Last week, I found myself in the unenviable position of not being able to either own or disown a report of a Parliamentary Committee! Such are the challenges of holding a public office. The Parliamentary Committee on Official Language was first constituted in 1976. By convention, the home minister is the ex-officio chairman of the committee. There are 20 members elected by the Lok Sabha and 10 elected by the Rajya Sabha. The ‘election’ is only a formal procedure, since the political parties in each House of Parliament get proportionate representation and they nominate their candidates accordingly.
Protagonists of Hindi
The object of the committee is to promote the use of Hindi. Political parties usually nominate to the committee protagonists of Hindi. Naturally, the members of the committee, or at least the overwhelming majority of the members, consider it their duty to recommend measures that will accelerate the use of Hindi for all official purposes.
After I was appointed home minister in December 2008, I was designated as the chairman. Mr Satyavrat Chaturvedi, an ardent supporter of the increased use of Hindi, was the deputy chairman. The 30 members were distributed among sub-committees. The most important sub-committee was the Drafting and Evidence Sub-Committee. It was chaired by the deputy chairman.
As I recall from memory, evidence was recorded in Hindi and the report was drafted in Hindi. The full committee adopted, after some discussion, the report. I recall that the deliberations were in Hindi and I was, for the most part, a silent and somewhat bemused listener! Obviously, the views of the overwhelming majority of the members were reflected in the recommendations contained in the report. The chairman did not have any extraordinary powers and certainly could not overrule the views of the majority, in this case an overwhelming majority. As chairman, it was my duty to submit the report to the government, which I did in 2011.
It appears that, recently, the government accepted all but a few recommendations of the committee and submitted them to the President who, acting on the aid and advice of the council of ministers, accepted the recommendations.
The recommendations were duly conveyed to the ministries of the central government and to the state governments.
It is necessary to emphasise that they are recommendations.
Hindi and English will co-exist
The publication of the report and the recommendations has stirred up a hornets’ nest. While the concern is perhaps justified, there is no need to fear there will be catastrophic consequences. I shall tell you why I think so:
Firstly, Hindi and English have learnt to co-exist peacefully! Hindi knows its place, English knows its place and, in some places, both share the space, giving rise to a unique conversational language called Hinglish! The peaceful co-existence is most evident where it matters, namely, in transacting government or official business: Hindi for conversation, Hinglish for discussion, English or Hindi for briefing the minister, English and Hindi for answering questions in Parliament, English for talks with foreign visitors, and English for subjects like science, technology, economics, commerce, defence and foreign affairs. Not much is likely to change as more and more participants become functionally bilingual.
Secondly, whether it is Hindi or English, it does not matter to the overwhelming majority of the people (over 90%) who carry on their lives using just one language, their mother tongue. State and local body administrations are in the language of the state—Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Bangla in West Bengal, Punjabi in Punjab and so on. Those who migrate to another state become functionally literate in the language of that state.
Globalisation and English
Thirdly, globalisation has secured the place of English. The French, the Japanese and the Chinese are among those who most passionately love their language; they have accepted English and, increasingly, their youth speak the language quite fluently. Most globalising Indians travel or migrate to English-speaking countries. The use of English will only grow in a globalising world. Once parents recognised this, states had perforce to introduce teaching English as a subject beginning in class 1.
Fourthly, the language used in the air, on the seas and in space is English, no matter what language is spoken on the land. This fact was brought home to me in the control room of MV Lagoon, a passenger ship plying between mainland India and the Lakshadweep islands. We cannot run Air Traffic Control (ATC) or the Vehicle Tracking System (VTS) or Mission Control Centres without English. (I am sure there is a Hindi or Telugu or Assamese word for ‘port’ and ‘starboard’, but who uses them on a ship?)
Fifthly, the exponential growth of the media and the explosion in the number of platforms to access the media have obliged people to become functionally literate in English. The desire for information and the need to use technology have obliged people to learn functional English.
After conveying the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee, the correct thing for the government to do is to do nothing. In the natural course, more and more people in India will become bilingual or trilingual or even multilingual. (The young superintendent of police of Lakshadweep is fluent in four languages that I heard her speak, maybe more!). States will promote their own language(s). English will thrive. Use of Hindi will increase at a natural pace. There is no need to start a controversy.