Friday, September 24, 2021

Language issue

It came late, but the opposition from the Naga People’s Front (NPF) against any attempt to make Hindi a compulsory subject in the country was welcome. The NPF registered its opposition in its central executive council meeting on June 12 last. The ruling PDA has maintained total silence on the issue. Many states, particularly in South India, had opposed making Hindi compulsory since the newly unveiled draft National Education Policy (NEP) suggested making it mandatory to teach Hindi in all states. Following the opposition, the central government also appears to have reconciled to the fact that it should not make any move that angers the states, which have been opposing imposition of Hindi over them. This is the reason that the centre has moved quickly to defuse the potentially volatile controversy over the charge of imposing Hindi in non-Hindi speaking areas of the country. This appears to be mainly for the reason that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-government does not want the language issue to acquire disproportionate crisis at a time when it is embarking on its second innings with a huge mandate. Moreover, the ruling party which does not have much of a presence in South India, barring Karnataka, does not want to be seen as being insensitive to the concerns of southern States, particularly Tamil Nadu. The reference in the draft NEP to mandatory teaching of Hindi in all states was withdrawn following an outcry from political leaders in Tamil Nadu, a state that is quite sensitive to any hint of ‘Hindi imposition’ by the central government. The modified draft education policy under the heading ‘Flexibility in the choice of languages’, has omitted references to the language that students may choose. However, the broader recommendation regarding the implementation of a three-language formula remains, something Tamil Nadu, which will not budge from its two-language formula, is averse to. The gist of the original sentence in the draft NEP was that students could change one of the three languages of study in Grade VI, provided that in Hindi-speaking states they continued to study Hindi, English and one other Indian language of their choice, and those in non-Hindi-speaking states would study their regional language, besides Hindi and English. The revised draft policy now merely says students may opt for one or more of their three languages in Grade 6 or 7, “so long as they still demonstrate proficiency in three languages (one language at the literature level) in their modular Board examinations some time during secondary school.” It may not amount to a complete reversal, but is still important in terms of conciliatory messaging. The conciliation also comes from the fact that most of the allies of the ruling party from South India have also been opposing the move for Hindi imposition in any form or format that may anger the people in general. Here it needs to be understood that ever since the Constitution adopted Hindi as the official language, with English also as an official language for 15 years initially, there has been considerable tension between those, who favour the indefinite usage of English and those who want to phase it out and give Hindi primacy. In Tamil Nadu and other South Indian states, it is seen as a creeping imposition of Hindi in subtle and not-so-subtle forms. The tension has been managed based on the statesmanship behind Jawaharlal Nehru’s assurance in 1959 that English would be an associate language as long as there are states that desire it. One would have thought that with the ascent of coalition politics the instinct to stoke differences based on language would die out. Unfortunately, it keeps coming up, especially in the form of imposing the three-language formula on states with the change of governments at the centre particularly. Local language is primarily a utilitarian tool. While acquisition of additional tools can indeed be beneficial, compulsory learning should be limited to one’s mother tongue and English as the language that provides access to global knowledge and as a link language even within India. It is time attempts to force Indians proficient in their mother tongue and English to acquire proficiency in a third language are abandoned to keep the tensions away.