June 11, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer
On June 5, 2021, the Govind Ballabh Pant Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research issued a circular asking its nursing staff not to use Malayalam at work as “maximum patients and colleagues do not know this language” and because it causes great inconvenience. The circular went on to ask nurses to use only Hindi and English for communication or face strict action. This sparked outrage with everyone, from nurse unions to Opposition politicians, demanding its withdrawal. The order was withdrawn after that and the hospital administration claimed it was issued by the nursing superintendent without its knowledge. But this is not the only instance of language discrimination in India. The government has been repeatedly accused of trying to impose Hindi on the entire country and it has led to massive pushback and protests, especially in South India. The allegations of linguistic discrimination are getting stronger.
India boasts of 19,569 languages, according to the last census, and an estimated 30 spoken by at least a million people each. There are 121 languages spoken by 10,000 people each, and these have 1,599 dialects. Twenty-two languages are protected under Schedule VIII of the Constitution. Yet, the speakers of many of these are discriminated against.
As a country with such a vast variety of languages, you’d expect that they would be put to educational, cultural and administrative use. But that is not always the case and you often find linguistic discrimination even in national policies.
For example, there was an outcry after the first draft of the National Education Policy was released. The original draft proposed that children learn three languages – their mother tongue, English and Hindi when Hindi is not their mother tongue and Hindi, English and a “modern Indian language” in case their mother tongue is Hindi. So, no matter what combination was applicable, Hindi was a constant. South India was outraged at this imposition, viewing it as discrimination. And who can blame it?
Meanwhile, Hindi speakers could study any modern Indian language as the third language, not necessarily one spoken in South India.
There is no logical argument for South Indians being forced to learn Hindi while North Indians are exempt from learning southern languages – and it’s pretty apparent that this is discriminatory.
Hindi is only one of several languages in India, so South Indians and others argue that it is being imposed on them.
Let’s be clear, language is political. And how we apply it is political.
‘Unity in diversity’ is the very foundation of the Indian nation and this includes linguistic and cultural diversity. In fact, it is one of India’s greatest strengths.
Has India lived up to its promise of respecting its linguistic diversity? Events like the warning to nurses in Delhi and the first draft of the education policy would indicate that it hasn’t. By and large, when it comes to the Union Government, English and Hindi rule the roost. It’s no wonder that so many of our languages are in danger of going extinct.
There is also the bias against languages perceived to be that of a minority – Urdu, for instance.
Globally, the importance of linguistic diversity and protection against linguistic discrimination is well understood. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities states: “The constant promotion and realisation of the rights of persons belonging to (…) linguistic minorities, as an integral part of the development of society as a whole and within a democratic framework based on the rule of law, would contribute to the strengthening of friendship and cooperation among peoples and states.”
Our languages are not just words; they are arks that carry culture and heritage from generation to generation. The government is duty-bound to not just protect but actively promote them. You cannot have an inclusive India without respect for all languages.
Linguistic discrimination is social discrimination, and its economic and cultural costs are high. Many believe it’s why India’s development has been held back.
By treating all languages equally, this government could strike an important blow for social inclusion and promote Constitutional equality for all.
Never again should any Indian be discriminated against for the language they speak, least of all healthcare workers like nurses who are leading the charge against COVID-19 – often by sacrificing their own lives.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.