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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 26 New Delhi June 15, 2019

Official Language versus Social Justice

Monday 17 June 2019

by Prem Singh

[The language-question is again under discussion spotlight after the publication of the draft of National Education Policy (NEP) 2018. In the context, l recollect the day when of one of my articles titled ‘Official Language Vs Social Justice’, originally written in Hindi on the same subject, was to be presented at a five-day conference on ‘Indian Constitution and Social Justice’. The conference was held in Mysore under the joint auspices of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and Dhwanyalok Center for Indian Studies, Mysore in 1995.

The session in which I was scheduled to present my article was to be chaired by the senior scholar of English literary criticism, Prof. C.D. Narasimhaiah. As I, started reading my paper he got furious, naming me a Hindi fanatic! I was shocked. I however, pleaded to him and to the audience that I had already circulated the summery of my article in English for the benefit of non-Hindi-speaking scholars. But Prof Narasimhaiah was not convinced and insisted that l speak in English. I replied to him that I would have read my paper in Bangla or Tamil if I were a Bangla-speaking or Tamil-speaking person.

Prof Mrinal Miri, the IIAS’s Director, intervened and suggested to me to make my presentation in Hindi as well as English. I read my paper in Hindi. As soon as I finished Prof C.D. Narasimhaiah hurriedly spoke some sentences in Kannada and got up ending the session abruptly. No question-answer session followed. Later on in the day he came to me and submitted in an apologetic tone that he was not aware that I was a teacher of Hindi.

It was made clear from that incident that to be accepted in an ‘academic’ seminar, other than one on Hindi literature, one needs to tag an English version of the paper, whatever the original language might be! 

However, the proceedings of that conference were brought out in book form titled ‘Social Justice and Constitution’ edited by veteran journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea. He included the English translation of my article in the book. 

In the light of the controversy generated by NEP 2018 the same is given below for the readers’ kind reading and comments.—P.S.]


The pledge to make “social, economic and political justice”, that is, ‘social justice’ available to all the citizens of the country, is the pledge expressed in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. The Constitution-makers have made provisions to facilitate the availability of social justice to all people and groups, without “discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”. The intention behind this arrangement is the creation of an egalitarian society. Ideas of social justice witnessed on the international political scene contain sharper and revolutionary perceptions as compared to the Indian Constitution. The revolutionary parties within India itself are not completely satisfied with this constitutional delineation of social justice. The scope of this paper does not allow one to go into the details of the other concepts of social justice.

The deprived and the oppressed sections of Indian society for whom the Constitution’s provision for social justice was specially formulated, are really the ones who are denied the same. The general opinion after fortyfive years of the implementation of the Constitution is that the ‘development’ and the ‘progress’ which free India has made, has only resulted in making the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. The causes for this are complex and multifaceted. Significant among these is the constitutional acceptance given to English as the Official Language of the country. The Constitution makers obstructed the process of social justice in the very beginning by bestowing upon English the position of Official Language in the country though after independence, Gandhi voiced his apprehensions about this: “Unless the government and their secretariats take care the English language is likely to usurp the place of Hindustani. This must do infinite harm to the millions of Indians who would never be able to understand English.”1 In free India, Lohia, after Gandhi, argued consistently that the language issue has a direct bearing upon the social justice and democratic process.

A long Mahabharata has been fought on the multifaceted language problem in the country. But the entire focus of the discussions gets suffocated and killed in limiting the argument to merely Hindi versus English, and Hindi versus other Indian languages. Like the monkey in the fable who devoured the loaf while meting out ‘monkey-justice’ to the quarrelsome cats, English has kept winning at the cost of Indian languages which are unable to arrive at any solution among themselves.

English was given the status of the Official Language of India for the first fifteen years of the country’s independence. But the position has not changed till today. English has also achieved the position of a language which commands power and social status. Deeply responsible for this are those English-knowing elite who keep the common public away from socio-political processes. Also responsible for this are those who practice political games in the name of the language issue. Responsibility rests upon those ‘progressive’ thinkers too, who believe that English is necessary for the development of both capitalism as well as socialism. Commenting on such thinkers, Ram Vilas Sharma, the Marxist thinker and linguist, writes: “Some progressive thinkers like to quote with pride Gandhi’s ideas on the subject of state formation on language basis. But they very conveniently ignore what Gandhi said about doing away with English. These thinkers represent those middle class intellectuals who are hopeful of being admitted into official positions at all-India level by allowing English to continue at the Centre.”2 Gandhi and Ram Vilas Sharma, both advocate the use of Hindi-Hindustani in the place of English. The reference to them has been made not to prove the validity of their argument in favour of Hindi-Hindustani, but in order to underline the fact that they both consider English to be a weapon in the hands of a particular class which they use against the remaining common public.


It was argued at the time of independence that the Indian languages were, for the time being, incapable of functioning as vehicles of communication and knowledge. And English, ‘as one of the major achievements made by the country during the foreign rule’, was capable of building up national integration and bringing the country at par with the international scene of science and technology. The first two Education Commissions, the Radhakrishnan Commission (1947) and the Kothari Commission (1966) agreed that Indian languages should be the medium of instruction at universities, so that the chasm between the English knowing elite and the common masses is obliterated. The advocates of English, however, refused to believe that English could be the cause for this gap. The progressive writer, Mulk Raj Anand, considering English to be synonymous with knowledge itself, said that the “brown-sahibs” apart, the country has a “sincere English-knowing intelligentsia” which can make social justice and human dignity possible not only at the national level but also at the international level. The intelligentsia, committed to giving concrete shape to the India of Nehru’s dream, cautions us against the usage of Indian languages, which they believe, confine us to being mere “suburbans, provincials and village idiots”.3

As per the wishes of this “sincere intelligentsia” consisting of scholars like Mulk Raj Anand and other supporters of the English language, most of the work in advanced education and research institutions (except the work being done in academies of Indian languages), is in the English language. Consequently, the maximum of research and scholarship in the country is done only in English language. The natural fallout of the situation is that English alone becomes the yardstick of excellence. Universities and institutions are laden with English texts and journals. This includes work done on the subject of social justice and revolution. All the political parties in India committed to the ideology of social justice carry out their work in the English language. There is hardly any national or regional political party which has its manifesto, policy etc. written down originally in Indian languages. This includes the party led by Ram-manohar Lohia who had pledged to do away with English “today and now” because it hampered social justice in the country. The Marxist parties inspired by the revolutionary goal, the highest form of social justice, carry out all their official proceedings in English. English, already endowed with the responsibility of unifying the country as a ‘nation-state’ is also burdened with the responsibility of organising ‘revolution’ in the country. Prakash Karat maintains that after the formation of States on language basis “one of the obstacles to the communist leadership’s links between states could be the gradual displacement of English...’’4

The mere knowledge of English has come to be accepted as the touchstone of knowledge for achieving distinctive positions in the field of education, administration, judiciary and defense services. The same is true in the private sector as well. But what has been the outcome of all this? The result is simply the formation of a powerful and well-cushioned elite class on the one hand, and the deprived, oppressed common public on the other. The masses are unable to comprehend complex ideas regarding humanism, liberalism, socialism, communism, nationalism, pluralism etc. and the elite are victims of alienation unable to identify with the cultural roots and the common man.

Language is a medium of exchanging views. In India, the English language performs this function only within a very limited circle. For the remaining people, its role is that of a barrier which has a deep and long-term effect in delaying the process of social justice. English, from the very beginning, has been present as a dark shadow between the common man and the constitutional promise of social justice. Viewed in the light of Lohia’s words English divides the nation into “Two Castes” and to quote Rajni Kothari, into “Two Indias’’: English-knowing elite India and the poor, oppressed masses.

The ‘international language’ thus accomplishes the job of keeping the majority of India’s population away from the social and political processes. Since all projects, programmes and plans are drafted in English by English-knowing people, the non-English knowing public is unable to partake in the conception and implementation of any of these programmes and projects. Public opinion is limited to just elections. This, then, is the plight of the ‘largest democracy’ of the world—one, in which two to four per cent people reign over the remaining ninety-eight percent.


It has been assumed that the rich indigenous experience and institutions, distanced from the elitist India are worthless for the work of ‘nation-building’. It is not merely a coincidence that Gandhi who supported the ‘local’ in form of village panchayats and Lohia upheld the same in the form of ‘Chowkhamba Raj’ were also opposed to English and those leaders who uphold ‘universal’ in the form of centralised governance also uphold the use of English in the country. Nehru maintained that “A village normally speaking is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment. Narrow minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent.”5 Ambedkar too, wrote off the villages as “a den of ignorance and illiteracy, a habitat which perpetuates both physical and mental ill health”.6 Thus responsibility of nation-building was placed on the progressive intelli-gentsia whose minds have been illuminated by English. However the class interest which lies behind this apparent national interest is no more a concealed truth.

The acceptance of English as the Official Language by the supporters of the language and our Constitution-makers has proved to be the secret door from which the entry of neo-imperialism has been made possible. The New Economic Policies, liberalisation, the GATT agreement etc. are a slap on the face of the same “sincere English-knowing intelligentsia” who upheld the use of English in the name of social justice, human dignity, national integration, abundance of knowledge, international relations and so on. The extent to which English has contributed to the wisdom within the country, is proven by the fact that the larger section of the intelligentsia is content with simply circling around the synthetic-cosmetic socio-cultural and economic-political questions thrown up by the developed nations.

The documents regarding the blue-prints of the future of India is being prepared abroad by the officials in world institutions. The ‘Bhagiraths’ who claimed to flood India with the Ganges of wisdom brought in through the medium of English are now searching for their new roles in this new-fangled press-button technique of nation building. The country is endangered once again by the shadows of slavery. This time, tagging alongwith political servility is the threat of a sub-culture. Will the intellectuals who propound ‘universal’ ever pause and think about the possibilities of the ‘local’? This is the area in which live crores and crores of people whose hands have not yet reached the basic requirements of life and whose feet have been uprooted from their soil. These are the people whose intervention and participation in the socio-political processes have been almost blocked.

If those who plead for the alternative ideology of ‘humane governance’ or those thinkers and leaders who strive towards the ideology of ‘revolutionary democracy’ actually wish to make people’s participation in the socio-political processes a reality, then they must learn from the mistakes made in the past. The philosophy and politics of the liberation of the masses is possible only in the languages used by the masses. This is the bare, hard lesson of which history is the proof.


1. Gandhi, Thoughts on National Language, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1956, p. 168.

2. Ram Vilas Sharma, “Bhasha Niti aur Gandhiji”, Pratipaksh, New Delhi, June 1990.

3. Mulk Raj Anand, “A Plea for English for Higher Education”, Language and Society in India, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1968.

4. Prakash Karat, Language and Nationality Politics in India, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1973, p. 73.

5. Pyare Lal, Towards New Horizons, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1959, p. 5.

6. Dharam Pal, Constituents Assembly Debates on Panchayati Raj Award, New Delhi, 1961.

The author teaches Hindi at Delhi University and is the President of the Socialist Party (India).

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