The newly re-formed union ministry under Narendra Modi has landed itself under the scanner pretty soon after it was appointed. And this time it’s a case that makes us most curious! On May 31, 2019, the draft of the National Education Policy (NEP), prepared by a committee under former ISRO chief K Kasturiranjan, was released by the Ministry of Human Resource DevelopmentS. The draft contained a special point that immediately sparked a fire in the country, especially in the states of South India. One of its clauses – the new ‘3-language formula’ – became the epicentre of controversy.
The 3-language formula proposed that English and Hindi would be mandatory languages to be learnt in school in non-Hindi speaking states. Hindi was also to become a third-language in Hindi-speaking states.
Opposition in numerous Indian states, especially those in South India, led by Tamil Nadu, expressed that they would not accept this rule. The clause was viewed as a way of imposing Hindi in states where the language was not even spoken. Discussions, debates and hashtags related to the issue began to trend on various social media platforms after the outcry.
The anti-‘Hindi imposition’ campaign led by Tamil Nadu forced the centre to revise that particular paragraph and a new draft was formulated. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) passed a resolution against the centre. Makkal Needhi Maiam – the political party formed by actor Kamal Hassan followed suit. Karnataka chief minister, Siddaramaiah, compared this move of the NDA to a “brutal assault”. Soon in a tweet, former HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar explained to the enraged political parties that the policy has been released only in a draft format and is not going to be implemented until perfected.
The real problem, however, is much beneath the surface. There is a group of thinkers in India who believe that if all students in India study Hindi, it will create a unifying force within the country.
Currently, about 692 million people speak Hindi in India either as their first or second or third language. This makes up for 57.1% of the population of the country.
Going by this data, Hindi has by far qualified as the language spoken by the majority of the people. The only language, after Hindi, that boasts a two-figure percentage in the country is, of course, English, spoken by approximately 10.6% of the population. This is followed by Bengali at 8.9%, Marathi at 8.2% and Telugu at 7.8%. Other Dravidian languages like Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam are spoken by 6.3%, 4.94% and 2.9% of the population respectively.
So is Hindi the language of the majority? Yes. But, the bigger question is how equally distributed are these Hindi-speaking people along the length and breadth of India? The real issue is in the geographical demography of the country. India is large and diverse and like food, culture and customs, language is also exclusivity at different provinces of the country. Forcing these provinces to join the Hindi-brigade may not be the right thing to do!
Another aspect of the former draft was the consideration that English is popular as the language of the ‘economic elite’ in the country. The draft explained that a large part of the population was marginalized as uneducated due to their inability to speak English or speak English fluently. It said that regional languages need to be given the space and respect especially while recruiting an individual or in social events, in schools, in educational institutions etc.
It will be wise now to consider the fact that this is not the first time the country is witnessing anti-Hindi campaign from the southern states. In 1937, when C Rajagopalachari proposed that Hindi should become a compulsory language in schools, he was strongly opposed by EV Ramasamy, also known as Periyar, from Tamil Nadu. Rajagopalachari was at that time Premier of the Madras Presidency.
When in 1965, Hindi was proposed to become India’s only official language, similar protests surfaced in Tamil Nadu, headed by the DMK, then a young party. In 1968 again, the DMK, at that time in power, strongly opposed the centre’s 3-language formula. From then on till date, Tamil Nadu schools have stuck to the ‘English and Tamil’ 2-language formula.
It has been believed by national parties of the northern part of India that Hindi can be a common language, thus a unifying force, in the country. English, they have asserted, is a foreign language and can never fulfil the role of a unifying language.
The anti-Hindi approach of the southern Indian states is not only a matter of language. Perhaps these states see the imposition of Hindi as the imposition of north Indian culture on the Dravidian south Indian society. This theory of north Indian hegemony was even supported by esteemed daily ‘The Hindu’. According to a report in the newspaper, the imposition of Hindi translates as the attempt to establish a monoculture in India. In layman terms, it is viewed as an extension of the age-old Aryan-Dravidian tussle.
The opposition to Hindi, according to some experts, is also seen as an attempt to resist the BJP in the south. Some protests have originated out of the opinion that the BJP, by making Hindi compulsory, is trying to establish a strong foothold in the southern states where it is not in power. These protests may also be a form of resistance against Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, which many believe to be a BJP doctrine.
Such sentiments triggered strong protests and criticism, the most powerful among which was from DMK President MK Stalin who said that the move would “divide” the country instead of unifying it. Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor stated that though many in south India learn Hindi as a second language, nobody in the north is even bothered about knowing Malayalam or Tamil.
After the criticism and protests, the NDA government at the Centre released a revised version of the NEP. The new draft allows students to make the choice. The draft states that students who wish to change one or more of the 3 languages may do so in class 6 or 7 as long as they are proficient in 3 languages and study one of them as literature for the board examinations. Hindi has not at all been mentioned in the clause.
Former ISRO chief K Kasturiranjan, who headed the committee that drafted the NEP, said that in the overall policy, a substantial space has been devoted to recognizing the diversity of language in the country. He added that the clause which triggered the protests was slight “out of spirit” with the entire policy. The revised clause, however, clarifies all misunderstandings.
External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, also tweeted that the NEP will be finalized only after consideration and evaluation of feedback from the public. State governments will also be consulted. He went on to tweet that the government of India respects all languages and no language shall be imposed on anyone.
It is to be noted here that though the fresh clause does away with Hindi, still it has clung on to the formula of the 3 languages. This has left some, like Vasanthi Devi, Tamil educationist and former vice-chancellor of Manonmaniam Sindaranar University, dissatisfied. She states that the 3-language formula is an unnecessary imposition. She says that due to the lack of teachers of other languages, Hindi will automatically be imposed in non-Hindi speaking states because of the 3-language scheme.
Language is an extremely personal thing. It is through language that we express ourselves. Thus, considering language as a “unifying force” is in itself a debatable topic. Even if everybody in India knew how to speak, read and write Hindi, would it do away with the other cultural and racial differences among Indian citizens? Diversity makes India unique and it is our cultural wealth. Language is also a part of this diversity. Thus it should be preserved in the way it is. Unification comes from a sense of nationalism. Can a language bring about that? Maybe not!