(This story was originally published on 22 October 2021. It is being reposted to mark Hindi Diwas on 14 September 2022.)
Mango is not the national fruit of India. Hockey is not the national sport of India (and neither is cricket, BTW). And, despite what popular imagination, uninformed Northies, or saffron-robed pontificators might tell you, Hindi is most certainly not the national language of India.
In the latest addition to the series of controversies surrounding the matter, actor Ajay Devgn on Wednesday, 27 April, said, "Hindi was, is and always will be our mother tongue and national language." His comment came in response to Kannada actor Kiccha Sudeep, who recently stated that Hindi is no longer the national language of India.
While Devgn later said, "We respect all languages and we expect everyone to respect our language as well," this is not the first instance in the recent years that the contention over Hindi’s status has made the headlines.
The horn of a ‘national language’ has been tooted in Hindi for long now.
Hindi Not the ‘National’ Language, but the ‘Official’ Language: What’s the Difference?
“The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script,” says Article 343 of the Constitution.
As per the Constitution, Hindi and English are the official languages of the country, which are to be used for “official purposes” by the government, such as Parliamentary interactions.
Moreover, the Constitution provides that each state may adopt its own official language:
“Subject to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347, the Legislature of a State may by law adopt any one or more of the languages in use in the State or Hindi as the language or languages to be used for all or any of the official purposes of that State.”
There is no mention of a national language in the Constitution.
In 2010, the Gujarat High Court had observed, "Normally, in India, a majority of the people have accepted Hindi as a national language and many people speak Hindi and write in Devanagari script but there is nothing on record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as a national language of the country."
Controversies in the Past
Numerous disputes have arisen over the ‘nationalising’ of Hindi at various occasions in the recent past.
‘If Any Language Can Unite the Country, It’s Hindi’: Amit Shah
Hindi, being the most spoken language in India, has been oft-touted as the lingua franca for its ‘unifying’ value.
Home Minister Amit Shah, in a 2019 tweet, which had met with immense backlash, had stated that Hindi language should become part of the Indian identity.
“India is a country of different languages and every language has its own importance but it is very important to have a language which should become the identity of India in the world. If one language can unite the country today, it is the widely-spoken Hindi language,” Amit Shah had tweeted on 14 September 2019.
Many residing in the southern Indian states had taken offence to Shah’s statement that was seen as an imposition of Hindi language – the language without which, it seemed to have been posited, the Indian identity would be rendered incomplete.
As protests over the statement erupted, DMK Chief MK Stalin had said “It’s shocking. It will surely affect India’s unity. I would urge him (Amit Shah) to take back that view of his,” Times of India had reported.
As the acrimony escalated, Shah had issued a clarification on his previous statement.
National Education Policy Draft Had Suggested Mandatory Hindi Education
A draft of the National Education Policy furthered by the central government in 2019 had provided that Hindi should be taught mandatorily across the country.
The NEP draft had concerned speakers of regional languages across non-Hindi speaking states.
While Tamil Nadu politician Stalin had opposed the “hegemonic imposition” of Hindi, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had been quoted as saying, "You cannot control everything. Every state has a separate character and separate language. We must show respect to every regional language. Importance must be given to the mother tongue and then to other languages."
The draft had subsequently been revised to remove the compulsion.
Modi Govt’s Order Asking Officials to Give Priority to Hindi Use on Social Media
“It is ordered that government employees and officials of all ministries, departments, corporations or banks, who have made official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube or blogs, should use Hindi, or both Hindi and English, but give priority to Hindi,” a Home Ministry order issued on 27 May, 2014, read.
The order, which was issued a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office for the first time on 26 May, 2014, had met with stiff resistance from political leaders of southern India.
Late Tamil Nadu politician Jayalalithaa, in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Modi shortly after the order was issued, had stressed that the emphasis on Hindi is "a highly sensitive issue and causes disquiet to the people of Tamil Nadu who are very proud of and passionate about their linguistic heritage," as per an NDTV report.
As recently as October 2021, food delivery company Zomato came under the fire after a customer care executive told an app user from Tamil Nadu, “For your kind information Hindi is our national language.” Zomato, later, issued an apology for the statement.
Hindi Not the First Language for Over 56% Indians: 2011 Census
The total population of India, as reported by the 2011 Census, is 1,210,854,977.
The 2011 Census report further records that there are 528,347,193 persons in India, amounting to nearly 43.63 percent of the population, for whom Hindi is the ‘mother tongue’ or their first language.
This means that 56.37 percent Indians do not identify Hindi as their first language.
While Hindi may be India’s most spoken language, it is spoken commonly only around the Hindi belt of northern India, which encompasses the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh.
In the eastern, northeastern, and southern parts of the country, other local languages, unique to each region, are preferred for communication. The 2011 Census records as many as 270 different mother tongues.
To conclude, the Constitution does not provide for the recognition of any national language. Despite numerous contentious claims in the past, more than half of the Indian population does not consider Hindi as its first language. Therefore, as a Twitter user articulately puts it:
“Stop shoving Hindi down our throats. It is just one of the languages. NOT the national language.”