Jthe first episode of 1984 Doordarshan serial Buzz Log is perhaps the best example to show the vacuity of the debate on the official language. It starts with an interesting discussion between two main characters, Lallu and Nanhe.
Lallu, a Hindi language student, applies for a lower level office position. For his convenience, he prefers to have the Hindi version of the job application. Despite his best efforts, Lallu does not understand the bureaucratic jargon used in this form. He asks his brother Nanhe to help him:
लल्लू: ? (Tell me what is the meaning of adhohastakshari?)
Password : (It is written here ‘undersigned’.)
Password : ? (What does this mean in Hindi?)
Password : (It’s written here adhohastakshari)
लल्लू (झुंझुला कर): अरे ये कहना क्या चाहे है ये फ फार्म वाला वाला, ये बता? (What exactly does this person mean?)
नन्हें (दार्शनिक अंदाज़ में में): वो कहना चाहता है कि ‘हे हिंदुस्तानी लल्लू लल्लू लल्लू अगर तो्रेजी में समझा तो हिन्दी हिन्दी में भी्रेजी में समझा तुझे तुझे हिन्दी में भी नहीं समझने दूंग दूंग दूंग दूंग. (He just means, ‘Hey Indian Lallu, if you can’t understand it in English, I won’t let you understand it in Hindi either’.)
This conversation is very relevant in highlighting the fact that the Hindi versus English debate is meaningless. The state uses bureaucratic language that intimidates citizens, expects them to behave in a certain way, and most importantly, establishes its hegemony as the supreme authority of administration.
In a way, Lallu seems to ask three specific questions: What is official on the “official language”? Is it only Hindi vs English? What kind of relationship does this official language have with ordinary Indians, “we the people”?
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What is “official” in the official language?
The term official language, broadly defined, refers to four key forms of state communication.
First the parliamentary language in which legislative work must take place. Second, the executive language in which official orders must be communicated. Third, the legal language in which conflicts must be dealt with. And finally, the administrative language, used to communicate with citizens.
The Indian history of the official language, however, is a bit complicated. The colonial state in fact invented a new language of order and command and then introduced it to establish effective communication with native subjects.
The East India Company regime officially adopted English as its official language in 1835. This landmark decision was not merely a symbolic act aimed at establishing racial supremacy. There were practical reasons which forced the Society to develop a language which could be useful for administrative purposes.
This official language was very different from the language in which the values dear to the European Enlightenment were celebrated in England. Specifically, it had two main characteristics. First, it was based on the assumption that native Indians were inferior and backward, therefore they should be properly educated and trained. Second, the purpose of official communication should always be defined in relation to “law and order”.
It should be noted that our national movement, in particular the Gandhian current, posed a serious challenge to this imaginary of the official language. Gandhi not only questioned the dominance of English but also advocated for a polite and democratic form of political communication.
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The postcolonial history of the official language
It should be remembered that language had been a hotly contested political issue in the late 1940s. The communal divide between Hindus and Muslims had already turned Hindi and Urdu into religious entities. The partition of India on a religious basis further intensified this linguistic dispute.
The debates of the Constituent Assembly on the language show that a part of the Congress, in particular the Gandhians, were favorable to the adoption of Hindustani as an official language. On the other hand, there was a powerful lobby that wanted to have Hindi and even Sanskrit as the language of administration. Despite these differences, there was a consensus that the future India should have its own official language.
It was, however, an easy question. English had been the language of administrative transactions and political negotiations. It was practically impossible to replace English with another national language at that time.
The Munshi-Ayyangar formula was the solution to break this deadlock. According to this formula, English was to remain the official language along with Hindi for a period of fifteen years. It was also suggested that Parliament should have the right to make a final decision in this regard.
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Able English and weak Indian languages
The reorganization of states on a linguistic basis has further complicated this issue. The introduction of Hindi as an official language in non-Hindi speaking states has been severely challenged and criticized, especially in South India. There was a sort of linguistic dominance of the north over the south.
In order to deal with such complicated debates, the Parliament’s Committee on the Official Language (also known as the Pant Committee) proposed in 1955 that English should be maintained as the official language even after the allotted 15-year period. The Official Language Act of 1963 is the direct result of this proposal.
This law, in principle, accepted that English be allowed to function as the main official language along with Hindi. He also acknowledged the relative inability of Hindi and/or other Indian languages. To this end, the government has been given the responsibility of developing Hindi language capability so that it can become an effective medium for official transactions.
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Tone, vocabulary, jargons
Maintaining English for administrative purposes is justified on two grounds: the relative incapacity of Hindi as an official language and the desirability of national integration, particularly in response to anti-Hindi agitation.
However, there is a deeper structural problem, which is almost ignored. India adopted a highly egalitarian Constitution based on the idea of popular sovereignty. At the same time, we have inherited administrative structures deeply rooted in the colonial imaginaries of Indian society. This imbalance created the possibility of an inevitable conflict between two languages of daily politics: the language of democracy and rule language.
Electoral politics is expressed in the language of democracy. Political parties mobilize voters as a people to claim adherence to republican values. However, as soon as the political class assumes the role of administrator, it begins to speak in a different language: the language of rule.
Official Hindi, in this sense, is the best example of this rule language. An artificial language, it is the product of official English, which inherited the tone, vocabulary and expressions of colonial administrative discourse. In fact, official Hindi is also foreign to people’s linguistic sensibilities and commitments.
It seems that the official language is not yet fully democratized. And, unfortunately, no one cares.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi. He tweets @Ahmed1Hilal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)