Hindi expansion: Modi may come to regret what he wished for

From the moment he took office in 2014, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was set on a mission to make Hindi the national language. He quickly announced that he would conduct all government business in Hindi though he is reasonably fluent in English which he strategically uses on the global scene.

The move was unsurprising given the anti-English posture of Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In subsequent years, pro-Hindi proposals and directives have sparked protests and vigorous pushback from leaders of states in the east and the south where other languages are spoken.

The latest plan comes by way of a report, not yet officially released, by the Committee of Parliament on Official Languages. Among its more than 100 proposals, the report targets higher education, where instruction is now primarily in English.

It recommends using Hindi as the medium of instruction in all technical and non-technical institutions and in central universities in Hindi-speaking states. Local languages would be used in other parts of the country while the use of English would be optional. It further recommends removing English as one of the languages used in government recruitment examinations.

In the south and particularly in Tamil Nadu, where English has served as the bulwark against Hindi, opposition to the report has been loud and forceful.

The report’s recommendations share a common anti-English thread with the National Education Policy which the Modi government adopted in 2020. That policy promotes education in the home language, the mother tongue or a local or regional language “wherever possible” until Grade five but preferably until Grade eight. All students would be “immersed” in three languages from preschool and Grade one.

Yet the plan mentions English only fleetingly in reference to bilingual textbooks and instructional materials in science and mathematics and “high quality” offerings in languages, including English, in secondary school. It is notably silent on English in the overall curriculum.

On that count, it stands in stark contrast to the original Three-Language Formula adopted into the National Policy on Education in 1968. That policy expressly included English as one of the languages taught in both Hindi and non-Hindi states.

Age-old tensions

The debates surrounding both the 2020 National Education Policy and the more recent higher education recommendations reveal that little has changed in the rivalry between Hindi and English since India adopted its post-independence constitution in 1949. At that time, the framers of modern India struck a fragile and arguably majoritarian compromise on language.

The Constituent Assembly agreed by just one vote that a Sanskritised Hindi would be the “official” though not the “national” language. English would continue as an associate official language for 15 years.

The Official Languages Act adopted in 1963, nonetheless, continued English as a “subsidiary official language” in addition to Hindi for official purposes, including deliberations in parliament. Amendments in 1967 guaranteed that Hindi and English would be used indefinitely as official languages while still avoiding the question of a national language.

The Constitution recognises 22 regional languages, including various forms of Hindi but excluding English, in what is called the Eighth Schedule. Those languages receive government aid to help make them more accessible.

The Report of the University Education Committee of 1949, the country’s first statement on higher education, further underscores how language has been a chronic point of ambivalence and contention in Indian politics from the very beginning.

The report noted that English “divide[d] the people into two nations, the few who govern and the many who are governed, one unable to talk the language of the other, and mutually uncomprehending”. Yet it also recognised English was the “world language” on the near horizon, and that it was essential in keeping India connected to the rest of the world.

A counterintuitive move

For the government to now promote Hindi in the name of nationalism, unshackling the country from its colonial past, ignores the country’s rich multilingual character, the political divisiveness of Hindi and the role that English has played in building the country’s economy.

Less than 50% of the population speak Hindi as a first, second or third language. And while high levels of internal migration demand a common “link” language, states especially in the south will never accede to Hindi. At the same time, parents across the economic spectrum clamour for their children to learn in English for job opportunities and mobility.

The new economy offers wide career options, including work in call centres, business processing offices and multinational corporations where India’s perceived proficiency in English has been the main attraction.

The dominance of English in higher education institutions, which the government is now trying to undo, opens doors to high-paying professional, managerial and scientific careers both in India and abroad. Remittances, reaching US$87 billion in 2021, from a world diaspora of Indian workers largely hired for their English skills, boost the Indian economy.

English has further facilitated India’s competition with China and Western countries in gaining a foothold in Africa for trade and investment. India’s move to push English aside, in fact, runs counter to global trends and ultimately may diminish the appeal of India’s universities for both domestic and international students.

Indian students are flocking not only to universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada as in the past, but also to the growing number of English-taught and less costly programmes in the Netherlands, France and Germany despite compelling arguments in those countries to preserve their national language against the onslaught of English.

In India, by contrast, there is no national language to preserve while English historically has stood as an official language along with Hindi. A dramatic shift towards Hindi could accelerate student outflow and deepen the country’s “brain drain” for the long-term.

Striking a balance

All that does not suggest that English is widespread among the Indian population or that it has totally shed its colonial past. On the 2021 English Proficiency Index measuring English skills among two million adults worldwide, India ranked only 48th out of 112 countries and regions.

Nor does it dismiss the value of regional and local languages in community preservation and knowledge production.

Most importantly, it does not overlook that only those students with the requisite English skills have access to the opportunities those skills bring, which is largely a function of economic and social class.

That class-competence reality reaches down to primary and secondary education where children need to learn initially through a language that they understand, presumably their home language or mother tongue, which often is not the case given the dominance of Hindi and English.

At the same time, they need early and high quality instruction in English and increased instruction at least partially through English as they move through the grades to prepare for the global job market. Where Hindi fits within the three-language mix of schooling, given its political sensitivity, should be a matter of state and local policy.

Using Hindi as a lever to create a monopoly in language and thought while pushing English aside, as current policies on education seem bent on doing, will both destroy the essence of India as a multilingual and multicultural democracy and weaken the country’s place in the global economy. In the end, the Modi government may regret what it has wished for.

Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law, United States. Her most recent book is The Rise of English: Global politics and the power of language (Oxford University Press, 2021).