Amit Shah recently made a series of comments relating to the Hindi language at the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee in New Delhi. He qualified Hindi as the national language of India and stressed the need to make it the “official language” of the country, which, in his submission, shall play a role in “the unity of the country”. Additionally, he also announced that Hindi will be made compulsory up to class 10 in all eight states of Northeast India. According to a press release from the Ministry of Home Affairs, it was also said that Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English, not to local languages.
Shah added that Hindi should become a communicative language among different states in the Northeast. Furthermore, it was added that Hindi will be made the “medium of running the government”, the same report added.
How an Official Language Creates a 'Language Market'
From these comments, a few distinctive aspects emerge, viz., the move to make Hindi the official language (and hence, the politics of the official language), language tied to nationalism (“unity of the country”), making it compulsory in the school curriculum, and floating the idea of a ‘link language’. One has to engage with each of these elements with some care.
Linguistic theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure had argued that language creates a certain kind of space, and not the other way around. The meaning of an official language and the need for a language for the unity of India carve out society, state and nationalism in a specific way. At the level of society, such an imposition of “official language” informs us of a conscious effort by the Indian state to turn everyone into one linguistic community. Official languages also enjoy the support of the state. It is wrapped up with the state in its origin and uses. This whole setup of official language and its ties to the state creates a “language market”, according to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
The creation of an official language also created classes and social divides. First, a class of people who know that language and the rest who don’t. In that specific sense, the point is not to kill other dialects and languages entirely but to make them subordinate and dependent on one or the other dominant form.
Language finally becomes entangled with nationalism and the state in more than one way. Making Hindi compulsory in schools is a direct expression of state-making, carrying with it the same sentiment of making Hindi a “medium to run the government”. This is carving out a forceful space for language. As opposed to this forceful path, there is also a natural (read autonomous) manner in which language carves out a space for itself where autonomous speakers turn to a certain language and learn to speak it. The geographical reach of language can naturally increase due to such a way of accepting language as well. The forceful way of imposition, which can also be captured in the language of Shah when he says “have to accept”, is a serious threat to the autonomy and agency of people to choose language, let alone speak their mother tongue.
The 1957 Memorandum in Assam For a 'Link Language'
Within the Northeast, literary organisations such as the Assam Sahitya Sabha (ASS) had long stressed the need to make Assamese the link language between communities of various states in the Northeast. When Assamese was discontinued from schools in Arunachal Pradesh as a medium of instruction in the late 1950s, Hem Baruah, then a parliamentarian, demanded its re-introduction and asserted the importance of Assamese as a language of inter-tribal communication. Baruah was a signatory to the memorandum, which was submitted to Syed Fazl Ali, then-Governor of Assam, and then-Union Home Minister Pandit GB Pant, in 1957. One of the demands was to make Assamese a ‘compulsory’ second language where a tribal tongue is used as a first language.
Condemning the imposition of Hindi, the ASS expressed its worry about the development of Assamese and other indigenous languages in Assam. In a press release, the ASS noted that such a compulsory imposition will make the “future of indigenous language and Assamese language doubtful”. The Sabha stands, first and foremost, for the development of the Assamese language. Its motto is: “my mother language – my eternal love”.
The sensibilities and loyalty of the Sabha are for Assamese as a mother tongue, not for any other tribal constituents’ tongue such as the Misings, Bodos etc. It has been an important vehicle for Assamese nationalism. One should not be persuaded by any claim made by the Sabha that it is worried about the well-being of other indigenous languages in Assam. Its fidelity lies with Assamese, nobody else.
Assamese Nationalism Meets Hindutva
Assamese was made the official state language in Assam in 1960, in which the ASS played the most pivotal role. Many tribal groups opposed this move. Talking about a public meeting that took place in North Lakhimpur College on 10 June 1960 on the issue of ‘State Language’, Assam Tribune, a regional newspaper, reported on 16 June 1960:
“Speaker after speaker addressing the multi-lingual and multi-communal gathering characterized the anti-Assamese campaign recently launched in Shillong, the capital of Assam, by a section of the people there as provocative, hostile, violent, disruptionist, treacherous and highly injurious to Assamese language and culture and calculated to undermine the relations between the Assamese and the non-Assamese speaking people of Assam.”
Whoever questioned this Assamese hegemony was termed ‘anti-Assamese’, including the tribal communities living in Assam and speaking their own languages. They were also deemed to be provocative, hostile, violent and treacherous for asking for rights and refusing to be dominated.
Already, with the Assam Repealing Act 2021, the Assam government has stopped investing in minorities’ education in madrassa institutions. In other words, with this new imposition of Hindi, the ones who will suffer from such a linguistic onslaught in the Northeast are its minorities. This also includes the Bangla speakers in the region. From here, the minorities will be fighting two kinds of dominant forces – one local and the other, national.
Hence, our task is now two-fold. First, to fight the vernacular elite and local nationalism imposing their official language (the Sahitya Sabha model and that of Assamese, Mizo, Meitei, Naga, Khasi nationalisms), and second, the Hindutva project of renewed territorial extension and the legitimacy of Hindi in the Northeast.
Hindi Impositition Is For Domination, Not Communication
Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari wrote in A Thousand Plateaus how language “spreads like a patch of oil”. The politics that will spill and spread because of language will not be limited to just that – it affects all aspects of life.
This new move will bring about a power struggle between the national and regional, and in this, the minorities in their respective states will be stripped of their linguistic rights even further. They are the real scapegoats of this double power move in both the regional and the national space.
Declaring a language official or compulsory is not a naïve or innocent act aimed at communication alone. It also means purging other languages and minorities of their freedom and rights. Such a move can only be one of domination – of assertion of power.
(The author is a sociologist interested in contemporary social, ethical and political life in South Asia. He tweets @char_chapori. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)