History of India

India since independence

Politics of India

information on India - Languages in India

Official language

One of the main political issues in Indian politics is connected to language problem. After India’s independence the government decided that the official language of India will be Hindi. Hindi belongs to the family of Aryan languages. Speakers of other languages, especially the Dravidian languages, saw in this decision an attempt to erase their language cultures (see also Aryans and Dravidians). But the Indian constitution has declared that English can also be used for official purposes. Hindi has at least 13 different dialects and she is the most commonly spoken language in India. But the reason Hindi was chosen to be the official language of India wasn’t because it is the most commonly spoken language in India, but it has connection with India history before it’s independence.

Before its independence, most of India was a British colony. Before the British the most dominant Empire of north India was the Moghul Empire. The Moghuls were Muslim invaders who arrived in India from the present day Afghanistan (see-india in the past). The official language of the Moghul courts was Persian. The Moghuls, like other residents who lived to the west of the Indian sub-continent named India as ‘Hind’ or ‘Hindustan’, after the river Indus which flows in the present day Pakistan. The language spoken in ‘Hind’ was called by them Hindi or Hindustani. This language and its script were based on an ancient Indian language called Sanskrit. Most of the sacred books of Hinduism are written in Sanskrit and the script is called Devanagiri.

Some of the Moghul family members were great patrons of poetry and music. Slowly there developed a ‘Hindustani’ poetry, based on Hindustani language which used words from Arabic and Persian and was written in Perso-Arabic script. This language was called Urdu. Urdu also replaced Persian as the language of the Moghul courtyards. And so there developed two languages with different writings but were actually one language when spoken except for their higher vocabularies. For example, rulers were titled in Urdu language as Shah, Nawab or Nizam. While in Hindi they were called Raja or Maharaja. Among the Hindustani speakers of north India, Urdu became the language of the Muslims while Hindi became the language of others.

After the collapse of the Moghuls the British became the rulers of north India. The British introduced English to India and continued using Urdu for official purposes. But nationalist Hindus demanded from the British to change the official language from Urdu to Hindi which is written in Indian script. Even Hindus whose mother tongue were not Hindi supported this argument. This debate between the Hindus and the Muslims continued right up to the independence of India. Against this stand of two different languages two of India’s notable leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, supported the idea of one Hindustani language which could be written in both forms. But when British India was divided in two countries, India and Pakistan. Muslims who got Pakistan made Urdu their official language and Indians made Hindi with Devanagiri script as their official language. But the debate over the official language didn’t end up with choosing Hindi with Devanagiri script as the official language. New debates occurred because of this decision.

One problem was connected to the different dialects of Hindi and the second problem was connected to other languages which exist in India. The first problem was which dialect of Hindi is the right Hindi. Hindi has at least 13 dialects, some of them completely different from each other. Two reasons caused to it that Hindi language includes in it so many different dialects. One reason was related to the fact that India is called Hind in many languages spoken west from it up to the Middle East. Muslim invaders of India like the Moghuls came from these regions and called the language spoken in ‘Hind’ as Hindi. The Indians also began calling their different languages as ‘Hindi’. The other reason which concerns to the fact that Hindi has so many different dialects is related to the independence period of India and the debate of the official language of India.

Most of the Indians belong religiously to Hinduism and they perceive Urdu, written in Perso-Arabic script as Muslim language. Before the independence of India the Muslims supported the continuation of Urdu as the official language of India, while the Hindus supported Hindi. In order to secure Hindi’s position as the sole official language of India the political leaders convinced the north Indians to claim that they speak a Hindi dialect and so different dialect speakers were put together in the Hindi speaking category by the British bureaucrats. After India’s independence when Hindi was chosen as the official language of India, different ‘Hindi’ language speakers began demanding official recognition of their languages. Maithali and Punjabi speakers also demanded to recognize their languages as separate languages from Hindi. Of the different ‘Hindi’ languages, only Punjabi got this recognition. Other ‘Hindi’ languages are considered dialects of Hindi and their status in the different states of India isn’t clear and is interpreted differently by different parties. The official Hindi is based on the dialect which was spoken in the Delhi-Agra region with a Sanskrit vocabulary. While the popular Hindi spoken by majority of Indians is based on this dialect, it is also affected by the different cultures of India mainly the Hindi cinema based in Mumbai(formerly Bombay) in west India and it includes many English words.

Among the other language speakers of India, the decision to choose Hindi as the official language was seen as an attempt to erase their cultures. After different struggles – political, violent and passive – the central government decided to allow the state governments to pick their official languages and recognized constitutionally other languages of India. For now the Indian constitution recognizes 18 Indian languages. One of meanings of the constitutional recognition is the right to use any of these languages for government service examinations. But, in reality this possibility isn’t always given to the examinee.

The different states of India have different official languages, some of them not recognized by the central government. Some states have more then one official language. Bihar in east India has three official languages - Hindi, Urdu and Bengali – which are all recognized by the central government. But Sikkim, also in east India, has four official languages of which only Nepali is recognized by the central government. Besides the languages officially recognized by central or state governments, there are other languages which don’t have this recognition and their speakers are running political struggles to get this recognition. Anyway as stated earlier the central government decided that Hindi is the official language of India and therefore it has also the status of official language in the states. Another language that has a official status in all states is English.


The Politics of India since Independence (The New Cambridge History of India)

©Aharon Daniel


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