The value of linguistic pluralism
There has been a common thread in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent speeches, across geographies and venues. In Houston, addressing a strong Indian-American gathering, in the presence of the United States (US) President Donald Trump, Mr Modi spoke in many Indian languages to convey to the audience, and to the millions watching on television, that all was well back home. In New York, during his United Nations General Assembly speech, the PM quoted the Tamil poet, Kaniyan Pungundranar, and said that Tamil was the most ancient language in the world. And on Monday, in Chennai, Mr Modi referred to how Tamil was echoing across the US.
Mr Modi’s statements come soon after Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, spoke of how India must preserve all its languages, but Hindi could serve as a possible language of unity, and be India’s identity globally. To be sure, Mr Shah clarified that he had never sought Hindi’s imposition over regional languages. But it did generate a controversy. The response in south India in general, and Tamil Nadu in particular, was negative — and this was no surprise given the state’s long history of resistance to any attempts to impose Hindi upon it.
That is why the PM’s remarks are important. For one, they will help quell any apprehensions in the non-Hindi speaking areas of the country that this government is planning to impose linguistic homogeneity. The recognition of diversity will, in fact, strengthen unity. Two, the PM’s framing of the issue is apt. Having linguistic diversity is India’s strength, not weakness. And this must be preserved. And finally, there is a clear political subtext. The Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking to make inroads in the south, and is well aware that being seen as a party of the north, promoting only Hindi, would be counterproductive. The PM’s message must be internalised by his party, and citizens at large.