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The Diplomacy Of Language

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By Anshul Kumar Pandey: 

While the more broad minded and vernacular oriented people in India whose preferred domestic language happens not to be Hindi might take offense, the fact is that encouraging the usage of Hindi in other nations has long been on the agenda of India’s foreign policy. With its ideal of projecting its soft power of culture, customs and the way of life, India’s foreign policy places an unusual amount of importance on encouraging the usage of Hindi in other nations.

Raj Kapoor with the students of the Moscow College of Circus and Variety Arts, Moscow, 1967. Source: Itar-Tass

India is not alone in this move. In fact, encouraging the usage of their respective vernaculars in foreign countries has for long been on the to-do lists of nations with a strong vernacular culture. The westerners did not need it, as the necessity of the same was fulfilled by the forceful colonization and subjugation of countries across the globe. In India, to be particular, the famous minute of Lord MaCaulay heralded the arrival of English as the sole medium of imparting education and consequently, as the de facto official language for the rest of her life under the British. However, for the nations which did not have the luxury of expansionist programs or large swathes of colonies under their rule, the process of language diplomacy started only after the process of decolonization had been accomplished to a significant degree in the latter part of the twentieth century.

A Cold War Equation

Nehruvian vision and a particular tilt towards Russia in the cold war and non aligned years ensured that Russian Universities were the first to take up the teaching of Hindi as an optional language. The banning of Hollywood films in the cold war era resulted in Soviet Russia turning to Bollywood films for their entertainment, a phenomenon which made actor Raj Kapoor an instant celebrity in that country. The warm response to such films provided both the countries with an opportunity to further their people to people ties, as a means of furthering their national interest, making the exchange of their respective vernacular languages inevitable.

Indian governments which succeeded Nehru were quick to realize the pragmatism of “exporting” domestic culture to other countries as well as familiarizing themselves with the culture of their counterparts. Jawaharlal Nehru University (which was established in 1969) was one of the first universities to take up the task of dissemination of foreign languages in the country. Following the grand success of festival of India in Soviet Russia in 1988, the Indian Embassy in Moscow embarked on an aggressive program of showcasing the country’s culture through the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre which was established in 1989.

Apart from Nehru’s experiments of cultural ideas in the laboratory of International relations, India’s reluctance to engage in any kind of third party military adventurism has over the years, strengthened the case for its projection of soft power. In this larger scheme of things, language, undoubtedly, plays the largest role.

In a Globalized World

While a more muscular Cold War age may not have been particularly receptive to such ideas, choosing instead to gain allies with the show off of its arsenal, the case is certainly not so in a globalized and inter connected post cold war era. The immediate agenda now is to shift the study of their respective languages from the drowsy seminar rooms of a few odd universities in a friendly country to a larger audience in the primary and secondary schools with a long term view of creating a fertile field for realizing their goals and interests in foreign relations.

In June this year, China decided to introduce Hindi in South China by setting up a Hindi chair in Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou. Several schools and universities in other parts of China are already teaching Hindi as an optional language. This month, India decided to reciprocate this gesture by announcing that Mandarin would be introduced in over a hundred schools as an optional language.

While Sino-Indian reciprocity can be seen in the light of two nations trying to shake off the shackles of their past scarred by a bitter war in 1962, other nations which are warming up to the idea of introducing foreign languages in their school and university curriculum, see it as a result of the fast paced growth of Asia.

Last Monday, Australian Prime Minister Ms. Julia Gillard introduced a white paper on the “Asian Century” which included, among other proposals, a proposal to introduce Hindi, Bhasa Indonesia, Japanese and Mandarin in the country’s primary and secondary schools, with the primary focus being on Hindi. Aimed at maximizing the links with the fast growing economies of Asia, the proposal has already been lauded by various sections of the Australian civil and political society.

A Policy of Necessity

Although the diplomacy of language remains the central scheme of things in India’s soft power, so dear to its foreign policy, it can also not be denied that this is a policy that India badly needs in order to create more jobs for its young population in order to realize the maximum potential of its demographic dividend. India is expected to surpass China in population terms by 2025 with the majority of its population being in the working age category. In order to provide employment to such a large proportion of population, India cannot depend entirely on the public sector. New and unconventional avenues will have to be explored which is only possible if the youth of the country are equipped with the right set of employable skills.

A continuing familiarization with the languages of different countries can not only boost India’s tourism industry and provide it with more translators, interpreters and teachers, but it can also help in adding more value to the already strong Diaspora of Indians which exists abroad.

It is in India’s interest to continue to experiment and explore new avenues in addition to its diplomacy of language, that can not only further its interests abroad, but can also prove beneficial in domestic terms in the long run.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: Anshul Kumar Pandey is studying Political Science in University of Delhi. He blogs at To read his other posts, click here.[/box]

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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