Beyond Words
Languages in the World

India: A language federation

by Jacques Leclerc – Montréal, Quebec

Map of India

Capital: New Delhi

Population: 1.0 billion (2001)

Official languages (Union): Hindi and English

Constitutional languages: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Meitei, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Urdu, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil and Telugu.

Language majority: Hindi (almost 50% of the population)

Language minority: 1,600 languages, 398 of which are officially registered

Government type: federal republic of 28 states and 7 territories

Constitutional articles (language): art. 29, 30, 120, 210, 343 to 350 of the Constitution of 1956 (currently in effect)

Language laws: Official Languages Act, 1963 (amended 1967)  Official Languages (Use for Official Purpose of the Union) Rules, 1976 (amended 1987)

India, officially the Republic of India, is made up of 28 states and seven territories. The country, with a landmass of 3.2 million km² (compared to Canada, with a landmass of 9.9 million km²), has a population of 1.1 billion (2006) who speaks 415 different languages and uses 10 alphabets.

1. The language federation

The 1950 Constitution created a language federation to resolve the problem of borders that did not reflect the communities formed based on a common language. The principle of an official language per state and per territory was introduced at the time, but has been difficult to maintain. In fact, today, only four states have only one official language: West Bengal (Bengali), Gujarat (Gujarati), Karnataka (Kannada) and Tamil Nadu (Tamil). Although a language federation is in place, the states must be redefined or new ones created periodically, based on linguistic realities.

2. The status of languages in India

As there are a very large number of languages, they have been arranged in a status hierarchy.

India’s official languages

Hindi and English are at the top of the hierarchy because they are India’s two official languages. However, these languages are a minority. According to the 2001 federal census, Hindi is the mother tongue of nearly 258 million residents (25.8% of the population), and the second language of another 220 million. English is the mother tongue of some 180,000 residents.

Constitutional languages

India has 22 constitutional languages: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Meitei, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Urdu, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil and Telugu. These languages, spoken by a combined total of over 70% of the population, benefit from their status: they are used by local parliaments, administration, schools, the media and businesses.

Official languages of states and territories

Each Indian state and territory is free to choose its official languages, including languages that are not considered constitutional languages. Hindi is the official language or the co-official language in at least 10 states and territories, while English is the official language or the co-official language in 14 states and territories. In total, there are 32 different official or co-official languages, including French in Pondicherry.

Other languages

There are over 400 languages that, while they are not official, are spoken by more than 10,000 residents. They are generally taught in primary school. Strictly speaking, they are minority languages.

There are about a hundred languages spoken by only a few thousand residents and these languages are not generally taught in primary school. However, the Commissioner of Linguistic Minorities looks at the use of these languages and regularly submits recommendations to the state and territorial governments.

3. India’s official languages policy

India’s language policy focuses on Hindi and English. When it was adopted in 1950, the Constitution stipulated that English and Hindi would be used for the official purposes of the Union for 15 years, then Hindi would become the only official language. However, Hindi could not completely replace English because of opposition from the southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu). These states claimed that the federal government was trying to impose Hindi, the language of the dominant ethnic group, on them. As a result, they preferred using English, which they considered to be neutral.

In 1963, the Official Languages ActWorld Wide Web site officially declared Hindi and English as the languages of communication in the federal parliament, ministries and central government agencies or corporations. Generally speaking, the federal government communicates in Hindi in the northern part of the country, while it communicates only in English in the southern part of the country. The federal government also uses English where Hindi is not the official language of a northern state.

4. State language policies

The regional public administration functions in the states’ official language(s), except when it communicates with the federal government (in this case, Hindi or English must be used for communication). The
language(s) of work are the same as the states’ official language(s) (generally three or four). Signs are also posted in the official language(s) of the state or territory.

For education, pursuant to Article 350A of the Constitution, all states and territories are required to provide instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups. Generally speaking, it is also mandatory to teach one or more second languages at the secondary stage: the second language of the state or territory, or Hindi. English language instruction is mandatory at the higher secondary stage.

Municipalities can develop their own language policy and declare a co-official language in a given district, where numbers warrant. Municipalities are required to develop systems for public services, schools and official records.

In summary, India has developed many language policies because of its hierarchical language system according to the various administrative levels. At this time, neither Hindi nor English seem to be replacing the official languages of the states or territories, as these governments have the authority to redraw language area borders to peacefully protect the languages in their respective jurisdictions. Given India’s complex situation, the different languages are co-existing relatively harmoniously.

Official Languages of the States and Territories of India

  State Official Language(s)
1 Jammu & Kashmir Urdu/Kashmiri, Hindi, Punjabi, Dogri
2 Himachal Pradesh Hindi, Pahadi
3 Punjab Punjabi/Sindhi, Hindi, Urdu
4 Uttaranchal Urdu/Hindi
5 Haryana Hindi, Sindhi, Haryanvi, Urdu
6 Rajasthan Hindi, Urdu, Rajasthani, Marwari
7 Uttar Pradesh Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Pahadi, etc.
8 Bihar Hindi/Urdu, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi, Bengali, Santali
9 Sikkim Nepali, Bhutia
10 Arunachal Pradesh English, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali
11 Nagaland English, Naga
12 Manipur English/Manipuri
13 Mizoram English, Gujarati, Mizo, Lushai, Miau, Santali
14 Tripura Bengali, Tripuri, Kuki, Santali
15 Meghalaya English, Garo, Khasi
16 Assam Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Santali
17 West Bengal Bengali, Santali
18 Jharkhand Hindi/Urdu, Maithili, Bhojpuri
19 Orissa English/Oriya, Santali
20 Chhatisgarh Hindi, Chatisgarhi
21 Madhya Pradesh Hindi, Marathi, Urdu
22 Gujarat Gujarati
23 Maharashtra Marathi, Hindi, Konkani
24 Andhra Pradesh Telugu, Urdu
25 Karnataka Kannada, Konkani
26 Goa Konkani, Marathi
27 Kerala English/Malayalam, Konkani
28 Tamil Nadu Tamil
T1 Andaman & Nicobar Islands English/Hindi
T2 Chandigarh English/Hindi
T3 Dadra & Nagar Haveli English/Hindi
T4 Daman & Diu English/Hindi
T5 Delhi English/Hindi
T6 Lakshadweep English/Malayalam
T7 Pondicherry English/French/Malayalam/Tamil/Telugu


States and Territories of India

State Capital Area (km²) Population (2001)
Jammu & Kashmir Srinagar 101,387 10,069,917
Himachal Pradesh Simla 55,673 6,077,248
Punjab Chandigarh 50,362 24,289,296
Uttaranchal Dehra Dun 53,483 8,479,562
Haryana Chandigarh 44,212 21,082,989
Rajasthan Jaipur 342,239 56,473,122
Uttar Pradesh Lucknow 240,928 166,052,859
Bihar Patna 94,163 82,878,796
Sikkim Gangtok 7,096 540,493
Arunachal Pradesh Itanagar 83,743 1,091,117
Nagaland Kohima 16,579 1,988,636
Manipur Imphal 22,327 2,388,634
Mizoram Aizawl 21,081 891,058
Tripura Agartala 10,486 3,191,168
Meghalaya Shillong 22,429 2,306,069
Assam Dispur 78,438 26,638,407
West Bengal Kolkata 88,752 80,221,171
Jharkhand Ranchi 79,714 26,909,428
Orissa Bhubaneswar 155,707 36,706,920
Chhatisgarh Raipur 135,191 20,795,956
Madhya Pradesh Bhopal 308,245 60,385,118
Gujarat Gandhinagar 196,022 50,596,992
Maharashtra Mumbai 307,713 96,752,247
Andhra Pradesh Hyderabad 275,069 75,727,541
Karnataka Bangalore 191,791 52,733,958
Goa Panaji 3,702 1,343,998
Kerala Thiruvananthapuram 38,863 31,838,619
Tamil Nadu Chennai 130,058 62,110,839
Chandigarh Chandigarh 114 900,914
Delhi Delhi 1483 13,782,976
Daman & Diu Daman 112 158,059
Dadra & Nagar-Haveli Silvassa 491 220,451
Lakshadweep Kavaratti 32 60,595
Pondicherry Puducherry 480 973,829
Andaman & Nicobar Port Blair 8249 356,265
TOTAL 3,166,414 1,027,015,247


Source: Provisional Population Totals: India, Census of India 2001Lien autre que le gouvernement du Canada.
Note 1: The demographic data corresponds to the preliminary results of the census held at the beginning of 2001.
Note 2: The capitals of Punjab (3), Haryana (6) and the Union territory (4) all have the name Chandigarh.
Note 3: Uttaranchal, Jharkand and Chhatisgarh come from the recent divisions based on the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.