How India can expand Hindi’s global footprint - Hindustan Times
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How India can expand Hindi’s global footprint

Feb 26, 2023 08:06 PM IST

For Hindi to be internationalised, a precondition is to domestically affirm it within India.

At the recently concluded World Hindi Conference in Fiji, external affairs minister S Jaishankar called on all lovers of the Hindi language to work together to turn it into an international language. With an emphasis on cultural nationalism, grassroots identity and decolonisation of mindsets, the Narendra Modi government has pressed the right buttons to increase the visibility, usage and respect for Hindi across the world.

Given that Hindi is the first, second or third language of at least 57% of Indians, the government has taken steps to counterbalance elitist English primacy over Hindi. (Pixabay) PREMIUM
Given that Hindi is the first, second or third language of at least 57% of Indians, the government has taken steps to counterbalance elitist English primacy over Hindi. (Pixabay)

For Hindi to be internationalised, a precondition is to domestically affirm it within India. The age-old internal debate over Hindi allegedly dominating other native languages has been addressed in the Modi era by encouraging all vernacular languages via the new National Education Policy, and through a range of initiatives to increase official usage of local mother tongues.

Simultaneously, given that Hindi is the first, second or third language of at least 57% of Indians, the government has taken steps to counterbalance elitist English primacy over Hindi. Native Hindi speakers and those with bilingual Hindi and English abilities have an advantage over westernised Lutyens’ elites. The notion that India is becoming Bharat is associated with Hindi proficiency and a return to traditional values linked to the cultural inheritance of Hindi and its sister languages.

It is this Bharat which is the foundation upon which Hindi is being sought to be internationalised. As a language spoken and understood by over 600 million people, and one that acts as a mother tongue in at least seven other countries apart from India, Hindi is the fourth most spoken language in the world. Only Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and English have more adherents. In sheer numbers, Hindi is already internationalised.

Yet, Hindi is not an official language of the United Nations (UN). This discrepancy parallels the outdated structure of the UN Security Council (UNSC), where India has been denied a permanent seat. The choice of official UN languages was made at the time of the founding of the UN to validate the influence of the victorious Allied Powers of World War II, whose centuries-long colonial empires were vehicles to spread their languages. Lobbying in the UNSC and general assembly by these players enabled resolutions to be passed to consecrate English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian as official UN languages in 1946. The only addition is Arabic, which joined the list in the 1970s due to a joint push by the Arab world.

Hindi has not yet made it as an official UN language partly because the internal language wars within India stymied past governments from canvassing for it on the world stage. The Modi government’s contribution of $800,000 to the UN’s department of global communications to enhance the UN’s public outreach in Hindi pumped much needed funds into a deserving cause.

Mustering the backing of two-thirds of the UN general assembly’s member-countries to pass a resolution for Hindi to gain official standing, ramping up monetary support for the Mauritius-headquartered World Hindi Secretariat and its regional branches, setting up more chair professorships for Hindi in foreign universities, and delivering online Hindi awareness courses are other measures to boost Hindi’s global footprint.

Yet, the key is less in the supply of Hindi teaching and more in its demand. For ordinary people, learning a foreign language is linked to career prospects. The desire to learn Japanese or German worldwide is directly correlated to the economic benefits of working for businesses engaged with Japan and Germany.

India’s private corporations and chambers of commerce must think creatively about global business interactions and become vehicles for Hindi to be mainstreamed internationally. As India grows into a $5-$10 trillion economy in the coming years, the attraction for the Hindi language could increase in non-diasporic parts of the world. But that is only possible if India incorporates Hindi-based language learning and intercultural communication skills into business transactions. The internationalisation of Hindi is both a cause and a consequence of India becoming a leading power in the world. Carrying this glorious Indian language to its destined place in the sun is a collective responsibility.

Sreeram Chaulia is professor and dean, Jindal School of International Affairs

The views expressed are personal

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