Hindi Imposition, Language Discrimination, and Dravidanadu

#StopHindiImposition and #Dravidanadu trended on twitter few days back. This is the first time that this issue got mass public attention in recent times. But, this is only a manifestation of long built up pressures, catalysed by recent incidents.

Forms of Hindi imposition and language discrimination in India

To begin with, there is Hindi imposition and language discrimination in India at various levels. Many may not admit this uncomfortable fact but this is a reality. The Hindi imposition and discrimination ranges from subtle forms to forceful imposition.

The subtle forms of discrimination can be witnessed in both states' policies and citizen-citizen interactions. Subtle forms of discrimination in states' action include promoting only Hindi drama clubs in universities etc. 

The social sphere includes the dismissive and derisive attitude experienced by non-Hindi speaking people.  The myth of "Hindi is the national language" is used as an excuse for this behaviour, often ridiculing others for not knowing to speak Hindi. 

This is exacerbated due to increased migration from North to South. Several local groups have been pointing to derogatory attitude witnessed by them in Bengaluru - "If a South Indian goes to Delhi, they are expected to learn the language of the majority there (Hindi). But, if a North Indian comes to Bengaluru, they question us - 'why don't you know Hindi?' in a derogatory manner. They expect and force us to learn Hindi instead of doing the opposite.".

This form of dismissive attitude is witnessed even on the floor of parliament, where some Hindi speaking parliamentarians ridicule non-Hindi speaking MPs for giving speeches in English and for not understanding Hindi.

Even to this day, there are many who think that South of Maharastra is all madarasis, and no other states exist. Lack of knowledge about South India is witnessed in media too. Some have termed this phenomenon as "Amit media".

The moderate forms of discrimination include conducting crucial all India examinations only in English and Hindi, disproportionately discriminating large number of students who are educated in their mother tongue. Even after decades, the JEE examination, which is an admission test for all major engineering colleges in India is conducted only in English, Hindi and Gujarati.

Public services in non-Hindi speaking states often have communication in Hindi and not local language.


Tara Krishnaswamy has compiled the list of several forms of Hindi imposition and discrimination by the Union government. This include the seemingly funny but illustrative examples of a senior leader wishing Keralites in Hindi, which many in Kerala have no clue about.

The extreme forms of imposition and discrimination include attempts to declare Hindi as national language, pursue Hindi imposition in the name of promotion, and trying to make it mandatory.

Expression of dissent against language discrimination

Many forget the language debates in India and formation of linguistic states and the protests in TN. Formation of linguistic states settled one of the major visible issues, pacifying the situation for time being. But, the other subtle forms of discrimination remained as noted above.

Till now, the subtle forms of language discrimination wasn't articulated well because it involves the risk of sounding secessionist. NTR of AP was the last to articulate it successfully. He formed a party on the theme of Telugu pride. It necessarily didn't address the core issues. There was a lull since then. It has now picked up again, although in a different shape. The issue of language is now being linked to other socio-political-economic issues as well.

Few months back, Tara Krishnaswamy has pointed to the skewed distribution of resources across states and the discrimination of South Indian states. She argued for the formation a South Indian collective to prevent the bullying of the North. Responding to this, Arvind Ilamaran argued that redistribution across states is inevitable. But he added that this redistribution should be for the sake of equity and not to fulfil deficits created due to deliberate mis-governance.

Praveen Chakravarthy of IDFC in a well research article pointed out to the skewed distribution of resources across states. "Out of every Rs 100 that the average resident of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka contribute to the Centre in taxes, three-quarters (Rs 75) of it goes to help the other states and the Centre. On the other hand, for every Rs 100 that the average resident of Bihar, UP, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh contribute, they get back roughly Rs 200." Some have hence pointed out - despite all this, protesting farmers in TN don't get any attention.

The feeling of discrimination is now shaping up politically too. Famous film star of Andhra Pradesh and founder of a new political party in AP, Pavan Kalyan in his Harvard address, raised the issue of discrimination faced by the South. He even went on to the extent of saying that North Indian leaders have no idea and knowledge about the South. This sparkled several debates in AP.

These underlying currents are given shape by the new union government rules making Hindi mandatory in essence, under the pretext of promoting it. Union government's new rules on  beef slaughter placed final nail in the coffin. Several parties across South India have now made this a political issue and are strongly opposing it.

The recent trending of #StopHindiImposition and #Dravidanadu are only an expression of all these underlying currents.

Way forward

The situation is only going to worsen further because of the high fertility rates in the North as compared to South, changing the political dynamics. India can't afford to have these identity frictions at this juncture. Whenever identity issues gain prominence, it trumps all other issues, delaying progress on other fronts. We need to take stock of this situation and act accordingly to avoid friction in the future.

First, acknowledge the importance of language.  Language, the means of human communication is one of the primary differentiators between humans and animals. Thus, unlike other ideological constructs like religion, nation etc, language forms the fundamental core of one's life and existence. Many people think in mother tongue. If you don't believe this, just observe Hinglish speakers next time, the way they fuse Hindi and English, while appearing to speak in English. It's because many of their thoughts are in Hindi.

Any attempts to attack such crucial element of one's life called language results in backlash. Even if someone isn't conscious of their language, attempts to ridicule it or discriminate it, strengthens the mobilisation under this identity. Government should better stay out of it.

Second, don't make Hindi the marker of national identity. Large population in India never spoke Hindi. The South, North East have their own distinct languages and traditions. As Arvind Ilamaran put it, "to claim that North and South are cut of the same cloth is historical ignorance at best and political malice at worst". Hindi can thus never be made the basis of uniform national identity. There are 122 major languages spoken in India. Andhra Pradesh split up into two because of the discrimination of one form of Telugu in favour of the other. Our neighbours, Pakistan split up on the issue of language. It's foolish to impose Hindi and make it a marker of national identity. It cannot be justified either morally or politically. It will be a historical blunder to do so.

Third, don't bring false equivalence between Hindi and English. It's often question, if you can learn English, why not Hindi? The question here is not about ability to learn a language. English is a utility, hence people learn it. Hindi and other Indian languages have a culture associated with it. Imposing Hindi is thus fundamentally different from people learning English for the sake of utility.

Four, acknowledge the existing reality of discrimination. Even if government can't heal the larger sociological issues in short term, it shouldn't at least try to aggravate it hiding behind age old rules and laws. 

Five, both government and citizens need to be language sensitive. Before taking any action or speaking, both people and government would do good for themselves if they remind themselves that Hindi is not a mother tongue of 60% of India's population. Neither is Hindi a national language. Just because some language is spoken by more number of people doesn't mean that others should be forced to do that.

When an Indian PM gave a speech in Hindi in an international forum, many in India applauded for speaking in language he's comfortable in. Why not give that privilege of using one's own mother tongue, to others too, within one's own country?

More importantly, government shouldn't hide behind age old language acts to justify its decisions. Mere existence of a rule or act doesn't make it just. One can choose not to act or repeal them. Even many of our early national politicians including Nehru, Patel and Lal Bahadur Sastri have undermined the importance of language. Nehru and Patel for example opposed linguistic states. We only learnt the lessons later. Therefore, there is also no need to cling to the acts and rules of that era.

Six, government should take steps to address the exiting glaring language discrimination. It can start with giving option to write all India exams in mother tongue; providing public services in local language; communicating PM's speeches in local languages by using subtitles while PM is speaking OR broadcasting translated versions later etc. All these don't require enormous investments and efforts, given the technological advances. It just needs sensitiveness and the will to do it.

At a time when everyone in education is talking about instruction in mother tongue, we should also extend this to other arenas of life, facilitating communication in mother tongue. It will make life easier for many.

Several cross-cutting identities exist in India. We would do better for ourself if we are sensitive to them and don't aggravate them deliberately. Given other major pressing problems to solve, we can't afford to dissipate time and energy.

Multiculturalism should be the way forward.

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