Need a softer approach to the language issue

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Down South, and in Tamil Nadu in particular, language issue has become an emotional issue that has a huge potency to influence politics. In fact, even in few other parts of the country, like one of the most peaceful of States like Karnataka, angry sentiments erupt time and again over the alleged ‘slight’ to Kannada in a bid to promote Hindi instead.
In a huge country, which in fact is a sub-continent in itself, with multitude of languages–each vastly different from one another–there cannot be a single language that can become common to all. Why even the Hindi spoken in one corner of Uttar Pradesh differs from the dialect of the same language spoken in the other corner of the huge State.
In a country where every ten odd kms the dialect changes, and every 100 kms language changes, it is a difficult task to have one common language for the entire country. Often the proponents of Hindi as a common language offer examples of countries like Japan or Germany, which are tiny Nations in size compared to India. Japan in size could be as big as Haryana or Punjab and people in Punjab do speak a common language Punjabi, just like German is spoken across Germany. But in India, a Punjabi will find it difficult to even get a glass of water in say in the interiors of Tamil Nadu where even Hindi is not usually understood by people.
Besides, a Punjabi hardly has use for Tamil in Punjab and does not have any need to learn it just like an Andhrite does not need to learn Hindi to get on with life in his region.
But, for some reason, since Independence there has been a move to make Hindi, which is spoken in regions more than one in the country, unlike say Punjabi or Bengali or Malayalam that are spoken in one State each, the one common language for the entire country. Many Governments, including the Congress, at the Centre have had their own contribution to the language issue.
The Congress, which began pushing Hindi somewhat aggressively during the 60s, was ejected by Tamilians from the State, and even till date the party has not been able to get back political power after it lost in 1967, after a huge anti-Hindi agitation caught the imagination of the masses.
Since then, time and again, efforts are on to aggressively popularise Hindi across the Nation and encourage the people to learn it. But the underlying one Nation, one language theme is viewed suspiciously by the non-Hindi speaking States that resist the move.
While the issue seems to be more potent in Tamil Nadu, it must be realised that even Karnataka has its share of pro-Kannada groups that are making noises against the “disproportional importance being given to Hindi by the Governments.” There have been instances of trouble over Hindi language signages on the highways or metro stations in Karnataka.
Although there were several other reasons for the huge victory of DMK in the recent Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, the language issue too played its part. Speeches in Hindi by the senior BJP leaders did not fetch the votes they sought, but instead proved counterproductive in some areas.
Now even in this given prevailing sentiment in Tamil Nadu, which shows a marked preference to English as a language of its communication with the Central Government given that Hindi is not a language that its majority know or want, efforts to kick up the language issue continue unabated.
A controversy recently broke out after a Union Minister replied to a question from a Member of Parliament from Madurai, in Hindi, a language not understood or known by the MP. Members from Tamil Nadu have been protesting over such issues, but this time around the MP took the matters to the Madras High Court.
The Madras High Court has come out with a clear-cut direction to the Union Government that it should respond to questions in English if the representation is in English. A two-Judge division bench of the Madras High Court directed the Central Government to respond in English to a representation given in English. The High Court asked the Centre to follow the provisions of the Official Languages Act, 1963, strictly. Once a representation is given in English, it is the duty of the Union Government to reply in English only, the Court said.
The Madurai MP Su Venkatesan had moved the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court through a Public Interest Litigation seeking that English alone be used in all communications between the Centre and the State Governments.
His ire was that a Union Minister had responded to his letter seeking information in Hindi language. The MP was seeking information on setting up of CRPF Examination centres for CRPF Paramedical staff recruitment examination in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
Now the judgement has far-reaching consequences, and is binding on the Central Government and it makes it very clear that the Centre cannot use Hindi only as the language of communication with States that prefer to do so in English. The Centre can use both languages if it wishes, but English, when preferred by the States, cannot be done away with.
Justice N Kirubakaran cited Article 350 and said every person is entitled to give representation in any languages used in the Union or State. Once a question is given in English, it is the duty of the Union Government to reply in English only, he said and added this is in consonance with the Official Languages Act.
The direction from the Madras High Court is to the Central Government and all its instrumentalities to follow the Official Languages Act, especially its Section 3, which says both Hindi and English should be used for official documents.
Now, many would have accepted the plea of the MHA officials that it was an inadvertent slip, but the MP in question, Venkatesan of Communist Party of India, felt it was something that the Centre must know that they were violating the Official Languages Act.
In fact, language is an emotional issue and in Tamil Nadu a big political issue as well. Which is why, for a party that wants to expand in Tamil Nadu, the BJP would do well to evolve a considered stance on the issue with softening its stand a bit and accept and accord equal status to the Tamil language and its culture. For a National pan-India party like the BJP, a carefully considered language policy, and a non-discriminating stance, would make it more acceptable to regions that view it, at present, with suspicion.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman