News / Asia

Hindi or English? Contentious Language Issue Resurfaces in India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after the successful launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C23) in Sriharikota, India, June 30, 2014.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after the successful launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C23) in Sriharikota, India, June 30, 2014.
Anjana Pasricha

The contentious language issue, of whether to use Hindi or English, has resurfaced in India, where the new government is proposing giving Hindi primacy in official communications. India’s southern states, which do not speak the language of the north, have rejected such moves, but the bureaucracy in the Indian capital is scrambling to brush up its Hindi skills.

Whether speaking in parliament, with Indian officials or foreign leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has communicated in Hindi since taking office five weeks ago.

Independent political analyst Neerja Chowdhury points out that the Indian leader, the son of a poor tea seller, is far more adept in Hindi than in English - the two languages recognized as the official medium for federal government communication.

“We have got used to our leaders, many of whom have been Western-educated, speaking in English. But Mr. Modi, he is representing a different India. He has also come through the ranks, you know, his humble beginnings and he has made his way up. So this is the language of comfort for him in so far as expression goes,” said Chowdhury.

FILE - A Hindi-language signboard which reads FILE - A Hindi-language signboard which reads "Mumbai" is seen near the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai.
x
FILE - A Hindi-language signboard which reads
FILE - A Hindi-language signboard which reads "Mumbai" is seen near the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai.

Although no one is questioning the prime minister’s personal choice of language, there is resistance to his government’s plan to nudge English aside in favor of Hindi in the corridors of power.

Political leaders in southern states voiced loud protests when his government recently ordered officials to prioritize Hindi over English on official accounts on social media platforms such as Twitter and on government websites.

The government quickly clarified that the diktat was meant only for northern states.

Hindi is widely spoken in the north, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has won most seats. But southern and eastern states have always opted for local languages or English. Five decades ago, efforts to impose Hindi as the country’s only official language triggered violent riots in the south.

And so Prime Minister Modi, a pragmatic leader, who wants to build his party in southern states, gave a subtle message that he is not only familiar with English, but has no aversion to it.

After witnessing the launch of a satellite in the southern Andhra Pradesh state, he surprised many by making his first speech since becoming Prime Minister in English. It was clearly an effort, but an astute move to reassure the south, from where many of the scientists hail.  

Although the south may be sticking with the language bequeathed by India’s British rulers, officials in New Delhi continue to be under pressure to opt for Hindi. And many are clearly unhappy.

India’s upper middle class, which includes many senior bureaucrats, largely has grown up speaking English in their homes. Most have studied in schools that use English for instruction, and some have gone to Western universities. Although they still speak Hindi, their written communication skills are often labored. And in an effort to cope with the language now in favor, many bureaucrats are scrambling to deepen their knowledge of Hindi, particularly words used in official communication.

Subhash Kashyap, a former official in parliament, said the colonial model, based in English, is a long-running habit with the bureaucracy. He said there should be no resentment if Hindi - the language that is more widely understood by the masses - is promoted, but it should not be pushed.

“The bureaucracy, simply because they have been used to certain things, that should not be an argument against it. But it should be a slow, natural process. It should take its own time, there should be no feeling of being compelled, or no feeling of any language being forced,” said Kashyap.

Critics agree that the government should not favor one language over the other in a country that has benefitted from its knowledge of English. It links a diverse country with 22 official languages, and many dialects, and serves as the language of commerce.

The English language skills of Indian engineers gave momentum to the growth of the country’s famous information technology industry. Most Indians from low-income groups are opting to send their children to English medium schools to give them an edge in the job market.

Chowdhury said that in a globalizing world, India’s familiarity with English is a huge benefit.

“The world is moving on, look at the way the Chinese are learning English. And why should we give up a natural advantage that we have had all these years?” asked Chowdhury.

The push to end the primacy of English in official corridors is partly seen as an effort to break away from the traditions set by the erstwhile Congress Party, which dominated India since independence and whose top echelons are drawn from the elite.

Prime Minister Modi and the BJP want to reinforce their credentials as a Hindu nationalist party that will represent the swelling ranks of those joining the middle class, who may not be as conversant with English.

You May Like

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Aqeel Qureshi from: New Delhi
July 07, 2014 6:58 AM
Why do we Indians at times seem to forget one of the greatest philosophers of modern times Swami Vivekananda?

He always preached the harmonious marriage of the scientific advances of the west with the rich heritage of the east. How can such a marriage happen if we are jingoistic about something as petty as language.

Language is just a medium not the content. As far as it limits itself to its objective, there should not be any objections.

by: RAM from: TORONTO CANADA
July 06, 2014 2:12 PM
I think India has great traditions, spiritual wisdom keep those traditions Hindi is a much more complete and poetic than English so English can be your 2nd language. Just remember we in the west honor true traditions, in Canada there are 2 languages English and French, it takes time best wishes

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More