Language Politics - Yediyurappa Defies The Boss

Raman Swamy

Any controversy that diverts attention from economic slowdown is welcome.  This week the hot topic is language politics. 
The easiest way to stir up passions in India is to say ‘English should be banned’ or ‘Hindi should be made mandatory first languages in all schools in all States’.   It is a sure-fire method to provoke instant reactions, protests, angry statements and heated debates.  

Home Minister Amit Shah lit the spark during the weekend by suggesting that Hindi should be declared the Raj Bhasha.  Sure enough, a chorus of voices was raised against ‘imposition of Hindi’ from several States where political parties are acutely aware that the masses identify strongly with their own mother tongue and linguistic sentiments are the key to winning votes. 

It should have been no surprise therefore, that Karnataka chief minister Y. S. Yediyurappa spoke up to uphold the sanctity of Kannada.  He issued a statement that has been widely hailed in his home State and elsewhere too:  “All official languages in our country are equal. However, as far as Karnataka is concerned, Kannada is the principal language. We will never compromise its importance and are committed to promote Kannada and our state's culture”.

However, while it was inevitable for Yediyurappa to defend his mother tongue it has at the same time sent shock-waves within his own party at the national level.   This is the first time a BJP chief minister has dared to openly defy and contradict his own national party president that, too, an all-powerful leader like the present Home Minister. 

Whether this leads to political consequences for Yediyurappa is a different matter.   But the pertinent point as far as language politics and regional pride are concerned, the Karnataka chief minister really had no other option.  

The fact is that at present, India does not have any national language.  The Indian Constitution only designates Hindi as the “official language of the Union” – not the national language.  Importantly, a Clause has been added in Part XVII of the Constitution reading:  "or in English" (for carrying out daily official work).

Article 343 specifically mentions that "The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devnagari script. The form of numerals to be used for the official purposes of the Union shall be the international form of Indian numerals”. 

Ever since India became a Republic, it has been English that has been used in official purposes such as Parliamentary proceedings, Judiciary, communications between the Central Government and State Governments.   

As far as individual States are concerned, they have been given the liberty and the powers to choose their own official language through legislation.

Apart from the ‘official languages’, the Constitution has also recognized as many as 22 regional languages  - which includes Hindi but not English - as Scheduled Languages. 

In order to understand the debate for and against declaring Hindi as the national language (or Raj Bhasha),  it is necessary to grasp the implications of why the Constitutional was drafted with such meticulous precision.   There was deep appreciation among the Founding Fathers that the new entity emerging out of independence from British rule comprises of a variety and diversity of languages, cultural histories, customs, faiths and beliefs. 

Modern India is a truly diverse nation.  Even today, according to the 2011 Census,  the total number of “Native Hindi speakers” is only about 25 percent  of the overall Indian population.  Adding all the various dialects of Hindi, (which are viewed as Hindi languages), the total still amounts to only around 45 percent of the population. 

Most of these 45 percent of citizens belong to the States that fall under the so-called ‘Hindi Belt’.   Within the Hindi belt States, only ten percent of the people speak other Indian languages. 

In contrast, the Census data shows that the people in most other States of the country --  apart from some in Northern and Central India -- do not speak Hindi as their main language but have only adopted Hindi as a secondary language.

To drive home the reality -  the Census clearly shows that in only 12 out of 35 States (including undivided Andhra Pradesh) and Union Territories have the local people chosen Hindi as their first choice for communication.

In the rest of the 23 States, the ground reality is like this -  a) a few have chosen  Hindi as their Second or Third language of communication;  b) many of the States have opted for English as their Second or Third language. 

It is worth underlining that at an all-India level only about 43.63 percent of the total population have declared Hindi as their mother tongue.

For the record, in a majority of these 23 States, English is still a major link language. From a global perspective,  use of English is not declining but growing.   For example, millions of Chinese now learn English, because they want to communicate with the rest of the world. So do a lot of Japanese, Koreans, Indonesians, Thais, Germans, Swedes and others. In India, a lot of people from States such as Gujarat — which send vast numbers of emigrants to the West — are especially keen learners of English.

This is the main reason why Amit Shah’s sudden advocacy to make Hindi the Raj Bhasha has evoked strong resistance and also why the BJP leaders in States like Karnataka are showing signs of defiance.   

Indeed, Yediyurappa’s statement reflects the dilemma of regional BJP leaders being caught between regional pride and party discipline and loyalty.  One BJP MLA candidly blurted out that the party in Karnataka has been pushed on the back-foot due to Amit Shah pushing Hindi as the national language.

Shah’s statement comes at a particularly inappropriate time because assembly by-polls are expected to be held in 17 assembly constituencies.  The BJP finds itself in the unenviable position of providing a weak response to the comments or trying to rope in the ideology of the RSS to bolster their argument.

As an RSS ideologue categorically stated:  “From the days of Jan Sangh, our leaders including our ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay, have stressed that regional languages should be supreme in every state. The RSS firmly believes that mother tongue should be given priority”.

Even deputy chief minister Govind Karjol was clear: “Kannada is precious for us. It 2,500 years old. The Mughals, Portuguese and the British ruled this country but they couldn’t destroy Kannada. Kannada is eternal and will survive as long as there are people on this Earth”.

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Sep 18, 2019

Raman Swamy [email protected]

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