January 12, 2018

Advancing Majoritarianism in India | Papia Sengupta

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 52, Issue No. 52, 30 Dec, 2017

Impulsive Imposition: Language and Politics of Majoritarianism in India

The declaration of making Bengali and Malayalam languages compulsory in state-run schools in West Bengal and Kerala has been seen as a step to promote regional languages in India. This article argues that these are reactionary steps to the centre's rigorous policy of promoting Hindi along with the larger agenda of negating federal principles. Such policies threaten the diversity and federalism of India. 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. The policies of the centre as well as states should be viewed with precaution as they further advance the politics of majoritarianism.

by Papia Sengupta
Papia Sengupta (papiasg[at]jnu.ac.in) is at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Every country has one or more officially recognised languages for administrative and educational purposes. The situation is complex in multilingual countries where the selection of a single language representing all peoples and communities becomes a source of contention. India went through the turmoil of choosing one language as the medium of administration and education during the drafting of the Constitution.
The language issue took the maximum time to reach consensus, eventually becoming a “half-hearted compromise” between different sections of the Constituent Assembly (Austin 2014: 330). After vigorous debates, disagreements, and deliberations, Hindi and English became the official languages of the Indian union for communication between the union and the constituent states. Such a decision was agreeable to most states on the condition that they were free to choose the state’s official language(s).
Soon after independence, most states recognised the language spoken by the majority as the official language, whereas some, like Nagaland, chose English. Some others also chose two official languages depending on the sentiments and demographic composition of their respective territories.
The second issue that demanded attention was of deciding the language in education and the medium of instruction in state-run schools. The three-language formula (TLF), presently followed by most state government schools, was the result of long-drawn discussions between 1948 and 1961, with specially appointed committees and commissions. The first of these was appointed in 1948 under the chairmanship of Tara Chand, a well-known historian.
It recommended that: (i) admission to the degree course should be preceded by a course of primary and secondary education for at least 12 years; (ii) of the above 12 years, five years should be spent at the Junior Basic stage, three years at the Senior Basic or pre-secondary stage, and four years at the secondary stage; (iii) the teaching of the federal language should be started at the end of the Junior Basic stage and should be compulsory throughout the pre-secondary stage, but may be optional thereafter; (iv) English may be an optional subject at the Senior Basic stage and should be compulsory at the pre-secondary and secondary stages so long as it remains the medium of instruction in the universities; (v) the federal language should become a compulsory subject at the secondary stage when English ceases to be the medium of instruction in the universities (GoI 1948).
The state departments of education provided special provisions for linguistic minorities, who were granted the fundamental right by the Constitution to establish educational institutions imparting education in the mother tongue. This was further consolidated by the recommendations of the Provincial Education Ministers’ Conference held in 1949, which concluded that the mother tongue must be the medium of education in primary as well as secondary levels, with students having the choice of answering examination papers in the mother tongue for two years after the state language was started in schools. The States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) appointed by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to consider the matter of linguistic reorganisation of Indian states also suggested that linguistic minorities should not be discriminated against as language was a strong reflection of one's cultural heritage. It recommended the following of Article 347[1] by the states and proposed that a clear policy should be formulated by the Government of India in consultation with the state governments, in this regard.
The Government of India proposed the seventh constitutional amendment, following the SRC’s recommendation in 1956 and India was reorganised on a linguistic basis. This amendment also inserted two articles—350a and 350b—providing for mother tongue education at primary levels and establishing a special officer for the linguistic minorities, respectively. Viewing the language matter as capable of becoming conflictual, the Indian government called a conference of chief ministers in 1961. The main agenda of this meeting was to decide the medium of instruction and language-in-education.
The TLF which was already being discussed was comprehensively debated and reviewed in this meeting. Among other things, the ministers reiterated the desirability of developing Hindi as the medium for interstate correspondence, but emphasised the usage of English for international communication. Finally, the expert review of the TLF was delegated to the Kothari Commission, which submitted its report in 1964 and recommended certain modifications to the TLF. The objective of the Kothari Commission was “to accommodate group identity, national unity, and administrative efficiency" (NCERT 2006). It brought in the mother tongue group identity marker, Hindi for national unity, and both Hindi and English for administrative functioning, thereby fusing three interests into one framework known as the TLF. Indian states were left to adopt the TLF according to their contextual uniqueness. The TLF that emanated from this conference became a central feature of the National Education Policy (NEP) of 1968 and was not modified by the NEP 1986. This is not to say that the TLF is the perfect language formula, but it did fairly well in India and avoided any further linguistic conflicts. [ . . . ]