Let’s be clear: Hindi is not the rashtrabhasha or national language of the Indian union. According to the Constitution, Hindi is only the official language of the union, intended to be used by the arms of the central government, in addition to English. The Constitution notes that no state or its government is required to use Hindi within its boundaries. It does not term anything as a “national language,” and tacitly acknowledges that the Indian union is an agglomeration of ethno-linguistic nationalities that have their own languages. Yet, the untruth that Hindi is our national language is peddled by many, including union ministers—in September 2016, the Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that Hindi “has been accepted by us as” a national language; in April 2017, the Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu referred to it as “the national language.”
The debate over the place occupied by Hindi in the Indian union has regained relevance in the face of a recent decision by Pranab Mukherjee, the president of India. On 17 April, the president signed an order approving several recommendations listed in a report of the Committee of Parliament on Official Language. The committee was constituted in 1976 under the Official Languages Act of 1963, to review the progress made in the use of Hindi for the “official purpose of the Union.”
The president’s decision to approve many of the recommendations generated controversy—particularly his acceptance of a suggestion that all ministers and dignitaries who are able to speak Hindi should deliver official speeches in the language. Others include an “in principle” nod to making Hindi compulsory for students up to the tenth standard, and to ensure that Hindi is used on the tickets issued by the government-owned airline Air India. Politicians, observers and many citizens, especially those from non-Hindi-speaking states, condemned Mukherjee’s decision, calling it an imposition of Hindi upon those who didn’t communicate in it, and discrimination against their mother tongues.
When citizens of India who do not speak Hindi say—as they have many times in the past—that they experience discrimination on the basis of their mother tongue, their claim is often contested. As a person who speaks and writes in Bengali, when I say I am treated as a second-class citizen, someone may ask, “Can you show me how?” To answer these questions, I suggest that we consider two people, both of whom do not use English. One’s mother tongue is a language other than Hindi, and can speak and write in only that language—say, a “Hindi non-user.” The other can do the same solely in her mother tongue, Hindi—a “Hindi user.”
First and foremost, the Hindi non-user cannot read an officially approved version of the Constitution of India in the language of her choice—no such version exists. The constitution, meant to be the basic treaty that binds all citizens regardless of the language they speak, is available in the Indian union in only Hindi and English. Parliamentary committees, which deliberate key legislations before parliament, often ask that every citizen send letters, suggestions, responses or queries only in Hindi or English—a tough ask for the Hindi non-user. If a Hindi non-user is a parliamentarian, she can’t expect to be able to speak in parliament in her mother tongue without permission from the speaker of the house.