An incredible language policy

Pulapre Balakrishnan

The draft National Education Policy is out, and has already gathered controversy. This is no disqualification of course as we should expect some disagreement on how to structure education in so large and diverse a country. Anyhow, the original draft had proposed that India’s schoolchildren learn three languages, namely their mother tongue, English and Hindi when Hindi is not their mother tongue and Hindi, English and a ‘modern Indian language’ in case their mother tongue is Hindi. This has met with opposition from South India’s politicians who see in mandatory Hindi a discrimination vis-à-vis the southern states. They are entirely right to do so.

         There is no credible basis on which to insist that south Indians learnto speak Hindi while north Indians are exempted from learning a language spoken in the south. The said proposal allows Hindi speakers to make up their third language by studying any modern Indian language, not necessarily one spoken in south India. It is not difficult to see that this is discriminatory. But to see why it is not credible either we would need to travel further. Hindi belongs to the family of Indo-European languages. It is only one of the several spoken in India even in this group. Indians also speak languages that belong to the Dravidian family. It needs to be acknowledged that there are also in India groups, patronisingly termed ‘tribal’, who speak languages belonging to neither family, but they are so marginalised as to have little hope of having their voice heard. The contention is between those privileging Hindi through its imposition and promotion by the Indian state and speakers of Dravidian languages.    

         How incredible is this insistence on Hindi may be seen through the light of recent scientific advances. Population genetics combined with DNA evidence points to the role of migration in constituting the Indian stock. The findings from this exercise have been gathered by the Tony Joseph in his recent book ‘Early Indians’. Chronologically arranged, these migrations have been termed Out of Africa, West Asian and Dravidian, East Asian, and Aryan, the latter being their self-description by the speakers of Indo-European languages. So, we are all immigrants here, with the Aryans being the most recent. It is incredible that India should have a language policy that privileges the language of the most recent migrant! Unless we believe that majoritarianism would be kosher in a democracy, that is. Had he been alive, an ancestor who had cooled his heels in Vellore Jail during the Quit India Movement is sure to have murmured “This is not what I had meant at all.”