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There is some debate on whether Hindi should be used officially as a government language, that is meeting resistance from anti-Hindi quarters who see it as marginalizing the non-Hindi population of India. On the other hand, there are those who think that English marginalizes most people of India, since effective communicators in English are a minuscule part of the population. Both views have merit and the government will certainly need to communicate in one or more languages, none of which will be acceptable to the entire population, given India's regional and economic diversity.

On a related note, it is rather distressing to see that there is little focus on the development of the regional languages of India. Today, quality education is increasingly available solely in English. Students who study in regional languages are forced to adapt to English to pursue higher studies and employment.

Whether government communication happens in Hindi isn't as important to the larger picture, as the development of education in regional languages. Most of the time, the citizens of India are rarely paying attention to official channels of communication by the government, and their needs of understanding government communication are adequately met by media in every language of their choice.

However, day to day opportunities for improving conditions are another story altogether.

One evening, around the campfire at the Indian Homeschooling Conference, a homeschooling parent, who is a foreigner married to an Indian described property disputes they were having with villagers where they had built their home. They were on the side of the right, and the court ruled in their favor, but after the entire case being heard in Marathi, the judge pronounced the judgement in English. "I wanted to scream," she said. "Speak in Marathi, so that this crowd of twenty people understand what exactly is being said! Tell them that we have not broken laws and are harming no one, so that the threat of hostility to our family ends!"

This is one among many ways in which how a country operating in a language most people don't understand clearly leaves behind citizens while it chases the ideal existence.

Today, we speak of India as a wannabe world power. We speak of our economy and market and democracy and more, yet our standards of living compare unfavorably with some of the worst developed third world countries. We have a large population that is a burden to progress instead of asset, because most of the time, people don't really know what is "officially" going on, though everyone is a master of "everyone knows", bribes to get stuff done, and plain old jugaad.

While the processes of the country operate in a language most people don't understand, access to them will remain limited to the few who speak the language (or actively find other ways of interfacing). While access to knowledge remains restricted to languages other than the mother tongue of citizens, the instinctive absorption of information, trivia and a hundred other forms of knowledge that come from exposure beyond training in an alien language will remain elusive.

It isn't just languages, but languages are gateways to culture. As traditions die out, and large scale displacement accompanies development, is it not important to sit up and take note of the hundreds of Indian dialects already vanished and prevent more from going the same route? With disappearing languages are disappearing histories, disappearing bodies of knowledge. Will a focus on revival of languages aid access to indigenous knowledge that has evolved in the circumstances it will be applied in? It cannot be possible that a continuous civilization spanning thousands of years brought only religious knowledge to the world that is worthy of keeping.

[Inserted update] Harini Calamur points out in her edit in DNA: The Eligibility of Language:

The 2013 survey of Ethnologue, a website that catalogues the languages of the world, declared that there were 7,016 languages and dialects. In the case of India, Ethnologue has this entry “The number of individual languages listed for India is 461. Of these, 447 are living and 14 are extinct. Of the living languages, 63 are institutional, 130 are developing, 187 are vigorous, 54 are in trouble, and 13 are dying.” 

India seems to have got into a rut of seeing its citizens as a liability. Yet, the density of the population itself proclaims that India is a place where life can and does thrive. How is it possible that centuries of practices that allowed life to thrive are seen as so unimportant as to not merit efforts to keep alive and evolve further? How is it that our focus of language and learning is so externalized, that we are desperately applying solutions that evolved in another place to use us to build the empires of others and ignoring that which made India fertile and prosperous enough to be an attraction through the centuries?

If we look at developed countries today, they all operate in languages citizens know. Be it English speaking countries or France, Germany, China, Japan... They have their traditions, they have their unique practices and indigenous knowledge. They have entire sections of the internet buzzing with active users, advanced knowledge translated effortlessly because their languages were considered important enough to make knowledge available in. Citizens do not need interpreters to seek knowledge for themselves. Compare the French or Spanish versions of Wikipedia with Hindi or Marathi. Compare the quantity and quality of education in each language. See regional WordPress users timidly using minimal installs, while Indian software coders write fancy themes and plugins in English alone.

But open content volunteers are still making an effort to extend the knowledge to more and more people, while governments remain content to operate in English. It is intellectual inequality that appears to train some people for jobs, and others for joblessness. Where are the excellent educators in regional languages? Where are the efforts to raise the intellectual potential in regional languages? What would happen if there were ministries for languages at the state and center tasked with ensuring flow of information to all citizens in languages they understand?

And not just regional languages, but languages of different abilities as well! Where has Doordarshan's news for the deaf gone? Why are there no braille newspaper versions sponsored by government funds if necessary? Why can't newspapers be forced to supply braille editions - subscription only, if necessary - and news channels forced to broadcast at least news highlights, if not more in sign language?

Access to knowledge grows people. Access to knowledge in languages people understand grows more people.

Imagine a country with the size of India and the size of its population able to seek and grow knowledge in the language they are at ease with. Wouldn't our intellectual capital grow? Wouldn't more people engage with development more effortlessly? What would happen if agricultural colleges provided translations of important knowledge in the mother tongue of farmers? If economic theories were available in every citizen's mother tongue? Forget all that, we don't even have laws accessible in regional languages easily. Laws citizens are expected to obey - without having access to read them to know what they say. How would lawlessness decrease, if the word of the law never reached the ears of the common man in a language he understands?

In my view, more important than nitpicking about what language the government uses, it is important that excellent and advanced education be made available in regional languages. It is important that the government takes an interest in world knowledge being made available to Indians in regional languages by forming various task forces that translate it. Teams contributing translations to public sites like Wikipedia, special knowledge banks of important works in other languages and more.

Language isn't merely a symbol of unity or supremacy, it is the breathing thread that weaves citizens together. Important weaves must be woven with threads that connect people.

So, the real question isn't whether the government should tweet and update Facebook in English, Hindi or both, the real question is why official government documents are not available in ALL the regional languages of India.

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5 || Part 6 || Part 7

One such noteworthy phenomenon is the scramble for ‘good’ schools that provide education in the English medium in exchange for what, at times, amounts to ‘a King’s ransom’ by contrast with other schools that use ‘regional languages’ as the medium of instruction. Please note that the words ‘regional languages’ have been put within inverted commas. I was born in British India, fortunately in a family of freedom fighters and social reformers. Along with the norm at home of buying everything Indian as opposed to imported British goods, I went to a Bengali medium school. In those days, the medium of education in every Indian language was considered as getting educated in one’s mother tongue and not in a ‘regional language’. We knew that our future careers were likely to suffer irrespective of the quality of English language that we learnt, because we did not go to an English medium school. A strong sense of commitment to our mother tongue allowed us to deal with that anxiety. The British imperialists had tried their best to destroy this commitment and undermine the status of local languages by using the term ‘vernacular’ to describe the various languages that Indians used as mother tongue. The Chamber’s and Oxford Dictionaries published prior to 1930s defined the word vernacular as ‘pertaining to the tongue of the slave’ i.e., the Indians were slaves in the minds of the British as part of the US and European heritage of actual slave trade. The British in India had carried on a slave trade in the garb of indentured labour long after slavery was legally abolished. So their languages were described as the language of the slaves, thus making a great effort to downgrade the various local languages of the Indian sub-continent.

Much later, after the Indian Empire vanished and in its place there came the nations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the definition of ‘vernacular’ also got changed in the later editions of those dictionaries. The new definition became ‘the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region’. It leaves me to wonder if in the mind of the British Imperialists the status of being the master of its south Asian colonies still exists, so that while the ‘ordinary people’ speak ‘vernacular’, some kind of extra ordinary status is conferred upon those people in former colonies who speak in English!

This emphasis on ‘ordinary people’ seems to have impacted the Indian psyche to produce the idea that students of English medium schools belong to an ‘exclusive’ class, who are perhaps a cut above the ‘ordinary people’ who can afford education only in the ‘regional language’.

So the ‘colonial hangover’ is about being politically correct in raising the status of ‘slave’ to the ‘ordinary’, the ‘hoi polloi’. The tragedy of this country is that the average hoi polloi has also accepted this constructed reality and continue to use the word ‘vernacular’ to denote various local Indian languages, including their mother tongue.

One also wonders to what extent the ‘racial discrimination’ based rules about dress code, special discriminatory treatment by the immigration personnel at airports, such incidents as the killing of an unarmed olive skinned South American in a London Underground station by the British Police without any provocation, and attacks on Indians by White Australians in Melbourne (2009) are part of the colonial hangover passed on to the progenies of those who had ruthlessly conquered the black people’s land and plundered their riches. In fact in Australia even though many non-white people are also Australian citizens for more than one generation, they are not always referred to as Australians. Colloquially, only the white skinned immigrants, even those recently ‘naturalised’, are called Australian. Australian citizens with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian etc. origin are called Asian, and the citizens of Indian origin remain Indian! Behind this there could be an unconscious assumption, which is that non-whites are not worthy of Australian citizenship along with her white citizens.

Another very destructive ploy of the British Imperialists was translating the word dharma into English as ‘religion’, perhaps taking a cue from another imperial European power of that era whose representative, Max Mueller, ‘translated’ many ancient Indian Sanskrit texts. Anyone who knows Sanskrit well and has read some of the sub-continental ancient Sanskrit literature knows that while the word ‘translation’ is generally used to denote rendering the texts in various non-Sanskrit languages, actually it becomes largely a matter of interpretation. One of the reasons for that is that many Sanskrit words have multiple meanings and the choice of a particular meaning depends on one’s understanding of the cultural context. Further, the so-called translator leaves his or her mark by using capital letters for some words since in Sanskrit there are no capital and small letters. Very few people seem to have given much thought to this mistake of using ‘religion’ as the English of dharma. Dharma in the past was a very inclusive term with multiple meanings. Some of these meanings still remain. At one level it is applied to a very wide range of behaviours called monushya dharma to highlight the common human inner realities expressed as behavioural characteristics as opposed to those of animals (or shall we say of various species of animals other than the species termed as homo sapiens). In the past, of course, monushyas represented an ethnic group who were separate from such other ethnic groups as devas, gandharvas, rakshasas etc. The definition of dharma then keeps narrowing its boundary through such meanings as the expected ethics and behaviour of kings and other varieties of rulers ‘by divine right’ (raj dharma), that were accepted and got incorporated in the dharma enforced by the powerful Vedic people, who followed the brahmanya dharma with its four-fold socio-economic classification of brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and sudra, down to the personal philosophy and ethics of creative people who questioned the prevalent culture.

Continued in Part 3

Biographical Note

Gouranga Chattopadhyay is Emeritus Professor of HR of the Academy of Human Resources, Ahmedabad and an independent OD consultant, executive coach and personal counsellor. He can be contacted at gipisi2@gmail.com.