This article is written by Gursimran Kaur Bakshi, from the National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. The article is a descriptive analysis of the official languages of India. The Constitution of India recognises official languages but not a national language. The members of the Constituent Assembly were apprehensive that recognising the latter may hurt the secular feature which happens to be the basic structure of the Constitution.
In 2016, by midnight, all Rs.500 and Rs.1000 banknotes of the Mahatma Gandhi series ceased to be legal tender. According to the government, these notes were demonetised to curb corruption and the inflow of black money in the market.
Eventually, new notes were introduced in the market but with Devanagari numerals alongside international numerals. This move attracted a lot of criticism from people because Devanagari numerals have never been used. The reason for the same is that the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution had recommended international numerals to be used for the sake of uniformity.
India is home to multicultural and linguistic values and diversity that recognises and accommodates respect for different practices, customs, traditions, and languages. Linguistic diversity is widespread and unique in each part of the country. There is a saying that depicts the importance of language which goes like, ‘when people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison’.
India was a colony of Britain that ruled for a sufficiently long period of time simply for its own economic benefits. That is why Dr. Shashi Tharoor called India Britain’s biggest cash cow at the Oxford Union debate.
When Britain came to rule in India, it made laws for its own benefit, played divide and rule, and even subjected the people to mass famine. It could, however, not rule on the mother tongue of the Indians. Indians decided to hold onto their local languages because that was the only way they could feel independent.
According to the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, more than 121 languages are still spoken in India. Under the Indian Constitution, Chapter XVII and Eighth Schedule deal with the subject of official language and scheduled languages respectively. The Eighth Schedule recognises 22 scheduled languages in India which, according to the 2011 census, is followed by approximately 97% of the households.
This is a comprehensive article that will explain to you how the provision of language was added in the Indian Constitution, what are the official and scheduled languages recognised by the Constitution, and other aspects of it.
Languages under the Indian Constitution
Difference between Official and National Language
A national language of a nation is restricted to accommodate various identities and their differences. This is often associated with the ‘one nation, one language’ goal of the country. It is different from official languages. In India, there might be confusion over the difference between national and official language since the common perception of people is that Hindi is the national language of India.
Hindi is one of our regional languages under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. It is not a national language because India does not have a national language. In 2010, the Gujarat High Court in Suresh Bhai v. Union (2010) observed that ‘since the majority of the people have accepted Hindi as a national language and many people speak Hindi and write in Devanagari, yet there is no official record to suggest that any provision has been made to consider it as the national language of the country.‘
The Preamble of the Indian Constitution reiterates the secular features of the Indian Constitution which happen to be a part of the Basic Structure Doctrine found in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1962). The word secular was added by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment in 1976. But that does not mean that the Indian Constitution was not secular before. It has been secular in spirit and in the letter from the very beginning.
Secularism was later described as a part of the basic structure in S.R. Bommai v. UOI (1994). The only reason why it was not added at the first instance by the Drafting Committee was that the constitutional framers were apprehensive of the fact that the word may be misused to deny the history of Indian nationalism.
Official language under Part XVII of the Constitution
Part XVII of the Constitution deals with official language under which, Article 343 specifies that the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script along with the international form of the Indian numerals. But, notwithstanding this, English will continue to be used for all official purposes of the Union for a period of fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution that is till 25th January 1965.
Further, the President has the power to authorise the use of the Hindi language in addition to the English language for the official purposes of the Union. Provided that the parliament may by law provide for the continuing use of the English language after the period of fifteen years, which was added through an amendment in 1967, for the purposes specified by law.
A private Bill was introduced in the parliament through the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2019 that sought to add the 22 scheduled languages of the Eighth Schedule to Article 343 of the Constitution. This means that the 22 scheduled languages were to get a status of official languages in addition to Hindi.
The draft Constitution did not have any provision to deal with language initially. But a proposal was moved by Shri N. Gopakaswami Ayyangar, a member of the Constituent Assembly, to add language provisions on 12th September 1948. In the Draft Article 301A, the debate between the members of the Consistent Assembly surrounded the differences in recognising Hindi as the official language as the people in South India were not as well versed and fluent with the language as those in North India.
Ayyangar proposed continuing English as the official language of the Union for some time, after the commencement of the Constitution. This proposal was further discussed by K.M. Munshi, a member of the Constituent Assembly, and the language provision was collectively known as the ‘Munshi-Ayyangar formula’.
Further, the Assembly debated over replacing Hindi with Hindustani as some of the members were impressed by the flexibility and integrity the language offered. There were heated arguments on the acceptance of international numerals, which some sides proposed, that the inclusion of it will offer universality, while others wanted that national numerals must be placed before the world so that it gets global acceptance. At the same time, another school of thought proposed Sanskrit as the official language as it predominates in the literary forms of Hindi but at the same time, it is not a language of common people.
It was finally decided by the house to keep Hindi as the official language with Devanagari script and not downright reject the use of English for the official purposes of the Union and thus, an interim period of fifteen years have been added to replace English with that of Hindi. This objective is also backed by Article 351 which obligates the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language to develop it as to serve as a medium of expression for cultural assimilation.
Further, Article 346 of the Constitution allows for the use of Hindu language for communication between the states, provided that if two or more states agree for the same. Generally, the language of communication between states and the Union and states would be the one authorised for use in the Union for official purposes.
Within the state, the Legislature can adopt any one or more of the languages or Hindi for its official purposes, provided that the English language shall continue to be used for the official purposes unless otherwise provided by law under Article 345. But this shall not preclude the President to direct the use of other languages substantially spoken by the proportion of the population as per Article 347.
The Eighth Schedule
Article 344 and the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution gives adequate representation and recognition to the linguistic diversity in India. The Eighth Schedule recognises 23 languages, namely: (1) Assamese, (2) Bengali, (3) Gujarati, (4) Hindi, (5) Kannada, (6) Kashmiri, (7) Konkani, (8) Malayalam, (9) Manipuri, (10) Marathi, (11) Nepali, (12) Oriya, (13) Punjabi, (14) Sanskrit, (15) Sindhi, (16) Tamil, (17) Telugu, (18) Urdu (19) Bodo, (20) Santhali, (21) Maithili (22) Dogri and (23) English. These languages are added in accordance with the linguistic grounds. Others have been excluded based on the same ground.
Under Article 344 of the Constitution, the President shall, after five years from the commencement of the Constitution and ten years from such commencement, by order constitute a Commission which shall consist of a Chairman and such other members representing the different languages specified in the Eighth Schedule.
The Commission is bestowed with the duty to make recommendations to the President for the progressive use of the Hindi language for the official purposes of the Union, restrictions on the use of English language for all or any of the official purposes of the Union, or in respect of matters related to the use of official language for the purpose of communication between states, and union and states to name a few. Provided that the recommendations must also consider the claims of the non-Hindi speaking population and due regard must be given to industrial, cultural, and scientific advancement in India.
It is pertinent to understand that the Eighth Schedule does not mention English as one of its languages. The idea of the constitutional framers was to include it to continue with the official work of the Union before the commencement of the Constitution was pursued in English, the language of the coloniser. But this was not the only reason because the English language at the time of the drafting of the Constitution was widely known in other parts of the world too.
Reasons to recognise official languages in India
The Munshi-Ayyangar formula was a sort of compromise that the Constituent Assembly agreed on because, first, it was necessary as against the demand of the various groups to recognise their language. Second, this compromise offered stability as the country had just become independent from the rule of Britain and it needed to find its own voice and stand that they long lost because of colonialism. This meant that rather than instant recognition of various regional languages, the idea was to agree on one language that was spoken and understood by the majority and at the same time, it was not possible to disown the language of the coloniser suddenly as India needed to find its place at the global front too.
Since in many parts of the country the population is recognised through their unique linguistic identity, it is imperative to give them the recognition they deserve. India has a population of over 121 crores, and due to the existence of a variety of languages and mother tongue, there could be a conflict between the communities over the non-recognition of their language. It is pertinent to understand that accommodation of cultural and linguistic values go a long way in creating stability in the country which was also the goal envisaged by the constitutional framers.
Further, India adopted the three-language formula to accommodate the flexibility that arises in recognising Hindi, English, and a modern Indian language in a Hindi speaking state and replacing it with the Indian language in addition to Hindi and English in a non-Hindi speaking state. This was added through the National Education Policy, 1968.
Issues with the adoption of different languages
The English-Hindi class divide
One of the most apparent issues in regards to language in India is the disparity in terms of socio-economic disadvantages between those who can speak and write English versus those who cannot. It is a preconceived notion attached to English which is considered as the language of the rich and the marker of status. While the recognition of English is consistent throughout the world, in India it is associated with upper-class status and privileged education. I say privileged because not all classes in India have access to standard education, least we expect them to know English or be fluent in English.
Linguistic chauvinism: one country one language v. federalism
The three-language formula has also been recommended to continue in the National Education Policy 2020. But since language is a state subject, Tamil Nadu has refused to accept this formula. The Tamil Nadu government has been following a two-language formula which is English and Tamil as two languages of the state. Most of the states have not accepted this formula which could have been seen as a way to maintain inter-state communications.
No set criteria for qualifying a language under the Eighth Schedule
There are other issues with the recognition of scheduled languages which is that there are no standard criteria that are followed to include a particular language within the framework of the constitutional protection. Since this is still the case, it becomes discriminatory as against the demand of recognising other languages such as Bhojpuri, Gujjar, English, and Rajasthani to name a few. These are also the languages spoken by people in India irrespective of whether the number of speakers is in minority or majority since the Indian Constitution does not promote majoritarianism.
Further, since the Constituent Assembly decided on certain aspects that were not meant to be changed because it could disrupt the delicate balance attained through the Munshi-Ayyangar formula, the same has now been changed. One such aspect was to recognise the international form of numerals. Though the government has not removed the use of international numerals, they have used the Devanagari script in the new banknotes. This has created tensions amongst the community because for a long time India has avoided giving special recognition to a particular language, but this move shows the contrary to what was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. This new move is a sign of cultural imperialism.
India is a land known for accommodating unique linguistic identities and cultures. Till now, the delicate balance of accommodating all and offending none has been maintained. But recent decisions of including Devanagari numerals in the new notes seems to be politically motivated. The issue is not with using the Devanagari numerals. The issue is that the use of it reflects preferential treatment which has long been avoided because of the Munshi-Ayyangar formula. The constitutional frameworks envisaged the idea of India, that is Bharat, as homogenous because that was the only reasonable way to maintain diversity. It is also suggested that the government should establish criteria for selecting a particular language as a part of the Eighth Schedule because it will offer objectivity and uniformity. This will also help subdue the demands of groups that want constitutional recognition of their language because they will have to fulfil the criteria for the same. As for now, it is reasonably expected from the government to not disrupt the balance that has been long maintained in the Constitution.
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