The brief flashpoint over the draft National Education Policy, which sought to make Hindi compulsory in non-Hindi speaking states, has been resolved for now thanks to swift action by the new Minister for Human Resource Development, Ramesh Pokhriyal (a Hindi author himself). But the larger issues raised by this ill-advised move still cause worry in the south.
The proposal of the Kasturirangan Committee, which provoked uproar among the southern states, stemmed from the contentious clause that declared “the study of three languages by students in the Hindi-speaking states would continue to include Hindi and English and one of the modern Indian languages from other parts of India, while the study of languages by students in the non-Hindi-speaking states would include the regional language, Hindi and English.”
This was understandably perceived by the aggrieved states as part of a recurring tendency by the BJP-led central government to try and impose the mandatory learning of Hindi among the predominantly non-Hindi speaking peninsular population of the country.
In response, the BJP, whose outreach in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala was emphatically rejected in the recent Lok Sabha elections, was forced to backtrack, including by getting two of its newly inducted Tamil-speaking Cabinet ministers to publicly offer clarifications (in Tamil).
But this is not likely to be the last we hear of the matter. The draft education policy itself has faced a five-year delay and the supervision of three successive ministers (Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar and now Ramesh Pokhriyal). Before it actually finds its teeth and is implemented, the draft will go through two further rounds of review, including a presumably lengthy consultative process with MPs and all state governments.
But the issue here is actually much larger than the new (or newer) Education Policy.
On the surface, the issue at hand appears to be the government’s attempt to implement the ‘three-language formula’, a guideline that was formulated in 1968 to ensure the equitable pan-Indian distribution of at least one common language—and therefore help promote ideals like national unity and integration but also for practical purposes such as a widely understood common language that citizens use to deal with their government.
But in the five decades since, successful implementation has largely failed across the country, for two divergent reasons. At an ideological level, in states like Tamil Nadu, with its proud history of Dravidian sub-nationalism, the question of being required to learn a northern language like Hindi has always been contentious, with anti-Hindi agitations being a recurring episode in the state since 1937. In the northern states, there is simply no demand for learning a southern language, and so no northern state has seriously implemented the three-language formula.
For instance, the current reality is that most students in southern states continue to learn Hindi as either their second or third language. But look elsewhere in the country and one finds very few instances of a student learning either Malayalam or Tamil, or even having the option to do so, as part of their school curriculum.
This, in turn, is complemented by other problems, such as the lack of local language options for exam-goers of many of our national competitive exams. Just last year, I had to intervene to get Malayalam reinstated as one of the language options for Railway recruitment examinations.
So, one solution is to focus on the improved implementation of the ‘three-language formula’ by ensuring that it is both flexible (and therefore allows alternate options for students who do not wish to learn Hindi) and equitable (in that it ensures availability of southern languages in the north and vice versa).
And then there are practical issues. While a Malayali or Tamilian can see the practical advantages of learning English as a vehicle of empowerment and personal advancement, she does not see the same advantage in learning Hindi. For the native Hindi speaker, her language is an element of her identity; her advocacy of Hindi is cultural and emotional. A southerner who does not see Hindi as part of her identity needs a good reason to acquire mastery of an unfamiliar tongue. But if the BJP is trying to provide her one, it’s the wrong one.
The real fear is far more fundamental: the advocacy of Hindi is merely the thin end of a more dangerous wedge. It has more to do with the ideological agenda of those in power who believe in ‘one language, one religion, one nation,’ or ‘Hindi-Hindu[tva]-Hindustan’. This is anathema to those of us who grew up and believe in a diverse, inclusive India that celebrates its pluralism as a strength, not a barrier; one that welcomes and accepts our rich profusion of languages, religions, foods, clothing and customs as equally, authentically Indian. The Hindutva brigade’s attempts to impose cultural uniformity in India will be resisted staunchly by the rest of us; the opposition to Hindi is based on our fear that such cultural uniformity is really what the advocacy of this language is all about.
Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP and its supporters have systematically embarked on their wanton campaign to privilege uniformity over unity. Their display of majoritarianism has gone to the point where it threatens to undermine the very social fabric that has held the country together since Independence.
The only India that will work and thrive is one which provides a space for all of us to grow equally and without discrimination from the state. If Hindi becomes more than first among equals – if it is the de facto language of administration and courts, as it has become that of national politics – then Singh, Shukla and Sharma will have the joy of flourishing in a language they have spoken since childhood, while Subramaniam, Reddy and Menon would be floundering in a system they cannot comprehend. That is a formula that will destroy the country.
The southern states have had good reason to worry about the growth of northern cultural chauvinism, already manifested socially in issues like the attempted ban on the consumption of beef, a common source of protein in the south, and in the BJP government’s decision in May 2018 to change the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission and use the 2011 census figures as the benchmark for revenue sharing, which would reduce the share of revenue for the south (where the population growth rate has declined due to concerted emphasis on family planning).
In the longer term, there is a looming political concern whether the carefully balanced arrangement of the distribution of Lok Sabha seats under the 91st Amendment, which expires in 2026 and which the BJP may not be inclined to renew, will end up disenfranchising the southern states by punishing them for their success in curbing their population.
The episode is, perhaps most worryingly, seen by many in the south as an ominous indication of the direction the country is likely to head under the BJP. Whereas the newly sworn-in Modi government could have easily kicked off its tenure by choosing to identify and tackle any one of India’s myriad development challenges, that they chose to instead to draw their first headlines for this is disappointing but not totally surprising.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.