[Burning Issue] National Language Debate

UPSC 2023 countdown has begun! Get your personal guidance plan now! (Click here)


  • With over twenty regional languages, each with its own culture and history, language was always going to be a tricky issue for India.
  • Remarks by a notable Hindi actor to the effect that Hindi is the national language of India has sparked controversy recently over the status of the language under the Constitution.
  • The trigger for the argument was when Kannada film industry celebrated the nationwide success of a blockbuster movie.
  • The actor said in its response that Hindi was no more a pan-India language.

“The wordplay between Rajbhasha and Rashtrabhasha often spark such debate out of sheer negligence over their meanings.”

Hindi: A Backgrounder

‘Hindi Hai Hum, Watan Hai Hindustan Humara…’, for most of us, an everlasting childhood memory is standing in an assembly queue and singing the couplet (Sare Jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara) written by Muhammad Iqbal.

  • At that time we never thought of the real idea behind Hindustan.
  • In the post-Westphalian or rather European conception of the nation-state, language has been the driving factor for the formation of a separate country altogether.
  • This came as a major challenge in the constituent assembly, because, unlike in Europe, it was impossible to theorize India’s linguistic diversity which ultimately accumulated under a single national identity.

Mahatma Gandhi’s view on Hindi

  • In 2019, Home minister Amit Shah had invoked Mahatma Gandhi while backing the government’s idea that Hindi should be the identifying language of India.
  • However, researchers believed that Gandhi kept changing his position.
  • After 1942, Gandhi seemed to stress the adoption of Hindustani, a fusion of Hindi and Urdu, not Hindi, as the unifying language of the masses.

“We need also a common language not in suppression of the vernaculars, but in addition to them. It is generally agreed that that medium should be Hindustani – a resultant of Hindi and Urdu, neither highly Sanskritized, nor highly Persianized or Arabianized.” (Young India, 1925)

Hindi, Hindustani or English? The Constituent Assembly Debates

  • At the time, most countries defined their nationhood through a common language and so during the Constituent Assembly debates, the question of a national language was tied closely with a desire for national unity.
  • Initially, Hindustani, with its hybrid of Hindi and Urdu, was a viable option.
  • Writing in an essay in 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru termed Hindustani a “golden mean.”
  • However, after Partition, the debate changed. Instead of Hindustani, Hindi (bereft of its Urdu influence) was being put forward as a potential national language.
  • But the opposition to Hindi as a national language from representatives from southern states was fierce too.

TA Ramalingam Chettiar representing Madras in the Constituent Assembly in September 1949, said,

“We have got languages which are better cultivated and which have greater literature than Hindi in our areas. If we are going to accept Hindi, it is not on account of the excellence of the language. It is merely on account of the existence of a large number of people speaking Hindi.”

What is the status of Hindi?

  • Finally, the Constituent Assembly adopted what was known as “Munshi-Ayyangar Formula.”
  • According to this, Hindi in the Devnagari script would be the official language of the Union.

Official, not national

  • English would continue to be used for all official purposes for the next 15 years, to enable a smooth transition for non-Hindi speaking states.
  • The deadline was 26 January 1965.
  • Under Article 343 of the Constitution, the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.
  • The international form of Indian numerals will be used for official purposes.
What is the Eighth Schedule?
The Eighth Schedule contains a list of languages in the country. Initially, there were 14 languages in the schedule, but now there are 22 languages.There is no description of the sort of languages that are included or will be included in the Eighth Schedule.

Evolution of the Language Debate

  • There have been some developments in the language debate since 1965.
  • In 1968, a National Policy on Education was adopted.
  • It presented a three-language formula, according to which, in non-Hindi-speaking states, Hindi should be studied optionally along with English and the regional language.
  • The 1968 NPE was ostensibly updated in the Draft New Education Policy 2019, where Hindi was proposed to be taught mandatorily in schools in non-Hindi-speaking states.
  • The proposal sparked outrage, especially in southern states like Tamil Nadu.

What is the Three-language formula?

  • Since the 1960s, the Centre’s education policy documents speak of teaching three languages — Hindi, English and one regional language in Hindi-speaking States, and Hindi, English and the official regional language in other States.
  • In practice, however, only some States teach both their predominant language and Hindi, besides English.
  • In States where Hindi is the official language, a third language is rarely taught as a compulsory subject.

Why has language become a sensitive issue?

  • Self-identification: A strong identification with one’s regional language and an underlying fear of homogenisation is at the heart of the national language question in India. An individual conceptualises and communicates his thoughts in a language, enabling him to be an active part of society.
  • Language defines primary group: People identify with one another based on language, thus giving them a primary group. A nation is the largest primary group that once can address.
  • Learning abilities at stake: The dangers of imposing a language are manifold. It can affect the learning ability of non-native speakers thereby affecting their self-confidence.
  • Threats to endangered languages: It can also endanger other languages and dialects and reduce diversity.
  • Threats to diversity: National integration cannot come at the cost of people’s linguistic identities. Language is integral to culture and therefore privileging Hindi over all other languages spoken in India takes away from its diversity.
  • Promises made by Constituent Assembly: Then PM Pt. Nehru had promised that Hindi would only serve as a linking language and it would not be imposed on non-Hindi speaking states as long as they were against it.

Benefits of having a national language

  • Wide range of speakers: Hindi is still the most widely spoken language in the country with an estimated 258 million people declaring that Hindi is their native language and millions more comfortable with Hindi.
  • Language as a unifying language: A complete usage of Hindi language whilst respecting the various native languages would also ensure better coordination and cooperation among all the states and act as a strong unifying factor and eliminate all regional differences.
  • Reputation at international fora: When countries like Germany, Japan, France, Italy etc. use their respective language as a medium of communication even during International forums not only has the reputation of those countries have greatly enhanced but also those languages have gained a huge reputation worldwide.

Issues with Hindi

  • Inherent opposition to Hindi: The Constituent Assembly was bitterly divided on the question, with members from States that did not speak Hindi initially opposing the declaration of Hindi as a national language.
  • Fear of imposition: Opponents were against English being done away with, fearing that it may lead to Hindi domination in regions that did not speak the language.
  • Symbol of identity politics: The approach towards linguistic policy seems to be driven more by the politics of identity than values of aspiration or accommodation.
  • Favour for majoritarianism: The primary argument in favour of Hindi has been reduced to assertions of slim majoritarianism.
  • Few speakers, still dominant: Even then, there are concerns about the claim based on mere numerical strength, as only 25 per cent of Indians seem to recognise Hindi as their mother tongue (Census 2011).
  • Demographic barriers: Today nearly 35% of people are migrating daily for work. In such a situation, we have to conceptualise a new form of language identity for our states.
  • Economic barriers: Any idea of one link language, whether Hindi or English, will be economically disastrous for India. It will slow down migration and reduce the ease of capital flow.
  • Multiple dialects: Only five states in India have Hindi as their’ native language’. However, in those states, too, the dialects of Hindi are associated with locals and their communities.

Why Hindi cannot be the national language?

  • Multiple dialects: Hindi has largely been influenced by Persian — and then English, among other languages. Also, when the languages were enumerated, Hindi subsumed Bhojpuri, which is spoken by a little over five crore people.  
  • Inefficacy of Sanskrit: There were demands to make Sanskrit the official language, while some argued in favour of ‘Hindustani’.
  • Issue over Script: There were differences of opinion over the script too. When opinion veered towards accepting Hindi, proponents of the language wanted the ‘Devanagari’ script to be adopted both for words and numerals.

Why this issue needs a rational consideration?

  • Linguistic chauvinism: Various policies on language have been framed both by the central and state governments that have been termed as forms of linguistic chauvinism.  Ex. Obsession for Marathi in Mumbai
  • Secular fabric under threat: The states’ fear of the central government’s ideology of monopolising faith, education, and language will adversely affect the Indian political system, which is based on pluralism and accommodation.
  • Monolingualism can prove disastrous: If there is a mechanical and monolithic idea of unity followed by any entity, such an entity generally generates great hostility beyond its immediate borders.  In neighbouring Bangladesh – then East Pakistan – the language movement against the imposition of Urdu on Bengali speakers was a key driver of Pakistan splitting into two nations.

Way forward

  • Language as a skill: Language should be looked at as an important skill to operate in a world which is more connected today than at any other point in time.
  • Language not a cultural burden: A united nation has to have space for diversity. India is united in its diversity. Diversity is a great philosophical idea and should never be seen as a cultural burden.
  • Linguistic heritage needs priority: This is not to contend that our linguistic heritage should be neglected or trivialised. Our metropolises must be recognised as multilingual entities.


  • National integration in a multilingual country does not require the imposition of one official language.
  • At the same time, the convenience, in fact the necessity, of having one or more languages as the official language for centre-state and inter-state communication for political, economic, legal and even social reasons cannot be disputed.
  • Politics over language would never end until India truly attains the ideal federal structure.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Join us across Social Media platforms.

💥Mentorship New Batch Launch
💥Mentorship New Batch Launch