Language learning and incentive compatibility

The Home Minister recently asserted that the nationwide adoption of Hindi is the only way India can be united. Among the non sequitors routinely dished out by our politicians this must rank very high indeed. In this case there is the also issue of ‘incentive compatibility’, which pertains to congruence between the desired outcome and the incentives individuals face.

          The attempt to impose Hindi on the entire country by the Congress in the winter of 1965 had led to parts of the country literally burning, with instances of self-immolation in erstwhile Madras State. It left a deep scar on the people of southern India who saw the thrust as attempted ethnic cleansing no less. They are unlikely to forget this episode in a hurry but this is not the only reason why they would reject the home minister’s homily.

          The people of southern India hold strongly to the idea that they are Dravidian-language speakers. Hindi belongs to the group of Indo-European languages and is no less foreign in their reckoning that English is to them. This view is independent of the fast growing evidence from population genetics that Indo-European language speakers are very likely the most recent migrants into the sub-continent. It is not dependent on an assertion that the Dravidians themselves are the ‘original inhabitants’ of this land. It is also independent of any particular fondness English. It is based purely on the principle that privileging any one Indian language would be discriminatory. Privileging one on grounds that it is spoken by the largest number is no more than a crass majoritarianism.   

          We find in history many instances of the adoption of the language of societies that are the object of admiration by the natives. Thus French was the language of the Tsarist court in Russia because of the political, cultural and scientific advances made in France. For Hindi to be adopted by the people of southern India today they must hold a similar view of the society of their northern cousins. While there may have been some of this during the national movement, as its pre-eminent leaders came from the north, there is little to commend the region to a similar position today. Uttar Pradesh is an area of backwardness with mob violence erupting on the watch of a complicit state. Why would the culture of  such a region be the object of desire elsewhere in the country? Finally, there is the economics. Some young researchers at one of our IITs have recently employed machine learning to identify the skills that determine wages in five large slums of Bengaluru. Of close to one hundred skills they considered, ‘knowledge of English’ and ‘internet access’ turned out to be the most significant. Gender, caste and knowledge of Hindi did not matter.      

          It is a fallacy to imagine that we need a common language to feel connected. Indians already feel connected due a shared history of several millennia. In an extraordinary phase of our history we had the ruler Ashoka Maurya trying to unify the peoples of his far flung kingdom through ideals. Ashokan edicts range from the advice that you should respect the dharma of other citizens to being compassionate towards sentient beings. The language used in the edicts found in the eastern part of the sub-continent is a type of Magadhi, very likely the language of Asoka's court, the language used in the edicts found in the western part of India is closer to Sanskrit, and a bilingual edict in Afghanistan is written in both Aramaic and Greek. Ashoka clearly was aware of the bigger prize and had not allowed himself to held back by some narrow linguistic nationalism.

          Now, two millennia later, Mr. Shah could unite India via the internet, and if Kashmir is to be considered “an integral part” it cannot be left out either. As said in Kannada, “kelsa maadi” or just “do (your) work!”