaji (Maharashtra), Kanishka (North India), Prithviraj Chauhan (Rajasthan), Vikramaditya (MP), Rani Lakshmiba of Jhansi (MP), Rajendra Chola (Tamil), Harsha (Haryana), Zamorin (Kerala), Ranjit Singh (Punjab).


    3. Famous Indian battles:

    Kurukshetra (Haryana), Panipat (Haryana), Haldi Ghati (Rajasthan), Pataliputra (Bihar), Puru-Alexander (Punjab), Vijayanagar-Bahmani (Andhra-Karnataka), Ashoka-Kalinga (Orissa).


    4. Ancient Indian religious and philosophical centers:

    Varanasi (UP), Tirupati (Tamil Nadu), Haridwar (Uttarakhand), Nashik (Maharashtra), Ujjain (MP), Dwarka (Gujarat), Puri (Orissa), Prayag (UP), Mathura (UP), Ayodhya (UP), Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu), Gaya (Bihar).


    5. Classical Dances in India:

    Bharatanatyam (Tamil), Odissi (Orissa), Kuchipudi (Andhra), Manipuri (North East), Mohiniaattam (Kerala), Sattriya (Assam), Kathakali (Kerala), Kathak (Hindi states).


    6a. Ancient UNESCO world heritage sites:

    Mahabodhi (Bihar), Hampi (Karnataka), Ellora (Maharashtra), Ajanta (Maharashtra), Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu), Konarak (Orissa), Khajuraho (MP).

    6b. Medieval UNESCO world heritage sites:

    Qutb Minar (Delhi), Taj Mahal (UP), Red Fort (Delhi).

    6c. Majestic palaces and forts:

    Lake palace, Udaipur (Rajasthan), Amber Fort (Rajasthan), Gwalior Fort (MP), Hawa Mahal (Rajasthan), Jantar Mantar (Delhi, Rajasthan).

    6c. Ancient universities and monasteries:

    Nalanda (Bihar), Taxila (Punjab/Pak), Ratnagiri (Orissa), Sanchi Stupa (MP), Vikramashila (Bihar).


    Bengalis are 15-20% of the entire population of South Asia. Yet they accomplished NOTHING until the British came and gifted them with Kolkata city and modern education. Bengal profited from British invasion when the rest of India was ruined. All Kolkata monuments are British gifts: Victoria memorial, Howrah bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Esplanade, etc.

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