Language: What India got right, what Sri Lanka and Pakistan got wrong | Opinion
By 1948, after the British had exited the subcontinent, there were four major countries in South Asia: India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. India is the only one of these countries that hasn’t seen a civil war since then.
In at least two of these countries, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the decision to impose a single national language played a significant role in their civil wars. Yet, despite the warnings of history, the declaration of Hindi as a national language is being debated again.
On the occasion of Hindi Diwas, Union home minister Amit Shah argued, “It is absolutely essential that the entire country has one language that becomes the identity of the nation in the world. If there is any language that can tie the whole country in one thread, it is the most spoken language of Hindi.” To be sure, there was an overreaction to the comment. Shah, who later clarified his remarks, was not making a declaration of policy. But the damage was done, as the old fractures of language in India came to the fore.
At the outset, let us take the demand for Hindi as a national language on its own terms, not through the lens of Hindu nationalism. At the time of Independence, virtually every theorist of nationalism would have advocated for the creation of a national language. At its core, the demand for a national language comes from a modernist conception (not a majoritarian one), in which a common language engenders standardisation in education and strength of communication that keep a polity together, as in European nation-states. In fact, Indonesia went as far as to invent its own national language when it gained Independence. India’s lack of a national language was borne less out of any principle of nation-building and more out of necessity.
But, arguably, linguistic conflicts are less pronounced than they once were, and Hindi literacy has grown. Given where we stand today, would the declaration of Hindi as a national language be beneficial?
Ernest Gellner, the great theorist of nationalism, argued that a single national language was necessary for modernisation, i.e., moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Agrarian societies are characterised by low- skilled, weakly-specialised labour with huge disparities in education. A common language would engender standardisation in education, fostering social mobility and a depth of communication that could sustain highly- specialised labour needed for industrialised societies. Those who had been consigned to economic backwardness in times past would aspire to join and gradually become a part of this nationalist culture. This would, eventually, engulf everything else to form a strong nation-state with great economic production and social mobility. This is the pattern observed in much of Europe, evocatively described by Eugen Weber as turning “peasants into Frenchmen”.
Why hasn’t this worked in South Asia? An answer is to be found in the stark differences in how Sri Lanka and India have treated their Tamil communities, as analysed by Alfred Stepan, Juan Linz and Yogendra Yadav. In the years after Independence, the Tamils were a relatively privileged community in both Sri Lanka and India, as they were over-represented in the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) and the Sri Lankan Administrative Services (SAS). But under the grip of majoritarian pressures, Sri Lanka declared Sinhala (the language spoken by the majority Sinhalese community) as its official language. The Tamil community in Sri Lanka was immediately disenfranchised from the bureaucracy, as the proportion of Tamils in the SAS would drop from 26% in 1955 to half of that by 1979. This became one of the major contributing factors to the subsequent brutal civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese. India has been far more successful in integrating the Tamil community into positions of power, and Tamil Nadu is now one of the most developed and urbanised states in India.
The Sri Lankan case shows us that the imposition of a national language can create conflict and national disintegration rather than integration when it dislodges another group from power. The Gellnerian position is predicated upon a significant proportion of those speaking other languages aspiring to speak the national language.
Therein lies the problem for Hindi as a national language. Due to complicated histories of caste, religion, land tenure, and colonialism, the Hindi-speaking regions are significantly poorer than non-Hindi-speaking regions — even though 44% of the country speaks Hindi as a mother tongue.
The accompanying graph uses the 2011 Census to describe the relationship between speaking Hindi as mother tongue and television (TV) ownership (as a measure for material wealth) in over 5,933 blocks (tehsils). The cluster of Hindi-speaking blocks is noticeably poorer — about 30% of households own a TV in blocks where more than 65% of the population speak Hindi as a mother tongue. TV ownership jumps to 42% when we consider blocks with less than 10% Hindi-speaking population (about 60% of the blocks).
The connection to the Sri Lankan case should be obvious. The imposition of Hindi as a national language, or even as a second language in schools, would disenfranchise the more well-off non-Hindi-speaking population in favour of a population that speaks Hindi from birth — which could potentially lead to serious conflict. Unlike the European cases, Hindi does not have a “pull factor” for non-Hindi-speaking populations.
Furthermore, if the government imposed Hindi in its schools, those with sufficient means would likely opt for more English-medium schools — which yield greater economic opportunities. This would only generate greater income inequality between the wealthy and those who have little option beyond government-mandated curricula.
We know today what our neighbours did not at Independence. They have endured extraordinary bloodshed and economic stunting due to the folly of trying define a single national language over the complex terrain of linguistic identities in South Asia. Let us not make the same mistake.