Hindi did have influential backers in the Assembly, including Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and BR Ambedkar, but after a heated debate in the Assembly, it adopted the Munshi-Ayyangar formula that called for letting English continue as the official language of India along with Hindi for a period of 15 years, with Parliament having the power to extend the use of English further.
Union home minister Amit Shah is right when he says—at a function to mark Hindi Divas—that a country that forgets its language “kills its cultural existence”, and that “language connects us to the roots of the nation”. The problem, however, lies in Shah’s appeal to use Hindi as the “unifying” language when it is clear large parts of the country find this unacceptable. The PIB press release on the event quotes Shah on the “unanimous consensus for Hindi as national language in the Constituent Assembly”, but the issue is about whether this was meant to be the only national language. Hindi did have influential backers in the Assembly, including Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and BR Ambedkar, but after a heated debate in the Assembly, it adopted the Munshi-Ayyangar formula that called for letting English continue as the official language of India along with Hindi for a period of 15 years, with Parliament having the power to extend the use of English further. In 1963, the Official Languages Act was enacted to grant English an extension, in a bid to preempt opposition to Hindi becoming the sole official language. In 1967, the Act was further amended to allow Hindi and English to continue as official languages indefinitely.
Given India’s multilingual ethos—Shah himself noted that India was home to 122 languages, and nearly 20,000 dialects—the Constitution defines not only the official languages of the Union and the states but also the language of interstate communication, and the language to be used in the courts and in legislative processes, along with some special directives, points out Priya Misra of NLSIU in a 2017 paper in the Journal of Legal Studies and Research. The Supreme Court, in Union of India v. Murasoli Maran, said that extending the time for the usage of English does not amount to “abandonment of progress in the use of Hindi as the official language of the Union”. But the home minister should look at his own speech to understand why pushing Hindi as the national (or, “unifying”) language, is a patently bad idea. A language’s deep links with the culture of the people that speak it is undeniable. In a country where the roots of culture and language run deep in the psyche of its many peoples, using Hindi as the sole national language is bound to erode the unity that is strengthened by this diversity.
The government should have learnt its lesson when the three-language formula controversy for school education, recommended in the original draft National Education Policy submitted by the K Kasturirangan panel, roused furious opposition in the non-Hindi speaking states. Since it clearly didn’t, it should look at the aftermath of Shah’s Hindi Divas remarks. Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa has stated that Kannada is the “principal language” of the state, signalling an anti-Hindi imposition-stance. Leaders from across southern and eastern India have decried Hindi imposition. The creation of states largely along linguistic lines, and English having a pan-India utilitarian value has brought about a thriving unity that the authors of the Constitution recognised and appreciated. Pushing Hindi as “unifying” language undermines the unity the Constitution has so carefully crafted.