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India's Hindi move upsets linguistic minorities

Ruling BJP accused of attempting to disrupt the country's unity and integrity reporter, New Delhi reporter, New Delhi

Updated: September 18, 2019 10:44 AM GMT
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India's Hindi move upsets linguistic minorities

Home Minister Amit Shah attends a police parade in Hyderabad on Aug. 24. He says it is necessary for India to have one language to 'preserve our ancient philosophy, our culture and the memory of our freedom struggle.' (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)

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A move by India's ruling pro-Hindu party to promote Hindi as the prime language in the country, purportedly for national integration, has upset linguistic minorities.

Amit Shah, federal home minister and close confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, outlined the plan to make Hindi the common language across India while speaking at National Hindi Day in New Delhi on Sept. 14.

It is "necessary to have one language" to present India to the world and to "preserve our ancient philosophy, our culture and the memory of our freedom struggle," he said.

Although the Indian constitution gives no language national status, Hindi is considered the official language of the federal government.

India has recognized 22 of its regional languages as official administrative languages, while it also uses English as a link language between these regions and the federal government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Shah said it was "important that we strengthen our local languages and that there is at least one language, Hindi, that the nation knows."

Many suspect Shah was dusting off an old slogan of pro-Hindu groups — “Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan” — that stressed that India should have only one religion, one language and one culture.

"The BJP-led government is doing everything to rewrite the country's history. In their mad rush for Hindu nationalism, they are fragmenting the country," said Peter Disalva, a Christian activist in Bangalore.

He wondered how the government could impose an ideology of “one culture, one language” on a country that speaks more than 500 languages and dialects. "In some areas, Hindi is unacceptable to people and their culture,” he said.

He said Shah's was attempting to divert people's attention from issues of severe economic distress.

Hindi remains the language of some 41 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people. Most of the rest rest use Bengali, Tamil, Urdu, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam or Odia.

The pro-Hindi move shows BJP's unwillingness to accept India's linguistic diversity, said Allen Francis, a rights activist in New Delhi.

"It should be the choice of individuals to speak or learn Hindi, just like he [Shah] is free to learn or speak any other Indian language. Why should we sideline all the other languages and coerce people to speak in Hindi alone?" asked Francis.

Powerful Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been pushing for the supremacy of the Hindu religion and Hindi since its inception in 1925.

However, non-Hindi speakers, mostly in southern India where the mother tongue remains an emotive issue, have fiercely resisted moves to impose the language on them. Mass protests and even riots have occurred in Tamil Nadu state on several occasions.

Popular Tamil film actor Kamal Hassan warned of mass protests if Hindi is imposed. India became a republic in 1950 with a promise to the people that their language and culture would be protected, he noted in a social media post. "No Shah ... Sultan or Samrat can break that promise," he said.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala, where Malayalam is the prime language, said Shah was trying to trigger controversy and divert attention from real issues.

"Any attempt to impose any one language will lead to the disruption of our country's unity and integrity," he warned.

India has registered 780 languages, the world's second-highest number after Papua New Guinea, which has 839.

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