The vision of India as a multilingual nation is under attack

Lack of livelihoods in areas where marginalised languages are spoken has led to migration to areas where mainstream languages are spoken. This has led to India’s linguistic diversity shrinking further

An enumerator collecting data from Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India, during the Census exercise, 1961
An enumerator collecting data from Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India, during the Census exercise, 1961

GN Devy

On the eve of Independence, making dignified space for all Indians, across their myriad socio-cultural backgrounds and irrespective of economic status, was a humongous political challenge for India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He didn’t have the luxury of putting some questions on the backburner—if we were to avoid a further fragmentation of the nation and protect its integrity as a ‘Union of States’, as a unit that the post-Independence generations of Indians have taken for granted.

Fortunately for him, and for India, there were intellectual giants in the Congress and outside it who could weigh in on these questions with information and insight and come up with answers the young democracy needed. One of those tangled challenges was the language question.

Unlike some European nations, India was not monolingual. It was always, in all historical eras, a multilingual place. To force India into a monolingual nationalism would certainly have led to its fragmentation, but nor would it do to allow a linguistic anarchy to overcome the process of nation-building.

Nurturing the linguistic variety and richness of this land, for its own sake as well as the political purpose of keeping us all together, was an exercise both delicate and arduous. This fine balance, needed to preserve the autonomy of India’s many languages while protecting the unity of the nation, was achieved through the formulation of the linguistic states and the Schedules of the Constitution.

On 26 November 1949, when the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution of India, there were 14 languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. They were (in order of the number of speakers): Hindi, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Assamese and Sanskrit. There have been three amendments to the Eighth Schedule in the past 55 years, and there are currently 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule.

The States Reorganisation Commission was created, in part, in response to the popular language movements in Hyderabad and Punjab. But it was also a response to the need to define the federal structure of a newly emergent nation. The popular language movements in Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Maharashtra and Karnataka had a strong emotional tenor and broad-based support.

The tribal languages did not, at that point in our history, have the potential to generate such movements; that momentum came several decades later, which led to the creation of the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in 2000.

The formation of linguistic states was a way of acknowledging the dignity of India’s many languages while also keeping them all committed to the idea of India as a ‘Union of States’, it formed the very basis of our idea of India as a federal nation.

The stamp of Nehru’s understanding of modernity and nationalism is clearly seen in these two actions. During his time as Prime Minister, he took care to make the Census exercise far more comprehensive than it used to be in the colonial era.

It is often forgotten that the only Census in India in which every mother tongue was covered, and announced to the nation, was conducted in 1961—in Nehru’s time. Never before or after has any Census presented the linguistic landscape of India with such complete transparency. The list of ‘Mother Tongues’ reported in the 1961 Census had 1,652 entries.

Since Independence, Indians have accepted our linguistic diversity as a social norm and an inalienable feature of this nation. As citizens, we waste no opportunity to state our tolerance of other languages. When nationalism emerged in Europe during the 19th century, conformity to a ‘national language’ was seen as an attribute of citizenship. Though inspired by Europe’s ideas of nationalism, the Indian struggle for independence did not get bogged down in any linguistic chauvinism.

In the 1971 Census, the then government decided to list only those languages that had more than 10,000 speakers—that list had 108 entries; the 109th entry was ‘all others’.

The policy of using a cut-off figure further alienated already marginalised minor languages. They started disappearing in the political discourse and, likely as a consequence of this, from social life. The lack of livelihoods in areas where marginalised languages are spoken has led to an exodus to areas where mainstream languages are spoken. This too has accelerated the rate at which India’s linguistic diversity is shrinking.

The People’s Linguistic Survey of India found that an estimated 250 languages have disappeared during the past fifty years. In other words, India seems to have lost nearly a quarter of its ‘world views’ since Independence.

During the last census (2011), the language data for which was released in 2018, the citizens of India provided 19,569 names of ‘mother tongues’, described in technical terms as ‘raw returns’. Based on previously available linguistic and sociological information, the authorities decided that of these, 18,200 did not ‘logically’ match any known information.

A total of 1,369 names, or ‘labels’, as they are technically known, were picked up as being ‘names of languages’. The ‘raw returns’ left out represented nearly six million citizens. The classification protocol summarily axed the linguistic citizenship of these six million, rendered ‘not worth consideration’.

In addition to the 1,369 ‘mother tongue’ names shortlisted in this assessment, there were 1,474 other mother tongue names. They were placed under the generic label of ‘Others’, because the classification system could not identify the languages they spoke. The fortunate 1,369 were further grouped together under a total of 121 ‘group labels’.

These were presented to the country as ‘Languages’. Of these, 22 languages made it to the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, the so-called ‘Scheduled Languages’. The remaining 99 were described as ‘non-scheduled’ languages.

Most of these groupings were forced. For instance, under ‘Hindi’, there were nearly 50 other languages. Bhojpuri, spoken by more than 50 million, with its own cinema, theatre, literature and vocabulary, was shown as Hindi.

A population of nearly 30 million from Rajasthan had their own languages, but were shown to have Hindi as their mother tongue. The Pawri of tribals in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh was likewise hitched to Hindi, as was the Kumauni of Uttarakhand.

The report stated that 528,347,193 (over 528 million) people spoke Hindi as their mother tongue, which is simply not the case. The 2021 census has been postponed for political reasons and is not likely to be carried out till the next general elections in 2024; it may even be moved to 2031. By then, a very large body of smaller languages, and the diversity they represent, may have been wiped out.

A tribal woman prepares ‘pithe’ on Makar Sankranti in Shantipur, a remote 
village in rural Bengal
A tribal woman prepares ‘pithe’ on Makar Sankranti in Shantipur, a remote village in rural Bengal

Almost certainly, the communities worst affected will be the Adivasis and nomadic communities, whose numbers are small. However, the total number of such communities, whose languages will go unreported in the next Census, is large enough to cause concern.

The speakers of these communities will be subsumed within the statistical figures of other languages, mainly Hindi, since the larger sections of Adivasi communities live along the margins of Hindi-speaking areas.

No matter that the Constitution accepts right to expression as a fundamental right, no matter that language, for us humans, is the primary means of expression, hundreds of these languages of Adivasis and nomadic communities in India are likely to be wiped out of official records in the service of this Hindi-Hindu nationalism. Make no mistake, the vision of India as a multilingual nation is under attack.

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