India: A language federation
by Jacques Leclerc – Montréal, Quebec
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.
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.
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 Act 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
||Jammu & Kashmir
||Urdu/Kashmiri, Hindi, Punjabi, Dogri
||Punjabi/Sindhi, Hindi, Urdu
||Hindi, Sindhi, Haryanvi, Urdu
||Hindi, Urdu, Rajasthani, Marwari
||Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Pahadi, etc.
||Hindi/Urdu, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi, Bengali, Santali
||English, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali
||English, Gujarati, Mizo, Lushai, Miau, Santali
||Bengali, Tripuri, Kuki, Santali
||English, Garo, Khasi
||Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Santali
||Hindi/Urdu, Maithili, Bhojpuri
||Hindi, Marathi, Urdu
||Marathi, Hindi, Konkani
||Andaman & Nicobar Islands
||Dadra & Nagar Haveli
||Daman & Diu
States and Territories of India
|Jammu & Kashmir
|Daman & Diu
|Dadra & Nagar-Haveli
|Andaman & Nicobar
|Source: Provisional Population Totals: India, Census of India 2001.
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.