Forget the politics, India must take pride in its diverse languages

More people must be encouraged to read and write their own languages. I find nothing wrong in that

Phopto: AFP
Phopto: AFP

By Simran Sodhi

Published: Sun 13 Nov 2022, 9:04 PM

Last updated: Sun 13 Nov 2022, 9:05 PM

In a country as diverse as India, it is always the differences that have bound us together. It sounds a little strange but what makes an outsider, for instance, fall in love with India is its rich culture which changes as one crosses states and regions. As one travels from the North to the South, the change is distinct in language, attire, rituals and culture. Yet at the end of the day the beauty of this country is that the national identity and the pride in being an Indian wins over our regional identities. India is quite a fascinating study in multiple identities. Within the country our identities get splintered into Punjabis and Bengalis; between wearing the colour red as auspicious or the colour green, but at the end of the day the concept of India has kept us together.

The controversy over Hindi being the national language or being made into one is a debate that comes up time and again. For the record, India has no national language. As per the Indian Constitution, Hindi in the Devangari script and English are the two official languages in India. In other words, these two languages are to be used by the government in its administrative work.

Hindi is a language that is spoken more in the North of the country than the South and hence one sees that the Southern states have been quite vociferous in their critique of this attempt to give Hindi the tag of a national language. According to the 2011 Census, Hindi is spoken by 44 per cent of Indians followed by Bangla and Marathi. But again in the North the dialects differ and the Hindi in one state is quite different from another state. What heats up this debate even more is then the attack on English, as the language of the elites and why it needs to be shown the door.

The controversy started with Bollywood star telling a Kannada star that since he dubbed his movies in Hindi; it was, is and always will be the country’s national language. Then two former chief ministers of a Southern state jumped in the fray and the fires really lit up. Mother tongue, national language, official language, elite language and many other terms entered into the fray.

Let’s try and inject some rationale here. Language or as they say in beautiful Urdu, Zubaan is a very sensitive matter. Almost emotional, I would argue. As we grow older our schooling and experiences add more languages and words to our vocabulary. I can read and write three languages; almost every Indian is proficient in just as many languages. My Hindi is a mix of Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu because those are the words that have travelled with me from childhood. English I learnt in school but fell in love with when introduced to Shakespeare. Munshi Prem Chand and his wonderful stories gave me a lens to a different India and forced me to spell check more Hindi words. The love for Faiz and his poetry translated into a love for Urdu. And I have no desire to choose one over the other.

However much one may hate English and its spread over India, there can be no denying the fact that Indians have only benefitted from it. The Information Technology revolution and the success of the Indian Diaspora abroad are other examples here. A push must be given to promote Hindi and other regional languages. More people must be encouraged to read and write their own languages. I find nothing wrong in that. Because knowing one’s own language brings one closer to one’s culture and identity. But that at the same time is no reason to shut out the other.

It’s good to have our beliefs and logic challenged and that is what stepping outside our comfort zones does. We don’t need to cancel one to promote another. This country and its people have enormous hearts and if they could open their hearts to the foreign sounds of Lord Byron’s poetry, then a Harivansh Rai Bachchan is closer home. Politics will play into this debate but that is okay too. We are all political beings living in these complex modern-day structures where we debate almost daily. But the choice to debate in which language must be left to each individual.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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