From Hindsight to Foresight – Safeguarding Linguistic Diversity in India

Plethora of languages have lived and passed since humans inhabited the planet Earth. Globally, there exists thousands of languages and dialects that are being spoken by people ranging from small tribes or families to a whole region or a country. What is the significance of a language when there are thousands of different versions of it in existence? What is the importance of a mother language, or a native language? Why is the preservation of a language a concern for the human species since time immemorial?

To ask someone in what language they think is to ask them what their mother tongue is. This illustrates the importance of a mother language. We think in our mother language and the way we think is influenced by it. The uniqueness of the human species to have the ability to create a medium of speech has given the world the wonder called languages. Mother language is not merely a medium of speech. The entity contains in itself the information of people of the land, their culture, tradition, values, thoughts and practises among many others. To know one’s mother tongue is to carry a tiny piece of history of one’s origin to the next generation and into the future. Thoughts are best expressed with clarity and brevity only through one’s mother tongue. It enables humans to conceptualise and materialise their thoughts. Simply put, as DNA contains the information of a human individual, a language contains the information of a civilisation.

The inimitable significance of each mother language across the world makes it all the more important for their preservation. Today, preserving mother language in the globalised world is the challenge that lies in front of us. But, as we dig deeper, we can see that safe-guarding mother language is not a new trend to the world. Countries and states have been formed and ceded in the process of preservation of a mother language or fighting for the same. Glances into history will provide ample examples of linguistic struggles that assert the importance of safeguarding mother languages.

Beginning with the post independent India, language acted as the main factor behind the creation of states and territories. Even though the land was divided on the basis of languages, the problems associated with the representation of regional languages in the constitution and governance created conflicts and disagreements. The dominance of Hindi and English over other regional minorities is a thorn that pricks even today. The most important struggle for the representation of a language in India is the Anti-Hindi Movement in Tamil Nadu. The struggle was about the resistance against the imposition of Hindi in the state. The crux of the issue is the imposition of the three-language policy where the Tamils had to learn both English and Hindi along with their native language Tamil. This aggravated resistance from Tamil people. They argued that they had already been struggling with a language that is foreign to them and that they do not need another foreign language that is in no way close to their mother tongue. Moreover, while learning the English language provided them with opportunities in education and employment, not only in India but across the world, there was (and still is) no practical benefit in learning Hindi. Historically, no Hindi ruler ruled any region in Tamil Nadu. But, most parts of the state were under the rule of British which brings certain relevance or familiarity between Tamils and the English language.

When the resistance of the Tamils to Hindi was not taken seriously, the war between the languages began. This war decided the fate of the state for the decades to come. It also aggravated the sense of pride for the mother language that spread across the states like wildfire. People from other states of India, particularly South India, claimed the well-deserved status of their mother languages in the governance. The struggle to preserve Tamil and to prevent the dominance and imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu was not so simple. Many valuable lives were lost in the struggle. But, the indomitable spirit of Tamils in fighting for their mother language brought Tamil its well-deserved place. Even today, when there is slightest of the conversation about making Hindi a part of curriculum in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil natives seem to fight vigorously to save their language from peril. After all, they believe Tamil is the only classical language that has been existing for thousands of years while other classical languages like Sanskrit or Latin have decayed and fossilised.

The whirlpool that was created by the Anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu also gave momentum to states like Andhra Pradesh where Telugu people claimed their territory on linguistic lines. There was also a case in the south-western part of India where the dominance of Marathi over Konkani in Goan region created conflicts between Goa and Maharashtra. The state of Maharashtra tried to acquire the entire Goan region into its territory. In 1967, an opinion poll or referendum was conducted to decide whether Goa should be unified with the state of Maharashtra. As it turned out, the people of Goa wanted to remain separate and wanted their mother language Konkani a unique status, not a subordinate to Marathi.

In precedence to Marathi-Konkani conflict, in 1960, the state of Bombay was bifurcated into Gujarat and Maharashtra as violence erupted in the region among the Gujarati and Marathi speaking people. Here too, languages played a significant role in creation of states in India for better representation.

Decades after Independence, the struggle for preservation and adequate representation of mother languages in India never quite died down. The north-eastern states of India are home to hundreds of tribal languages with almost no common language that can be spoken across the region. This region is still struggling to preserve its existing languages with several dialects and languages dying frequently.

In Sri Lanka, the language struggle served as the root to one of the major human rights conflicts in the world. After Sri Lanka attained independence from the British Raj, the assertion of Sinhala language over the Tamils in Sri Lanka has caused many agitations. Under the rule of SWRD Bandaranaike, the Sinhala Only Act, 1956 caused uprisings and agitations across the country by the Tamil speaking Sri Lankans. Prior to the Act, all the parliamentary communication was conducted through the medium of English language. While the act negated the superior status of English, it also ensured the dominance of Sinhala language over Tamil. The Tamils of Sri Lanka have been showing tenacity in bringing back the status of their mother language to-date. The demand of Sri Lankan Tamils for a separate region called Tamil Eelam is part of this mission. A separate region, even if it is autonomous within the national boundary of Sri Lanka would mean a permanent end to this linguistic identity crisis and would ensure a proper, well-deserved status for Tamil all the while respecting the linguistic diversity. But, the tension between Sinhalese and the Tamils in the region has only been aggravated to a humanitarian crisis that has no end to be seen in the horizon.

Across the world, the Norway-Denmark language crisis which ultimately led to dissolution of the region into two separate states of Norway and Denmark during the era of Nationalism in Europe, serves as a classic example of linguistic crisis and agitation even in the advanced world.

The countless stories of native language preservation across the world depicts few things. Linguistic diversity is inevitable in this whole wide world. But, that does not mean humans should stay divided and be under the constant threat of invasion or dominance over each other. It is perfectly possible to appreciate the differences and learn to co-exist with mutual respect. The antipathy over one language could bear no fruit of harmony. Neither does dominance and assertion of one language over other.

“Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development are of strategic importance for people and the planet” says the United Nations while explaining the significance of safeguarding linguistic diversity in the world. While historical battles have been fought and struggles have taken place to ensure the safety of a mother language, in the globalised world of today, what lies ahead of us is the task of coming together to save the languages that are under the threat of extinction. According to the UN, over 43% of estimated 6000 languages of the world are endangered.

The threat of invasion or dominance of one language over the other is not the main concern anymore as all the languages across the world are facing a common enemy called digitalisation. The number of languages that have managed to make an entry into the digital world are only a few hundred. This might be the biggest hazard that the world of languages has ever come across and how mankind is going to emerge out successfully is a question that only time can answer! On the occasion of International Mother Language Day on 21st February, it is our duty to pledge to preserve our native or mother language, and ensure its prosperity by doing nothing more than bringing it into the play of our everyday lives.

-Subiksha Kumar (Freelancer)

Picture Credits:

Most Popular

To Top