Between diversity and aphasia

It was the remarkable foresight of the makers of the Indian Constitution that they thought of creating a dedicated Schedule of Languages - the 8thSchedule – which initially included 14 languages as the languages of administration. This was a radical departure from the European idea of nationalism based on linguistic uniformity. The list in the Schedule was subsequently enlarged so as to adjust the intent of the Schedule to the linguistic realities in the country. As of 2019, the Schedule holds a list of 22 languages. These languages, popularly known as the ‘Scheduled Languages’ are Assamiya, Bangla, Boro, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.

The Indic (or the Indo-Aryan) languages in the Northern States together with the Dravidic languages in the South and the Tibeto-Burman languages in the Northeast, each with a great variety of sub-branches make for the larger bulk of the Indian languages. Throughout the known history of the subcontinent, there has been an active exchange and cultural osmosis between the indigenous languages and the migratory languages, producing in the process great literature in many of them.

The Constitution empowers individual States to identify any language/s as official language/s even if it is not in the 8thSchedule. Thus, though not in the Schedule, Kokborok (Tripura), Khasi and Garo (Meghalaya) and Mizo (Mizoram) enjoy the status of ‘official’ languages of administration. Further, a State has the powers to offer primary school education in any language irrespective of its official status. Under this provision, a number of languages of the Adivasi communities have been introduced in primary schools in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat where the population speaking those languages is significant. In some States, new link-languages are conceptualised and promoted in order to keep the linguistically diverse States together. Rajasthani (Rajasthan), Pahari (Himachal Pradesh) and Nagamese (Nagaland) are instances of such State-promoted ‘binding’ languages.

During the last hundred years, the print-culture has reached a number of languages that are not officially recognised or promoted. Though it is not widely known, the number of little magazines, pamphlets and small-circulation books produced in the non-scheduled languages is quite large, a phenomenon that led the National Book Trust (NBT) to make tribal language publications the central theme for the NBT’s International Book Fair in 2014. All India Radio (AIR) offers slots to nearly 120 languages in its regional programmes.

In addition to the languages mentioned so far, there are numerous other major languages in India. Some are native such as Kutchhi (Gujarat), Tulu (Karnataka), Bhojpuri (U.P.-Bihar) and Bagadi (Rajasthan), while others have come from other countries and cultures and were accepted in the course of history as ‘our languages’. The ‘foreign’ languages which are still in use in different parts of the country include mainly English but also in small pockets French, Portuguese, Bhoti, Iranian, Arabic, Persian, Karen and Pashto.

The policy of using a cut-off figure further eliminated the already marginalised and minor languages. They started becoming increasingly invisible in social practice or political discourse. The relative lack of livelihood possibilities in the areas where the minor and marginalised languages are spoken has led to an exodus to areas where major and mainstream languages are spoken.

During its history of several millennia, the Indian subcontinent accepted language legacies as distinct as the Avestan of the Zoroastrians, the Asutro-Asiatic of the Pacific the Tibeto-Burman of the East and Northeast Asia. The Indic (or the Indo-Aryan) languages in the Northern States together with the Dravidic languages in the South and the Tibeto-Burman languages in the Northeast, each with a great variety of sub-branches make for the larger bulk of the Indian languages. Throughout the known history of the subcontinent, there has been an active exchange and cultural osmosis between the indigenous languages and the migratory languages, producing in the process great literature in many of them.

Numerically speaking, India is home to 1 out of every 8 languages on earth.  The diversity is impressive not only in numerical terms. A language is not just a communication system, it is a unique worldview. Thus, though one can translate a given meaning from one language to another, there are always shades of meaning and nuances in any language that simply cannot be translated into other languages. Hence, the great diversity of languages in India needs be seen as the diversity of world-views, of the unique ways of perceiving the world.

Despite the existing linguistic diversity in India, the language stock in the country has started showing signs of a rapid decline. Several historical factors appear to be responsible for the decline. The print technology impacted Indian languages profoundly during the nineteenth century. The languages that were printed acquired importance, the ones that remained untouched by it came to be seen more as dialects than as languages. The reorganisation of Indian States mainly as linguistic States turned the already marginalised and ‘non-printed’ languages into ‘minority’ languages. Thus, Bhili, a major language in itself with over 2 crore speakers, got divided into four States and became a minority language in all of them -- Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The ‘imposition’ of Hindi insidiously planted in the draft Education Policy may appear at first sight desirable to any pseudo-nationalist; but it will cause irreversible harm to our language diversity. Language is the very basis of community and its tradition. Let us hope that the present regime does not further reduce our rapidly shrinking language diversity, and that language democracy is not destroyed by pseudo-nationalistic majoritarianism.

The list of ‘Mother Tongues’ reported by the 1961 Census had 1652 names. Beginning with the 1971 census, the government decided to include in the list only the languages having more than 10,000 speakers. The list of 1971 had a total of 108 names, with a 109th entry of ‘all others’. The policy of using a cut-off figure further eliminated the already marginalised and minor languages. They started becoming increasingly invisible in social practice or political discourse. The relative lack of livelihood possibilities in the areas where the minor and marginalised languages are spoken has led to an exodus to areas where major and mainstream languages are spoken.

The 2011 census reported 19569 ‘raw returns’, which may contain many erroneous claims made by people. Of these, after thorough linguistic scrutiny and rationalisation1369 mother tongues were accepted. These were further classified for ‘rational’ grouping and the census radically brought down the number of ‘languages’ to 121. Thus, the language diversity that people have nurtured over millennia and which the Constitution has guaranteed is under attack from the State’s attitude to it. The number of languages that may have disappeared since 1961 is estimated to be 250, eliminating in the process nearly a quarter of India’s ‘world views’.

The ‘imposition’ of Hindi insidiously planted in the draft Education Policy may appear at first sight desirable to any pseudo-nationalist; but it will cause irreversible harm to our language diversity. ‘Nation’ is not only an emotive idea; it implies ‘people’ and ‘their cultural traditions’. Language is the very basis of community and its tradition. Let us hope that the present regime does not further reduce our rapidly shrinking language diversity, and that language democracy is not destroyed by pseudo-nationalistic majoritarianism.

(Dr.Ganesh N Devy  is a literary critic, cultural activist and Chairman, The People's Linguistic Survey of India. He leads the Dakshinayan movement of writers)