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

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' 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.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs