Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s proposal to make Hindi the unifying language is simply unworkable and even has a potential to undermine India’s federal plurality. It defeats the civilisational idea of India, which functions as a beehive of plurality rather than as a monolith of “one India, one language.” Instead of imposing one language on the country, it is time we celebrated the linguistic diversity. As Nelson Mandela succinctly put it, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his mother language that goes to his heart.” It was to the credit of the enormous wisdom of the framers of the Constitution that all other languages, along with Hindi, were accorded the official language status. More than a mere tool of communication, language is about culture and identity and equal treatment to all languages is a tribute to the unity in diversity which makes India unique. Promotion of Hindi or any other Indian language is desirable but the language of homogenisation in the garb of unifying the people must be avoided. By claiming that Hindi alone could be a unifying language and could become India’s “identity”, Shah has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Understandably, the pushback to his sweeping observations came from southern politicians, including Kerala Chief Minister P Vijayan, because they were widely seen as an attempt to impose Hindi on other States. It is not just the southern States but many in the Eastern and Western parts of India would not be comfortable with any kind of linguistic hegemony.
The linguistic diversity is India’s strength, not its weakness. It must be pointed out that the creation of States on linguistic lines helped placate and unite those who spoke different languages in the country. The BJP president would be well-advised to desist from stoking divisions that have long been addressed and assimilated as part of India’s national identity. There is an argument that Indians need a single national language to find a unifying identity and better coordination. However, most people don’t mind learning new languages provided there is an economic incentive for doing so. What traps Indians is not the language but the other more stifling barriers: Economic barriers on land and capital that prevent many from leaving their regions, regulatory barriers imposed by myriad labour laws prevent many others from changing professions easily and caste barriers preventing social mobility. Those are the barriers that need to be eliminated. In an increasingly globalised world, English has become the common connector, a social aspiration and a gateway to opportunities. English has a strong utilitarian value while regional languages have become the official languages of the States.