The Centre’s move to push the use of Hindi as its official language on social media came under attack on Friday with several regional parties strongly opposing any plan to prioritise a language spoken by only 40% Indians.
Almost all the major political parties in Tamil Nadu, including two of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own allies, came together to criticise a government order last month that asked bureaucrats to prioritise Hindi over English on official accounts on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Faced with opposition, the government said later in the day that the use of Hindi on social media was only for states speaking the language and is not being imposed on non-Hindi-speaking states.
Read: Jayalalithaa joins Karunanidhi to slam Modi govt's Hindi push
"Use of Hindi on government of India's social media platforms is only for Hindi-speaking states... Hindi is not being imposed on non-Hindi-speaking states," an official spokesperson said.
"Existing policy on Hindi reiterated for official social media platforms," the spokesperson said.
Earlier, in a strong letter to Modi, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa urged him to make English the official language, saying the “imposition” of Hindi was “a highly sensitive issue” that causes disquiet among her people.
The move has also been opposed by her rival DMK chief K Karunanidhi as well as Modi’s allies from Tamil Nadu, PMK and MDMK. Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah too opposed it.
CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat also opposed any move to impose Hindi while in Odisha assembly a member's attempt to put a question in Hindi was disallowed by the Chair.
While the issue kicked up a storm on social media, the Union home ministry made its debut on Twitter on Friday with a message in Hindi which translated to: "Welcome to the official Twitter account of India's Home Minister."
The push for greater use of Hindi by Modi, the self-taught son of a poor tea-seller, has been read partly as a move to break from the anglophone power elite in Delhi, and an English-speaking caucus that dominates social media platforms such as Twitter.
That said, Modi still mostly uses English to communicate with the 4.9 million people who follow him there. The 63-year-old Prime Minister spoke in Hindi and used interpreters in meetings with South Asian leaders last month, and addressed the Bhutanese parliament in Hindi during his first official overseas trip last week.
India's constitution lists 22 official languages, with Hindi as the main official language and English -- the preferred language for business and academics -- given associate status.
Anti-Hindi sentiment has a long history, especially in southern states such as Tamil Nadu where efforts to impose Hindi triggered bloody riots in the mid-1960s.
On Friday, the government tried to defuse the anger over its pro-Hindi stand.
"This is again a wrong propaganda going on; nobody is forcing Hindi on anybody," Venkaiah Naidu, the urban development and parliamentary affairs minister, told reporters.
"I'm for popularising more and more regional languages, giving them importance- that is the policy of this government. There is no question of forcing any language. Let there be no apprehensions in this regard.”
The government's clarification on Hindi on social media was only for states speaking the language came after two home ministry circulars seeking to promote official language Hindi on social media sparked a major controversy.
The home ministry's official language department had issued a circular on May 27 asking all ministries and departments, public sector undertakings and banks to give prominence to Hindi on official accounts in social media.
"...all officers and employees who operate official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Google, Youtube should use Hindi and English languages. Prominence should be given to Hindi," director, official language, Avadesh Kumar Mishra wrote in the directive.
Another circular had announced prize money of Rs 2,000 to two employees who do their official work mostly in Hindi, while Rs 1,200 and Rs 600 will be given to the second and third position holders respectively.
(with PTI inputs)