[lg policy] India: We need clarity on language policy or else, India will soon be incomprehensible to itself and the world

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue May 30 11:06:00 EDT 2017

 We need clarity on language policy or else, India will soon be
incomprehensible to itself and the world

It is famously said that a language is a dialect with an army. If not an
army, the Hindi language is armed with two strengths: the constitutional
mandate to promote it as India’s lingua franca, and the fact that it is far
more widely spoken and understood than any other language in the country.

There’s been a linear movement of Hindi to become India’s national
language, not just the official language. Moreover, the Shiksha Sanskriti
Utthan Nyas (SSUN), an RSS-affiliate and a part of the current
dispensation’s brain trust, wants English to be removed as the medium of
instruction. The implications are not hard to fathom.
Also Read

Should Hindi be the sole official language?

However, a case is gaining momentum in favour of revisiting Part XVII of
the Constitution which envisages, in essence, the replacement of English
language with Hindi at the national level and with other languages in the
Eight Schedule in their respective states.

The fact that this transformation should have been completed by 1965 but
has been continually deferred is indicative of how sensitive — and
potentially explosive — the issue can be. If left unresolved, the language
muddle is bound to affect both the efficacy of our educational system and
the integrity of our judiciary.
A fait accompli

The higher judiciary appeared to be the sole exception to this
English-to-Hindi journey as Article 348(1) stipulates the use of English in
the Supreme Court and High Courts as well as for drafting Bills, Acts and
Orders. But Article 348(2) read with Section (7) of the Official Languages
Act 1963 provides for Hindi or other official languages to be used in High
Courts “in addition to English”.
Also Read

Signs of trouble

Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have already been
granted the right to use Hindi in their High Courts. But the same right has
been withheld from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat and Chhattisgarh which sought
permission to use Tamil, Gujarati and Hindi respectively.

With regard to the functioning of High Courts, all Indian official
languages enjoy equal status and, therefore, demands for permission to use
these languages in High Courts are bound to increase. This ought to, in any
case, be the logical outcome of our language policy.

Moreover, given our preference for mother tongue as the medium of
instruction coupled with a State’s official language being the sole
language for all administration, it would be illogical to exclude that
State’s sole official language from being used in its High Court.
Also Read

The fight for domestic parity

And the Supreme Court doesn’t appear to relax its ‘English-only’ policy.

How will, then, judges be transferred from one High Court to another or
elevated to the Supreme Court? Though, on paper, all High Courts also use
English in their work, the English fluency of both litigants and their
lawyers will progressively get worse as a result of our language policy.

The complexity of the language issue has been exemplified by four
developments that took place in April this year. Three of the four are the
outcomes of stipulations enshrined in Part XVII and the fourth one is a
case in point on what happens as a consequence.

The Parliamentary Committee on Official Language recommended to the Central
Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to make Hindi compulsory in all
CBSE-affiliated schools till Class X. This requirement obviously targets
CBSE schools in non-Hindi speaking States and English-medium schools

Sensing backlash from non-Hindi States, especially Tamil Nadu, the CBSE
announced that it has not taken a final decision on the matter. One can
only wish that those in a hurry to promote Hindi had listened to what the
Supreme Court has clearly pronounced on the issue. A Constitution Bench of
the Court held in 2014 (*in Karnataka Vs Recognised-Unaided Schools*) inter

Even for linguistic minorities, it is the fundamental right of parents to
determine what their mother tongue is;

A child, and on his behalf his parent or guardian, has the right to choose
the medium of instruction at the primary school stage under Article
19(1)(a), and;

The imposition of mother tongue at the primary school stage (by the State)
affects the fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and (g) of the

The Bench goes a step further on the issue of ‘standards of education’ and
precludes any proactive role for the State. The general import of the
verdict is that the State may ‘promote’ a language or a subject, but it
cannot ‘impose’ the same on an unwilling populace.

In fact, the apex court’s line of reasoning must be music for the votaries
of English-medium schooling: “For example, prescribing English as a medium
of instruction in subjects of higher education for which only English books
are available and which can only be properly taught in English may have a
direct bearing and impact on the determination of standards of education.
Prescribing the medium of instruction in schools to be mother tongue in the
primary school stage in classes I to IV has, however, no direct bearing and
impact on the determination of standards of education, and will affect the
fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the
Constitution.” (supra, para 40)

Thus, a move such as what CBSE is contemplating will face the danger of
being struck down as unconstitutional. The least that will happen is one
more prolonged legal process, affecting the future of millions of our

The other two developments relate to the promotion of non-Hindi Indian
languages in their respective states. Andhra Pradesh announced that a
department will coin new Telugu words to replace English words in vogue now.

And the government of Kerala declared that from May, Malayalam would be the
sole language of the administration. However, the State retained English as
a link language in its dealings with the Centre and the outside world.

True to its reputation, Kerala has stuck to the global norm of mother
tongue plus English. However, the efficacy of this policy will vary
depending on how a State balances its desire to promote its language and
culture with the imperative of helping its young people to have sufficient
fluency in English.

The fourth development is the order passed by the apex court on April 11
terming an impugned order passed by the Himachal Pradesh High Court as “not
possible to comprehend” and directed the High Court to hear the case afresh.
Rethink necessary

It can only be called a manmade disaster that the apex court was forced to
dismiss a judgment of a High c=Court as incomprehensible. Part XVII in full
operation will render India incomprehensible to itself and to the outside

It is time for India to relook its language policy under Part XVII which
became obsolete more than 50 years ago. There’s no point in reinventing the
wheel. Instead, the nation must adopt mother tongue plus English, with
Hindi accorded a pride of place for ceremonial occasions at national and
international levels.

D. Shyam Babu is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
Views are personal


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