Modi may come to regret what he wished for
Since taking office in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it his mission to make Hindi the national language. He quickly announced that he would conduct all government business in Hindi, although he is reasonably fluent in English, which he uses strategically on the world stage.
The move was unsurprising given the anti-English posture of Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Over the next few years, pro-Hindi proposals and directives drew protests and a vigorous response from leaders in eastern and southern states where other languages are spoken.
The latest plan comes from a report, not yet officially published, of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Languages. Among its more than 100 proposals, the report targets higher education, where teaching is now mainly in English.
It recommends using Hindi as the language of instruction in all technical and non-technical institutions and central universities in Hindi-speaking states. Local languages would be used in other parts of the country while the use of English would be optional. It further recommends removing English as one of the languages used in government recruitment exams.
In the south and particularly in Tamil Nadu, where English has served as a bulwark against Hindi, opposition to the report has been strong and forceful.
The report’s recommendations share an anti-English thread with the National Education Policy that the Modi government adopted in 2020. This policy promotes education in the mother tongue, mother tongue or a local or regional language “in the possible” until the fifth year, but preferably until the eighth year. All students would be “immersed” in three languages from preschool and first grade.
Yet the plan mentions English only fleetingly in reference to bilingual textbooks and teaching materials in science and mathematics and “high quality” language offerings, including English, in secondary education. It is notably silent on English in the general curriculum.
In this respect, it contrasts sharply with the original trilingual formula adopted in the National Education Policy in 1968. This policy expressly included English as one of the languages taught in both Hindi and non-Hindi states.
Debates surrounding both the National Education Policy 2020 and more recent recommendations on higher education reveal that little has changed in the rivalry between Hindi and English since India adopted its constitution. post-independence in 1949. At this time, the founders of modern India struck a fragile and arguably majority compromise on language.
The Constituent Assembly agreed by a single vote that a Sanskritized Hindi would be the “official” language, but not the “national” language. English would continue as the associated official language for 15 years.
The Official Languages Act passed in 1963 nevertheless maintained English as a “subsidiary official language” in addition to Hindi for official purposes, including proceedings in parliament. The 1967 amendments ensured that Hindi and English would be used as official languages indefinitely while avoiding the issue of a national language.
The Constitution recognizes 22 regional languages, including various forms of Hindi but excluding English, in what is known as the Eighth Schedule. These languages receive government assistance to make them more accessible.
The University Education Committee Report of 1949, the country’s first statement on higher education, further highlights how language has been a chronic point of ambivalence and contention in Indian politics from the very beginning. .
The report noted that English “divides[d] the people into two nations, the few who rule and the many who are ruled, one unable to speak the language of the other and not understanding one another”. Yet he also acknowledged that English was the ‘global language’ on the near horizon and essential to keeping India connected to the rest of the world.
A counter-intuitive gesture
For the government to now promote Hindi in the name of nationalism, liberating the country from its colonial past, ignores the rich multilingual character of the country, the political division of Hindi and the role English has played in building the country’s economy.
Less than 50% of the population speaks Hindi as a first, second or third language. And while high levels of internal migration demand a common language of ‘bonding’, states, especially in the south, will never adhere to Hindi. At the same time, parents from all economic backgrounds are calling for their children to learn English for employment and mobility opportunities.
The new economy offers many career opportunities, including work in call centers, business processing offices and multinational corporations where India’s perceived fluency in English has been the main attraction.
The predominance of English in tertiary institutions, which the government is now trying to undo, opens the doors to well-paid professional, managerial and scientific careers, both in India and abroad. Remittances, reaching US$87 billion in 2021, from a global diaspora of Indian workers largely hired for their English skills, are boosting India’s economy.
English has further facilitated India’s competition with China and Western countries to gain a foothold in Africa for trade and investment. In fact, India’s decision to shelve English goes against global trends and could ultimately diminish the attractiveness of Indian universities for both domestic and international students.
Indian students are not only flocking to universities in the US, UK and Canada as in the past, but also to the growing number of English-taught and less expensive programs in the Netherlands, France and Germany. despite convincing arguments in these countries. to preserve their national language against the onslaught of English.
In India, on the other hand, there is no national language to preserve while English has historically become an official language along with Hindi. A radical shift to Hindi could accelerate the exodus of students and deepen the country’s “brain drain” in the long term.
Find the right balance
All this does not mean that English is widespread among the Indian population or that they have totally rid themselves of their colonial past. On the 2021 English Proficiency Index measuring the English skills of two million adults globally, India ranks only 48th out of 112 countries and regions.
Nor does it overlook the value of regional and local languages in preserving community and producing knowledge.
More importantly, it does not forget that only students with the required skills in English have access to the opportunities that these skills bring, which is largely a function of economic and social class.
This reality of classroom competence extends to primary and secondary education where children must first learn in a language they understand, presumably their mother tongue or mother tongue, which is often not the case given the predominance of Hindi and English.
At the same time, they need early, high-quality instruction in English and increased instruction at least partially in English as they progress through the years to prepare for the global job market. The place of Hindi in the tri-language mix of education, given its political sensitivity, should be a matter of national and local policy.
Using Hindi as a lever to create a monopoly of language and thought while pushing out English, as current education policies seem to be trying to do, will both destroy the essence of India by as a multilingual and multicultural democracy and will weaken the country’s place in the global economy. . In the end, the Modi government risks regretting what it wished for.
Rosemary Salomone is Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law, USA. His most recent book is The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language (Oxford University Press, 2021).