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Language Politics in India: Four Snapshots

(English version of a talk delivered during the World Esperanto Congress, Florence, Italy 2006)

A Giridhar RAO

(agiridhar.rao@gmail.com & agrao99@yahoo.com)
'Sudarshan' 1st Floor, 3-5-819 Hyderguda, Hyderabad 500 029, India. Tel +91-40-23232989

Last changed: 2006.08.22

During the next 20 or so minutes, I will first rapidly sketch the colourful linguistic landscape of India. Second, I will list some of the legal and constitutional guarantees in India for linguistic minorities. Third, I will report on some serious threats to this linguistic diversity. The fourth section sketches the even sorrier state of small languages in India's educational system. Finally, in the fifth section, we will see some ways of moving ahead.

How many languages are spoken in India? Well, the answer depends on your source. The database Ethnologue in its 2005 edition lists 428 languages for India, 415 of which are “living” (Gordon 2005). On the other hand, the government's 1991 census lists 114 languages; but the same census also lists 1579 “mother tongues” (GOI 2002). Further, these one-and-a-half thousand mother tongues have been “rationalized” from a list of around 10 thousand mother tongues which the surveyed population returned! This kind of rationalization is necessary because the same language often has different names in different places. Besides, mother tongues are often mixed up with region, religion, caste names, ethnic identities, etc. Other oddities also exist: one researcher reports that some censuses returned mother tongues spoken only by men, and others only by women (Groff 2003)! Clearly, some kind of order is needed.

In any case, the country is multilingual in many fields. Of the 114 languages listed, 87 were used in the mass media, 71 in radio broadcasts, 13 in the film industry, and 47 languages were media of instruction (Groff 2003).

Around three-quarters of the population speaks Indo-Aryan languages (derived from Sanskrit), around 20% speak Dravidian languages, and the rest speak languages of the Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman families. At least 10 scripts are used in the country. Besides, India has 23 “official” languages. These 23 languages cover 95% of the speakers; all other languages are spoken by just 5% of the population. But even 5% is large in a country with more than a billion people: thus, many minority languages have more than a million speakers; for example, the indigenous language Bhili is spoken by nearly 6 million people (GOI 2002)!

But in a country with deep inequalities, not surprisingly, we also find linguistic asymmetries. As early as 1950, the Indian constitution and various government bodies recognized the need to protect small languages. Here are a few safeguards listed by the government's Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities (GOI 2004):

  1. Indian citizens who have a distinct language, script or culture, have the right to conserve them.
  2. Every citizen has the right to petition the State in his or her own language, and the right to receive a response from the State in the same language.
  3. Declare a minority language the “second official language” in districts where more than 60% speak the minority language.
  4. Translate and publish important rules, regulations, notices, etc., into all languages, which are spoken by at least 15% of the total population at district or sub-district level.
  5. Not insist upon knowledge of the state’s official language at the time of recruitment; test of proficiency later.
  6. All minorities, whether religious or linguistic, have the right to set up and administer educational institutions. And, lastly,
  7. Primary education in the mother tongue, with, of course, all that that implies in teachers and learning materials.

Seeing the large number of languages, their vigorous life in various fields, and the several legal safeguards that they enjoy, it is easy to miss the various threats to linguistic diversity in India. One threat comes from the small numbers of speakers. Although several linguistic minorities do have hundreds of thousands of speakers, the country also has many languages with very few speakers. These languages are particularly vulnerable to catastrophes, whether natural or man-made. In this context, it is worth mentioning the death of King Jirake of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. After an almost miraculous rescue after the tsunami in December 2004, Jirake and his 49 fellow tribespeople began to live in a guest house in the state capital Port Blair, where Jirake died, 4 months after that terrible tsunami.

He was the last person who knew all 10 variants of the language Great Andamanese. It is said that no more than 18 people in his tribe knew the language, and after Jirake's death, only five speak it fluently. Researchers say that Jirake also knew the languages of several other extinct tribes. The story becomes even more depressing on learning that there was alcohol abuse in the tribe (Rao 2005a).

These problems, of course, may be seen amongst several indigenous peoples throughout the world. The trajectory is well known. It starts with a disappearing habitat due to “development” needs and pressures of a country undergoing rapid and savage globalization. This radically transforms the indigenous community from sustainable users of natural resources to unwilling exploiters of nature. Soon, they leave the forest, becoming so-called “environmental refugees”, who must now find a place in the margins of society's mainstream. There they live in poverty and misery, losing steadily all the social and cultural capital that they possessed just one generation ago.

But even relatively less vulnerable languages also face various threats. For example, a diasporic – even “official” – language like Urdu is caught in a bigger religious politics of the relations between Hindus and Muslims in India. From the time of the country's independence from the British Empire, and the Partition of the country into India and Pakistan, Urdu has been successfully marginalized as a “Muslim” language; systematically starved of funds; and the responsibility for its well-being has been left to the Muslim communities in the country. If one adds to this the fact that Muslims in India are for the most part very poor, and that outside the Hindi-speaking areas of the country, the Muslims too speak the regional language (and not Urdu), one can easily understand the ill health of the language (Shahabuddin 1999).

Even a richer community like that of the speakers of Konkani – again an “official” language – are struggling against complex language politics. This Indo-European language does not have its own script. As one travels south, along the western coast of India, one finds Konkani written in Devanagari, Kannada, the Roman script, Malayalam and Perso-Arabic, depending on the main script of the region. The decision of the government of Karnataka to introduce Konkani as a subject in government schools rekindled the debate on the script for Konkani – Devanagari, Kannada or the Roman script?

Since the question is partly about the number of speakers of this diasporic language, we return to the census problems which we alluded to earlier. In the case of Konkani, we do not even know the total number of speakers: estimates range from 1.7 million to 7.6 million speakers! This uncertainty is a good example of the problem the researcher Tove Skutnabb-Kangas complains about. After acknowledging the difficulty of defining precisely the terms “language” and “dialect” (this difficulty she calls an “acceptable reason” for our ignorance about the languages of the world), she says:

The unacceptable reason for our ignorance is lack of resources for the study of languages. In Denmark where I live there are some 24 million pigs and some 5 million people. At any one point there is exact information about each pig, their age, weight, life-span, etc. But there is NO idea of how many languages people in Denmark speak and who speaks them. Bacon is a major export item in Denmark but people's linguistic capital in languages other than Danish and English has so far been treated as invisible or even as a handicap (Skutnabb-Kangas 2002).

To return to Konkani, after extensive consultations, the government concluded that it should use the Kannada script to teach Konkani. But the politically powerful Devanagari lobby opposed this decision arguing, among other things, that the central government's academy of letters, the Sahitya Akademi, recognizes only the Devanagari form of Konkani. Meanwhile, a third lobby is recommending the Roman script. This lobby argues that one should adopt the Roman script since not only is it widely used among the Konkanis in Goa, but it would also serve well the considerable (and influential) Konkani diaspora outside India (Rao 2006).

Although we should acknowledge that lobbying in language politics is a valid (and even valuable) decision-making mechanism in a democracy, one should also realize the time, money and energy that is wasted in such political battles where one is discussing exclusive solutions: either use Kannada, or Devanagari or the Roman script. Instead, I think we need more nuanced solutions, which promote the co-existence of diverse language strategies in a multilingual democracy.

In Konkani's case, there is at least agreement about the medium of instruction – namely, Konkani. That is not the case with most linguistic minorities. The typical indigenous or lower-caste or immigrant community – in a word, a marginalized community – simply does not have a choice in the medium of instruction. The various State guarantees notwithstanding, in India the media of instruction for indigenous peoples remain the large regional languages. After primary education in the regional language, at the secondary school level, there is usually incompetent teaching of the “national” language, Hindi, and the even worse teaching of the “international” language, English. Thus, except in a few urban centres, our famous, three-language educational system just does not function.

Combine these language barriers with the other systemic, infrastructural problems: lack of schools, teachers, learning materials. Now add to this sorry state the following summary by the researcher Pamela MacKenzie about the educational environment:

Besides this, the state curriculum bears little relationship to the tribal child’s culture or to his or her previous knowledge and understanding. Children are not only learning in a language they do not know, they are also attempting to learn concepts, which have no familiar foundation, in that language. Teachers rarely speak the community language and few appreciate the children’s traditional culture. They have had no training in teaching second language learners and so the children are taught as first language speakers. Many teachers are unwilling to live in the tribal communities (MacKenzie 2003).

Not surprising, then, that 80% of the children in some elementary schools simply leave the educational system; as one activist puts it, one should call the phenomenon “push out” not “drop-out”. Not surprising, also, that there is illiteracy of crisis proportions amongst the indigenous peoples: in my state, Andhra Pradesh, illiteracy among the general population is already a shameful 48%; among the indigenous peoples, it reaches a shocking 70%, and amongst the women there, a scandalous 80% are illiterate (GOI n.d.).

In a country with a rich, activist history in the non-governmental sector, there are of course in India various initiatives that address linguistic inequalities as well. In a project recently launched, young speakers of eight indigenous languages are being taught in their mother tongues. “For the children, it is a very important matter”, says Father Peter Daniel, who heads a school for speakers of the Koya language in the village Katukapally in Andhra Pradesh. “Suddenly, they understand everything that is said to them!”

The department of Primary Education with the government of Andhra Pradesh organized a series of workshops and consultations which used the expertise of several people and organizations – teachers of indigenous languages, linguists from various universities, government bodies dealing with tribal affairs, local non-governmental organizations, international development agencies, and organizations that have experience in multilingual education. One key aim of the project is to develop “bridge programs” between the tribal language and the main regional language, Telugu (Rao 2005b).

Both the experts and the community recognize that this move to the regional language is necessary for better economic prospects. Some even argue that it is necessary to go from the mother language directly to English, that “window on the world”. In India, English also carries with it the possibility of by-passing the caste system. In any case, experts agree that this multi-stakeholder cooperation is the most effective way forward.

Meanwhile, Father Peter draws our attention to a basic fact: to teach you need students! “During some agricultural seasons, they simply disappear to work in the fields. Moreover, during the monsoon, some villages remain totally isolated for 2-3 weeks. To say nothing of absence due to illness (malaria is endemic to the region). Government schools simply must have the flexibility to handle the special circumstances of indigenous peoples.”

Thus, almost without exception, the work of non-governmental organizations is one of multisectoral interventions – that is, to work not just in the education sector, but also, for example, in the areas of health, livelihood, micro-finance, human rights, agriculture, environment, etc.

So what can we learn from the various examples that we have seen? The case of the Great-Andaman tribe is one that demands urgent, critical help: even delay of a few months can be catastrophic. On the other hand, the current state and the future of Urdu is complicated because the historically much larger frame of Hindu-Muslim relations in which one must see the current state of the language. Even the more fortunate Konkani is entangled in complex language politics, but those knots would be more tractable if one were to adopt more flexible positions. Finally, in the case of education for indigenous peoples, the lesson, it seems, is that sustainable development cannot happen along only one axis; one must create and nurture conditions on many fronts. And flexibility is very important here too. One should remember what the researcher Lachman Khubchandani wisely says: “When dealing with plural societies, we shall do well to realize the risks involved in uniform solutions” (cited in Groff 2003).

Thank you.

Sources cited

GOI (Government of India). n.d. Census GIS Data, 2001 Census. http://www.censusindiamaps.net (visited 2006.07.20).

GOI (Government of India). 2002. Language Data: 1991 Census. http://www.censusindia.net/cendat/language/language_data.html (visited 2006.08.22).

GOI (Government of India). 2004. 41st Report. Commissioner Linguistic Minorities. http://nclm.nic.in/shared/linkimages/23.htm (visited 2006.07.24).

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th edition. Dallas, Texas, USA: SIL International. http://www.ethnologue.com/ (visited 2006.07.22).

Groff, Cynthia. 2003. “Status and Acquisition Planning and Linguistic Minorities in India”, Presented at Conference on Language Development, Language Revitalization, and Multilingual Education in Minority Communities in Asia, 6-8 November 2003, Bangkok, Thailand. http://www.sil.org/asia/ldc/parallel_papers/cynthia_groff.pdf (visited 2006.07.20).

MacKenzie, Pamela. 2003. “Relationships between government and NGOs in a multilingual education project in Andhra Pradesh, India”, Presented at Conference on Language Development, Language Revitalization, and Multilingual Education in Minority Communities in Asia, 6-8 November 2003, Bangkok, Thailand. http://www.sil.org/asia/ldc/parallel_papers/pam_mackenzie.pdf (visited 2006.07.24).

Rao, A. Giridhar. 2005a. “Formortis pluraj lingvoj”, Monato. http://www.esperanto.be/fel/2005/008689.php (visited 2006.07.24).

---. 2005b. “Gepatralingva edukado por indiĝenoj”, Monato. Septembro http://www.esperanto.be/fel/2005/008714.php (visited 2006.07.24).

---. 2006. “La konkana skribdisputo”, Monato. Aprilo

Shahabuddin, Syed. 1999. "Urdu and Its Future in India", (Letters to the Editor) Economic and Political Weekly, 6-12 March. http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=1999&leaf=03&filename=124&filetype=html (visited 2006.08.22).

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. 2002. “Language Policies and Education: The Role of Education in Destroying or Supporting the World's Linguistic Diversity”. Presented at Linguapax: World Congress on Language Policies, Barcelona, Spain, 16-20 April. http://www.linguapax.org/congres/plenaries/skutnabb.html (visited 2006.07.24).

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