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The Protection Of India’s Languages Is Crucial To Preserve Our Cultural Heritage

“On 26 January 2010, a lady who belonged to a community called Bo died in the Andaman Islands and she was the last speaker of her language that was also called Bo. Sadly, along with her, the continuous line of the wisdom of several thousand years was also gone.”
– G N Devy, Chairperson, Bhasha Research and Publication Centre

It is said that she used to talk to birds in her last days as no one else could understand her.

In multilingual societies, language is often a source of conflict. The socio-cultural diversity in India has always provided the perfect recipe for it to be a cauldron for language conflicts. India’s 1.2 billion people speak over 1500 languages and dialects. Contrary to the state-building efforts in other empires, India remains a linguistic mosaic.

I highlight the unique relationship between the complex socio-political scenario and the domination of Hindi over the tribal languages and dialects, which do not have their own scripts. And to discuss a potential solution, which was to some extent successfully implemented by Prof. Ganesh Devy through his Bhasha Research foundation in Gujarat, India, to resolve this inter-twined conflict.

From the early 19th century, the role of the English language in British India grew in prestige and use. In reaction to this anglicisation, the then-largest political party in India, the Indian National Congress had long been involved with the question of the status of Indian languages in the post-colonial period. Gandhi also emphasised the need for an indigenous all-India language as something of grave need and promoted Hindustani, a north Indian lingua franca that blurred the distinction between Hindi and Urdu.

Then came the question of state languages. However, the politicians in the southern states of India stressed the importance of English in a world scenario, which added fuel to the growing rift among the Indian states. Whenever the Congress articulated pro-Hindi regulations locally-based political parties would agitate against Congress. The success of many local movements (the DMK in Madras; the Shiv Sena in Bombay; the Kannada Chaluvaligars in Bangalore) was based on the fundamental idea to promote the respective state languages at the expense of Hindi.

Despite deep controversies due to the constant resistant between Hindi and the other regional languages and a history of violence over these issues, a rather stable outcome has been reached. There are two pieces of the solution: first, the reorganisation of the states in India based on language (‘linguistic states’). In 1956, the State Reorganisation Commission recommended that state boundaries be redrawn to take into account linguistic realities. Eventually, there was a general reorganisation of states along linguistic lines.

Once state reorganisation was carried out administratively, virtually all states legislated a single official language. Second, and a more recent part of the solution has been with regard to languages of education and administration. India now has a de facto 3±1 language policy.

As a result, English and Hindi share the de facto status of the language of all-union businesses. Although some realms of business are entirely in English, (for example, the records of the state-owned oil companies) and some are entirely in Hindi (say, recent army manuals), these two languages share space in virtually all areas. The third language that many Indians must learn is the language of the state in which they are living (Laitin 1989).

However, the solutions and strategies, which Indian governments have adopted in the post-independence era have given rise to another demon, which is the emergence of Hindi. The over-arching solution that was implemented to resolve the language crisis in India, was to adopt the strategy where the administration is governed in regional languages while the population learns Hindi. A reflection of this strategy is also seen in the 3±1 language policy that was adopted on a national scale.

This policy encourages the students to learn, Hindi (lingua franca), the language of the state, English, and a foreign language (mainly French or Spanish). Some deemed this strategy as a ‘natural outcome’ (Laitin 1989). In either way, this proved to be a successful implementation as in the state of Tamil Nadu, for example, where politicians have been adamant against Hindi imposition, the percentage of students who study Hindi voluntarily is quite high. Kher reported that 79.9% students in Madras secondary schools were studying Hindi voluntarily in 1954-55.

Post independence, India had been under colonial rule for about 150 years, as a result, a common language that would bridge millions of people of vastly different backgrounds was the need of the hour. However, if we cut to the current scenario, Hindi has become such a dominant force that it threatens the existence of several other minority languages, as a result, it seems that the 3±1 language policy too requires amendments in order to preserve the linguistic diversity of India.

According to the 1971 language census, about 300 languages in India are no longer traceable since 1947. The number of Hindi language speakers in 1940s was about 140 million (14 crores) which rose to 400 million (40 crores) in a span of 40 years.

Prof. Ganesh Devy’s Bhasha Research Institute implemented one potential solution to this problem. They undertook the task of educating the tribal population in their own languages and avoided the use of dominant languages that co-existed in the same environment (Hindi or language of the state). The educated members of the tribal society then translated all the primary school textbooks prescribed by the government of India to various tribal languages (Bhili, Rathvi, etc.) which were later taught in the tribal schools. This promoted the use of indigenous languages and created awareness and a sense of self-pride among the people in these tribal pockets.

Further, Bhasha institute organized seminars and workshops to create awareness among the citizens for the preservation of tribal languages, art-practices and imaginative life of tribal communities in India. They also conducted the first of its kind linguistic survey known as the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI). Their main aim was to create an action network of members committed to sustainable development, irrespective of diverse social and cultural contexts, and of community custodians of life-enhancing systems and traditions. Thus, in the process establish closer links between the government and speech communities.

These efforts bore some fruitful results as the number of Bhili language speakers in 2001 were 8.7 million, but this number has increased to 20 million as per the 2013 reports. These steps are crucial as there are several languages, which do not have written forms but they still hold treasures of culture which should not be left to wither away.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Jorge Royan/Wikimedia Commons.
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