Webinar: Bestow ‘official language’ status on all languages in India

If the fundamental idea of India is multilingualism, then all languages should be considered equal, eminent panellists tell The Federal

Representative Purpose Only | Photo: iStock

It is time to bestow ‘official language’ status on all languages in India – and put them on a par with Hindi, a group of eminent panellists told a live webinar hosted by The Federal on Saturday (November 13).

S Srinivasan, editor-in-chief of The Federal, discussed the perennial hot-button issue of language equality and rights with a panel comprising: Professor Chandan Gowda, Ramakrishna Hegde Chair Professor of Decentralization and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore; Aazhi Senthil Nathan, senior journalist, Chennai; Joga Singh Virk, president, Campaign for Language Equality and Rights, Patiala; Akashitora, actor and author, Guwahati; Garga Chatterjee, Bangla Pokkho, Kolkata; and Shailesh, senior journalist, New Delhi.

If the fundamental idea of India is multilingualism, then all languages should be considered equal, Senthil Nathan said. “My language, Tamil, should be treated on a par with Hindi constitutionally, legally, administratively, in theory and in practice,” he said.

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Senthil Nathan referred to the various anti-Hindi agitations of Tamil Nadu during both pre- and post-independence periods, and which involved several mass protests, riots, student and political movements, and said even today some Hindi speakers consider non-Hindi speaking citizens insufficiently Indian.

“Ordinary Hindi people ask us [non-Hindi speakers], ‘You are Indian. You should learn Hindi.’ We feel English is sufficient as lingua franca of India,” he said.

“Tamil Nadu has always demanded official language status for all languages, not just Tamil. We have always raised our voice for non-Hindi states.”

Prof Gowda said at one level the Constitution speaks the language of equality, but it also wants to promote the spread of Hindi. “This tension has to be resolved in favour of a multilingual model. Citizenship is also about equal language prestige. When you relegate other languages to secondary status… that represents a subordination of a mass of people.”

Prof Gowda referred to the European Union and said one of its founding principles is multilingualism. The EU has 24 official languages, and every time a new member joins the union, they have added to the number of official languages, he said.

“India must look at such constructive models.”

Joga Singh said the Preamble of the Constitution provides for equality of status and opportunity to all the people of the country. “Article 16 says, ‘There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State,’” he said. 

“Language has been creating inequalities. A Union government office in Tamil Nadu uses Hindi as its official language, not Tamil. In Punjab it is the same situation. And so the first task of communication cannot be fulfilled. That is why we need all languages to be made official,” he said.

Joga Singh said imposition of Hindi turns residents of a state into “migrants in their own land”.

Garga Chatterjee warned that the 2026 delimitation exercise, to redraw the boundaries of the various assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies based on the latest census, threatens to turn India into a “Hindi majority” nation.

The states from the Gangetic belt, which have fertility rates higher than the Indian average, will send more representatives to the Lok Sabha post-2026, he said.

“I come from a state where 86 per cent of people are Bengali. And 83 per cent of them don’t understand any other language than Bengali. Most Indian citizens are not multilingual, they are monolingual,” he said.

Shailesh said most people in the Hindi belt support equal status for other languages. “Hindi is a liberal language. It is only about 100-125 years old. Prior to that there was no Hindi belt. Hindi never existed. Politicians use the issue for their own benefit,” he said.”

Shailesh said the real issue is not the “dominance of Hindi, but the dominance of English.” 

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