When Narendra Modi of the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was sworn in as India’s newest prime minister on May 26, political observers — and language enthusiasts — started speculating whether his rule would lead to a renewed interest in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India’s Brahmin scholars. At least two dozen newly elected members of Parliament took their oaths in Sanskrit, Hari Kumar of the New York Times reported. The language is widely backed by the Hindu right wing, which helped Modi come to power (the BJP is a spawn of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a volunteer Hindu nationalist group).
Hindu nationalists “see the language as a link to a civilization uncorrupted by Persian-speaking Muslim emperors and English-speaking British viceroys,” the New York Times’ Ellen Barry wrote in a letter to readers. “Early independence leaders had hoped to phase out English as an official language, but that provoked widespread protests in the country’s south, where Hindi is not widely spoken.” Hindi and English are both considered official languages in India.
Now, just less than a month since the new government came to power, the focus has shifted away from Sanskrit and onto one of its language descendants: Hindi.
Last Thursday, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs advised government officials to prioritize the use of Hindi in official correspondence and use the language on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. The order prompted a huge backlash among Indians who see it as part of Modi’s “Hindutva” agenda — in other words, as a way to promote Hindu nationalism and quell the interests of minorities. Leaders from southern Indian states and Kashmir, where Hindi is not spoken readily, voiced protests. The issue gained significant traction on social media as well:
There is an India outside the Hindi belt that doesn’t understand Hindi. Wholly unnecessary to raise their hackles.
— Nitin Pai (@acorn) June 19, 2014
It took Modi govt. less than a month to go from India first to Hindi first. — TheComicProject (@thecomicproject) June 19, 2014
The day after the announcement, the Home Ministry released a statement announcing the instructions were meant for Hindi-speaking states and clarified — in a tweet, in English — that it shouldn’t be interpreted as a method to push down other languages:
The Home Ministry is of the view that all Indian languages are important. The Ministry is committed to promote all languages of the country. — HMO India (@HMOIndia) June 19, 2014
But the conversation on language politics in India continued, with some suggesting the debate is really a “non-issue” played up by the media:
According to an analysis on the Indian news website Scroll, only 26 percent of Indians speak Hindi as a mother tongue even though census results suggest this figure hovers at 45 percent. That’s because speakers of other related languages and sub-dialects are categorized as Hindi speakers even though, technically, they don’t speak Hindi.
Indeed, language has always been a highly contested issue in India because of its strong link to regional identity and culture. The country is home to more than 1,600 languages, of which 13 are used in official administration, Scroll reports. “The process of nation-making in India demanded a sensitive approach to the large number of linguistic and cultural identities that had been invited to become part of a single national identity,” the writer Apoorvanand wrote in a post. “The fears linguistic minorities had about the extinguishing of their languages, and with it their cultures, had to be addressed.”
Even before the debate on Hindi nationalism made news, however, other writers were already ruminating on the prestige associated with English in India, and whether it would hold for the future. “Modi’s victory has coincided with a surge of confidence in India’s regional languages — one that has played out not only in politics but also in the dramatic shift occurring in India’s newspaper business,” argues Samanth Subramanian in the New York Review of Books:
A decade or more ago, the publishers of English newspapers scorned Indian language readers, assuming that, as hundreds of millions more Indians became literate, they would turn automatically into consumers of English papers. But the steady rise in literacy rates — from 64.8 percent of the population in 2001 to 73 percent in 2011 — has had unexpected consequences. The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English. Meanwhile, major media houses have discovered that English readership is declining or stagnant, and that advertising rates in English papers cannot be pushed much higher. Along with an influx of politicians from non-elite backgrounds and the growing importance of regional and state-level politics, these developments have begun to challenge the assumption that English is the default medium of Indian public life.
The hubbub surrounding language has slowed down since the weekend. But one more op-ed, released Monday by the writer Shoaib Daniyal, reminds audiences they also shouldn’t necessarily assume the Hindi emphasis is a BJP-only a strategy:
Of course, all the actual Hindi chauvinism has been practised by the Congress in the first 20 years after independence. The Grand Old Party pushed Hindi as an exclusive national language and despotically prevented the teaching of Urdu in its birthplace of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Sometimes, just sometimes, our well-meaning liberals tend to forget just how conservative the Congress Party actually was.
This piece originally appeared on June 24, 2014, on Link TV’s World News website.