Of the many issues that the Constituent Assembly of India had to grapple with, one of the most contentious was on the question of language. Right from the issue of language for the Constitution to the demand for a national language and building a consensus for an official language, the debates showcase both India’s linguistic diversity and the complexities associated with politicising it.
Especially on the question of national language, the Constituent Assembly was divided into two groups — those supporting Hindi and those in favour of English — with both groups advancing convincing arguments. Although not a member, Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, insisted upon ‘Hindustani’, which some consider a blend of Hindi and Urdu, being the national language. Many then thought that the move was to assuage Hindus and Muslims. In the debates, Nehru intervened to recall Gandhi’s views. One, “that while English is a great language (that) …has done us a lot of good, …no nation can become great on the basis of a foreign language”. Two, the chosen language should be “more or less a language of the people, not a language of a learned coterie”. And three, “this language should represent the composite culture of India”. Therefore, Nehru said, Gandhi used the word ‘Hindustani’ “in that broad sense representing that composite language”.
When a majority from the North insisted upon Hindi, there was stiff resistance from the South. The views of the South were reflected by TT Krishnamachari as follows: ‘’We disliked the English language in the past. I disliked it because I was forced to learn Shakespeare and Milton, for which I had no taste at all. If we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi, I would perhaps not be able to learn it because of my age, and perhaps I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me. This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre, which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary will also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language at the Centre. I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of people of the South for the reason that there are already elements in South India who want separation…, and my honourable friends in UP do not help us in any way by flogging their idea of “Hindi Imperialism” to the maximum extent possible. So, it is up to my friends in Uttar Pradesh to have a whole India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs.’’
Even Ambedkar insisted upon one language that was Hindi for he thought two languages would prove divisive. As the debate became shriller over Hindi’s status as the “Raj Bhasha” (Official Language) with “Rashtrabhasha” (National Language), a few elders constituted a two-member committee with KM Munshi and Gopalaswami Ayyangar to wriggle out of the crisis.
The debates that traversed three years were laid to rest in September 1949 with all the members accepting the Munshi-Ayyangar formula. On September 13, 1949, when the compromise formula was being adopted, Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee, although a supporter of Hindi, went on to state: “India has been a country of many languages. If we dig into the past, we will find that it has not been possible for anybody to force the acceptance of one language by all people in this country. Some of my friends spoke eloquently that a day ‘might come when India shall have one language and one language only’. Frankly speaking, I do not share that view ….”
The formula attempted to strike a balance between all demands. Part XVII of the Constitution was drafted according to this compromise. It did not have any mention of a “National Language”. Instead, it defined only the “Official Languages” of the Union: Hindi in Devanagari script would be the official language of the Indian Union. For 15 years, English would also be used for all official purposes (Article 343). However, in parallel, the Special Directive of Article 351 was recognised that entrusts to the Union the responsibility to promote the spread of Hindi. To aid in this, the Department of Official Language was set up in June 1975 as an independent Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Alongside, the 1948 University Education Commission headed by Dr S Radhakrishnan, preferred continuation of higher education in English. The controversy resurrected between 1958 and 1968 as a consequence of the proposal of the Official Language Act, which envisioned Hindi to be the sole official language for the validity of English factored in Munshi-Ayynagar formula was to expire in 15 years. There were vehement protests against the imposition of Hindi from the southern States, especially from Tamil Nadu, while northern India witnessed the ‘Angreji Hatao’ movement.
A conference of the Chief Ministers in 1961 recommended the ‘three-language formula’ as per which English almost became a compulsory language across States. The protests that went on for over a decade were only doused with then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s announcement of continuation of Hindi and English for official purposes and with the enforcement of the three-language formula, also advocated by the Kothari Commission (Hindi, English and regional language).
The National Education Policy of 1968 and 1986 and subsequent education commissions were careful as far as the issue of language and medium of instruction was concerned, as language has always been an emotive issue. Education policies, especially after 1968, tilted more in favour of English and the latest in the series was the report of the Knowledge Commission of India headed by Sam Pitroda in 2009, which states: ‘’In the present international set-up knowledge and expertise over English language is one of the critical factors to access higher education, job opportunity and social mobility. Hence, English should be introduced right from childhood along with mother tongue’’.
Languages of India
After over 34 years, the National Educational Policy (NEP), 2020, with its accentuated focus on languages of India foregrounds the issue of language, eloquently enunciating the efficacy of language in the formative periods of a child’s growth in incubating ideas and igniting intellectual faculties. However, this time there are no fierce debates over the issue of language since the policy recommends using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction till the age of 8 or more as a suggestion. Both the Prime Minister and the Union Education Minister made it categorical that no language would be imposed on children.
On the contrary, children would have the option to study not merely one’s mother tongue but other Indian languages from Grade 3. Deploying play-way pedagogy, efforts will be made to provide exposure to other Indian languages, which in turn foster a sense of belonging amongst children towards the nation. Recruitment of a greater number of language teachers and possible tie-ups between different linguistic States to exchange language teacher resources will lead to employment generation. Yet, the question lingers, why the emphasis on mother tongue?
In the concept of Critical Period Hypotheses (CPH) in ‘developmental psychology and developmental biology’, there’s conclusive evidence that children in the age group of 2 and 8 are extraordinarily capacious in learning more than one language. CPH states the presence of a “critical period” for language acquisition — the early years of life, after which this becomes progressively difficult. According to the proponents of CPH, language learning is dominant in the left hemisphere of the brain, and a child not only can learn multiple languages up to the age of 9, but can also switch between languages easily without having to translate from their mother-tongue.
The proponents also believe that language is present in both hemispheres of the brain until the age of 13, after which it is dominant in the left hemisphere alone – this split makes first-language acquisition (FLA) challenging. The same reasoning was provided for second language acquisition (SLA) as well. When it comes SLA, it is accepted that older children/teens who learn a second language rarely achieve a “native-like fluency” like younger learners. Experts believe that SLA can be faster and more effective provided it occurs before puberty, specifically before the age of 7.
The language aspect detailed in NEP, 2020, therefore, relies on this scientific base that “…young children learn and grasp nontrivial concepts more quickly in their home language/mother tongue”. Therefore, the use of mother tongue or the exposure of the child to the languages that surround the child’s ecosystem would prove effective in early education.
Language and sociological studies insist on the relation between the language of life and language of instruction. For instance, delineating the impact of the discrepancy between mother tongue and language of instruction, noted Kenyan writer-activist Ngugi in his seminal book ‘Decolonizing the Mind…’ argues that the difference between the two impairs critical thinking abilities.
In right earnest, NEP, 2020, advises bridging the gap between children’s native language and language of instruction. It, therefore, underscores the need for mother tongue while validating multilingualism. The policy further explains mother tongue as an addition of home language and the language spoken in the local communities, in effect, nudging flexibility in terms of choosing a language. By explaining mother tongue in conjunction with home language and language spoken by communities, the policy embeds flexibility and, thereby, forecloses contentious areas. On the other hand, while continuing emphasis on multiple languages, the NEP does not disturb the present ‘three-language formula’. This is indeed positive and allows smooth transition and continuation.
Yet another proposal is to involve every student in ‘The Languages of India’ project sometimes on grades 6-8, which makes them aware of the linguistic diversity of the country, including certain tribal languages, to enable linguistic integration. It proposes to make classical languages like Pali, Persian and Prakrit along with foreign languages such as Korean, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian, available to students. These are to be offered at the secondary level.
India is a land of multiple languages and linguistic diversity is a defining aspect of its identity. The Constitution lists 22 languages and Sahitya Akademi recognises 24. The Indian States were created in 1956 along linguistic boundaries, but today there are 28 States for the 22 languages with official status. George Abraham Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, the first comprehensive survey of languages in British India, published in 19 volumes from 1898-1928, described 364 languages and dialects. The Census Report of 1961 listed 1,652 mother tongues, but the 1971 Census listed only 108 languages. The more recent Peoples Linguistic Survey of India, 2016, has identified 780 languages and 86 scripts in India.
The NEP reads ambitious and rightly so. It has many features which education policies hitherto ignored, be it preparation of curriculum for 0-8 ages, scholarships to transgenders, nutritious breakfast and lunch, inclusion of tribal languages as mainstream languages for education. The policy demonstrates the intent to realise social inclusion, cohesion and integration. If implemented well, India will witness celebrations of national and international languages.
[The author teaches at Osmania University and is an Executive Council Member of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC)]
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