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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 39, New Delhi, Sept 11, 2021

Language Policy Issues in India With Some Reference to Northeast Tribes | J.J. Roy Burman

Saturday 11 September 2021, by J.J. Roy Burman

The language issue has become a highly sensitive agenda in the nation building process all over the globe, India not excluded. According to Khare (2002) language being a channel of communication, it has two major roles in society. It influences distribution of power and wealth, particularly in an under literate society. It also acts as an emotional and culture cement for social bonding. The language issue in India has been a major prickly point of politics since the nation- state was founded on 15th August 1947. While the North Indian leaders staunchly vouched for Hindi to be the national language, leaders from south and east India vehemently opposed this.

Sanskrit played the elitist role in ancient India being the language of religion, government and literature. Pali and subsequently Prakrit and ‘apavranshas’ were spoken by the masses. Sanskrit gave way to Persian in most of India during Muslim rule. Regional dialects and languages continued to develop at popular level, acquiring elements of Persian, Arabic and Turkish. It led to a highly polyglot lingua-franca, called Hindavi or Urdu – popular in Bazars and military camps.

During the nineteenth century English displaced Persian as the ruling language, while regional vernaculars continued to be popular among masses. The East India Company replaced Urdu and Persian by local vernaculars and English as the court language in 1832 – so that general public could comprehend the judicial proceedings. Hindi and Urdu being distinctly different languages got crystallized through the efforts of Fort William College in first half of nineteenth century. The Devanagri script got a boost in 1870-80s. But the popular version of Hindi was different and the majority populace of the cow belt could not comprehend it. Mahmood (1974) states that the British introduced English as the official language for administrative purposes. Even now, it proves to be a link language and stands as a status symbol for the elites.

In the post-colonial situation masses rebelled against use of English and demanded Hindi to be the official and national language as well. But it was not realized that the official Hindi was not the mother tongue of majority people of the country – not even in the Hindi heartland. The Hindi Khari Boli was more akin to Urdu grammar and diction, cleansed of foreign and rustic words. It substantiated Urdu. This was the situation in the Hindi heartland of North India. The challenge posed by Hindi was bound to end in failure. The 1967 amendment to the official language Act of 1963 constituted a committee and English continued to be the Associate Official language till it was repelled by all the states of the country. English in India continues to be an elite language, even under democracy. Language now has become a political imperative. A Commission that was constituted to look into the language situation found it to be highly piqued. The majority members recommended that English should be continued for an indefinite period. This diabolic situation concerns the very integration of the nation-state. In 2016 the government directed to form offices in different states to monitor the spread of Hindi. Within the Parliament Hindi was encouraged more during the debates (though English too was permitted). Speaking in one’s own mother tongue by the Members of Parliament, with the permission of the ‘Speaker’.

Some linguistic states introduced regional language in order to keep off Hindi and replace English. Emphasis was given to the use of mother tongue. The modern ideas of liberty and self-determination were first introduced in India through English. It is an international language and one of the few media by which India can retain and cultivate relations with outside world. Under such conditions no nation can dispense with the need for knowledge of a world language.

The Radha Krishnan Commission strongly favoured retention of English as the State language. It is a language which is rich in literature – humanistic, scientific and technical. If for sentimental reasons we want to give it up, we would cut ourselves off from the living stream of ever-growing institution. This would curtail our participation in the world movement of thoughts.

It was the Motilal Nehru Report of 1928 which laid the ground for the primacy of Hindi language in place of Urdu and augur the incorporation of Hindi language and Devanagri script. However, English continued to be used for official dealings, but as a second language – for 15 years and longer, if the Parliament so desired. An official language Commission instituted in 1955 supported Hindi to be the sole official language. But Bengal and Madras marked their opposition and leaned towards English.

Presently all State legislatures dealings are done regional languages although authoritative texts are all in English. In the Central Parliament Hindi is used more commonly, but English remains to be the link language. Scientific teachings and correspondence, continues to be in English. English remains to be ‘Prestige language’. Higher education, particularly science is in English, almost all over the country. Inter-state dealings or communications are too mainly in English.

The stress on Hindi came down mainly due to the democratic disorder. The north Indians constitute majority of the electorate in the Parliament. In 1965-66, during the anti-Hindi agitation, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda strongly voiced in favour of Hindi as the national and Official language. C. Subramaniam (Food Minister) and M.C. Chagla (Education Minster), vehemently opposed the language policy of the then central government. Overwhelming number of politicians and peoples of South India stood against the Hindi language policy.

(Mahmood 1974) writes that the question of Hindi as the national language is rather complicated; it is not spoken by the majority people of India. The dialects of Hindi are not comprehended by the sub-groups of even North India. In Banaras ‘Suddh Hindi’ is used in banks, offices and schools. None of the educational administrators knew anything about three language formula being implemented in schools. At many places, it has been observed that students from the government schools have been shifted private English schools, though it costs more. Learning English gives them greater opportunity in the job market. Neither Hindi nor the regional languages are comprehensive enough for becoming a link language. Hindi cannot facilitate easy access to modern knowledge or communication with the outside world. While Jawaharlal Nehru took a liberal view towards English, M.K. Gandhi was more in favour of Hindi. He pointed out five requirements for any language to be accepted as the national language:

1. It should be easy to learn for the government officials.
2. It should be capable for serving as a medium of religion.
3. It should be easy to learn for whole of the country.
4. It should be the speech of the majority inhabitants of the country.
5. In choosing the language, considerations of temporary or passing
interests should not count.

Gandhi’s formula was not appreciated by people of the entire country, particularly from South and Eastern regions.

The state of development of language in the present time depends largely on the educational policy of the State. Educational policy does not merely imply the government policies on education from time to time, but it means the manner in which the educational system has functioned in the country in the post- colonial period. Second, the critical issues in educational policy corresponds to critical problems of the present-day education in India (Kamat 1980).

After the departure of British, the language issue took a more serious turn when the Constitution was framed. In 1955 the controversy regarding national and official language surfaced at the political and social level. In the 1960s three language formula was launched; according to which, Hindi, English and Regional language would be used for official correspondence. Though this was more easily accepted in the Hindi cow belt of North India, there was stringent opposition in southern and eastern parts of the country. In Tamil Nadu (Erstwhile Madras) the opposition was most severe and turned violent all over and Hindi was rejected un-ceremonially. Gujarat and Maharashtra kept out as their grammar and diction had comparatively greater affinity with Hindi.

The impasse with English and Hindi yet continues to rumble in the country. As, an aftermath of language agitation in Tamil Nadu, the students in Bengaluru convened a meeting on 7th January 1966, and it collectively demanded to amend the Constitution and make English the sole official language. The issue yet lies in a limbo. Arguments have come up that in the entire nation-state of India the people are polyglot. While Hindi or regional languages are spoken in public, the home language is quite different, as stated earlier.

Nuances of language policy among the tribes of Northeast India

The tribes in the Northeast comprise more than 25% of the tribes in entire country. They are in majority in four of the eight states in the region – in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. The tribes there are extremely varied as there are more than four hundred tribal groups and sub- groups in the region. As a consequence, their cultures and languages are too divergent and not comprehended mutually among themselves. They have to select some other prevailing regional language for communication. Assamese language (Assamiya) has an ancient script (dating back to 12th century A.D.) has a great influence over the tribal languages. Assam after all has the largest territory in northeast. Arunachal Pradesh, the second biggest territory was previously known as North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and administered from Shillong – the earlier capital of Assam state. At that time Assamese was the link language between diverse one hundred odd tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. But after state formation the administrative headquarter was shifted to Itanagar. Then onwards the importance of Assamese receded in favour of Hindi. In fact, Two of the Northeast states – Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya have been coined by the famous linguist, Suniti Kumar Chatterji. While Arunachal means the land of snow, Meghalaya connotes the land of clouds. Both are Sanskrit terminologies.

The language is a tricky issue of the north east as well. The region was never a part of India as we know today. The present geography got evolved only after the British quit from the Indian nation-state in 1947. Assam inherited a large territory and played a chauvinistic role by imposing Assamese language. This was not tolerated by tribes of India for long. In 1960 there was a language agitation and the ethic Assamese tried to impose their language as the official lingua franca. Non-Assamese Bengali people mainly took the lead in this matter. The tribal states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland strongly supported this though in a latent fashion.

Nagaland poses a very interesting situation. The state comprises mainly sixteen tribes, each with a separate language. The Ao Naga villages have usually two moieties – Chungli and Mongsen each with a separate language. In the Chungli predominant village their language is used in the church proceedings. The case is reverse in case of the Mongsen villages. Inter-tribes communication is practised in Nagamese – a mixture of pidgin Assamese and Hindi. In the state legislature too Nagamese is the lingua-franca. The proceedings of the Assembly are, however, recorded in English.

In Mizoram, Mizo is the common lingua franca since 1986 was declared to be a separate State. Prior to that it was a separate union territory and earlier it used to be an autonomous District Council of Assam. At that time Assamese was the official language for communication. Presently, Mizo is popular official language with Duhlian script (in Roman script). But Mizo language is actually the lingua franca of the Lusei tribe who used to have the Sailos as chief – mainly in the north and central parts of the State. The Pawi and Bru or Chakma tribes have their own language, but for convenience they are compelled to use Duhlian for official correspondence.

In the State of Tripura the indigenous peoples have been marginalised thoroughly after the partition when lakhs of Bengali refugees immigrated from erstwhile East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh). Now the tribes have been reduced to just around 30%. Not surprisingly, Bangla became the common lingua franca and official language along with English. Very recently the Kak Borok language of the Tripuri tribes have been declared as a common official language. But it has no script of its own.

In Manipur State, the non-tribal Manipuris or commonly called Meitei, constitute about 60% of the total population. Their lingua franca and written script is called Meiteilon. The tribesmen – mainly hill dwellers have around 30% population. Kukis and Nagas are two main tribes of Manipur. Both the groups have several sub-groups and have languages of their own. Interestingly, for communication between the groups Meiteilon is only used. No wonder, only English and Meiteilon are considered to be the official languages. The Meiteis have their own script, which is quite ancient. Since the British period or earlier, Bengali script was used for official correspondence. After the Sanamahi movement, the Meiteilon has regained its past glory.

Meghalaya is one of the most beautiful hilly states with abundant greenery. There are many groups of peoples inhabiting the State. Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes are the most prominent among them. Huge number of Bengali refugees abound the state along with Nepalese migrants. Hindi is used quite widely, but Khasi, Garo and Jaintia languages are considered to be the official lingua franca. However, the Bible used in the respective languages is written in Roman script. The State Assembly proceedings are, however are recorded in English. The present NDA government at the Centre, has been for quite some time has been trying to invade the State. The governor of the State appointed by the Union government – Ganga Prasad, read out his opening ceremony in Hindi, much to the anguish of the Assembly members. Congress MLA, Amparee Lyngdo staged a walkout in protest.

Assam is a large state, but has only 12.5% tribesmen. The official State languages are English, Assamese, Bangla and Bodo. The Bodo language was not officiated right after founding of the Indian Nation-State. It was instituted only in the 1960s after the persuasion of Bodo Sahitya Sabha that it carved out its niche. Initially, Assamese script was used due to following of BSS. After 1974 due to the Bodo movement, Devanagari alphabet was adopted. Still latter, the Roman script was promulgated. In the Bodoland area Bodo medium of instruction is in vogue since 1963. Right now, the regional languages and mother tongues are in jeopardy due to digitalising process (Chakravarty, B. 2021, June: Seminar).

To conclude, it must be reiterated that language is one of the most important issues in the nation building process. Often hegemony of the demographically predominant nationality. In India too Hindi has been imposed as the national language. But I feel that to create a nation-state without a hegemonic cliché English must be accepted as the primal language nationally, to create a neutral ambience. After all, in Sierra-Leone in Africa where constant ethnic turbulence created a havoc, Bangla has been declared as the national language. For a long time the Bangladeshi army was kept as a part of the UN peace keeping force in that ethnically divided nation-state. When India is transformed into a proper federal of nations in future, the present political calculations will get altered completely. After all political boundaries all along the histories have shifted like that of a kaleidoscope.

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