External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent statement in the Lok Sabha, on India being ready to bear all expenses to make Hindi one of the official languages of the UN sounds like a case of Hindi chauvinism and prompted Opposition leader Shashi Tharoor to ask, “What purpose is being served by trying to make Hindi an official language in the United Nations? I understand the prime minister and external affairs minister can speak in Hindi, but what if a future external affairs minister comes from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, who couldn’t speak in the language?” There are, currently, six official languages of the UN— Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish—English and French are the only two working languages. The process of making an addition to the UN’s official language list is an exacting one since it requires a two-thirds majority of the total of 193 member countries; since there aren’t enough countries that have a Hindi-speaking population, intense diplomatic effort will be required to swing it for India.
While Swaraj will have her work cut out, the question is whether this is Hindi chauvinism? In all probability, it isn’t. According to the Constitution, Hindi is the official language of the Union of India for all official purposes, as also English – English was to be used for just 15 years from the adoption of the Constitution, but Parliament provided for continued use of English in 1963. So, whether the head of state or the prime minister comes from a Hindi-speaking region or not, the official communication from him/her has to be in these two languages. Hindi may or may not get adopted as an official language at the UN—and if it is, it will be more decorative than functional—but this is more about India’s soft power than anything else. Getting the UN to declare June 21 as International Day of Yoga was one such demonstration, if the government can do the same with Hindi, that’s an agenda worth pursuing.