India/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.5 Language issues and policies

Languages and dialects

The states of India have been reorganised on a linguistic basis to make linguistic diversities more manageable. The Eighth Schedule to the Indian Constitution under Articles 344(1) and 351 contains a list of 22 scheduled languages: Assamese/Axomiya, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. At the time the Constitution was enacted, inclusion in this list meant that the language was entitled to representation on the Official Languages Commission. In addition to promoting the use of the language, a candidate appearing in an examination conducted for public service at a higher level is entitled to use any of these languages to answer the paper. The Official Languages Act (1963) defines Hindi as the principal official language of India with English as a secondary language for official work. It also authorises the use of official languages of the states for official purposes like in the Parliament, Central and State Acts and in the High Courts. Article 345 of the Constitution authorises the states of India to adopt ‘official languages’ of that state. Political processes apart from the size of population of native speakers determine recognition of languages.

There are thousands of dialects (with and without their own script) spoken by language minorities all over the country that are not recognised by the Constitution under the Eighth Schedule. For example, Tulu[1] and Kodava[2] have substantial numbers of speakers but are not recognised under the language schedule. The UNESCO lists as many as 197 languages mostly in the tribal belts of India as being endangered.[3]

The category of ‘Classical Language’

In 2004, the Government of India, based on the recommendation of a committee of linguistic experts from the Sahitya Akademi, declared that languages that met certain requirements could be accorded the status of a ‘Classical Language in India’. Languages thus far declared to be Classical are Tamil (2004), Sanskrit (2005), Kannada and Telugu (2008). Some of the criteria for the inclusion as a classical language by the Sahitya Akademi’s expert committee are: ‘High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years; a body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; the literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; the classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots’.

Mother tongue

Under Article 350A and 350B titled Special Directives in the Constitution, special emphasis is laid on the teaching of mother tongue and protection of linguistic minorities:

350A.  Facilities for instruction in mother-tongue at primary stage

It shall be the endeavour of every State and of every local authority within the State to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother-tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups; and the President may issue such directions to any State as he considers necessary or proper for securing the provision of such facilities.

Linguistic minorities

350B. Special Officer for linguistic minorities

(1) There shall be a Special Officer for linguistic minorities to be appointed by the President.

(2) It shall be the duty of the Special Officer to investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided for linguistic minorities under this Constitution and report to the President upon those matters at such intervals as the President may direct, and the President shall cause all such reports to be laid before each House of Parliament, and sent to the Governments of the States concerned.

Main debates of language pluralism

One of the big policy debates concerning language is the widespread concern about the use of English as a medium of instruction in schools. Until now the medium of instruction in primary and secondary schools throughout the country has been in the mother tongue. English is seen by most Indians as a means of upward mobility and some also see the English language as a tool of emancipation from caste oppressions.[4] But there is a fear that vernacular languages will slowly die out if English is made the medium of instruction.

Translation: The National Translation Mission (NTM) was set up on the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission and is based in the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. The NTM is working towards making translation a mainstream industry apart from facilitating access to good quality knowledge texts to students and academics in regional languages, a dire need in India today.

The NTM also hopes to benefit the general public, teachers, translations departments in universities and institutions, translation software developers, comparative literature scholars, publishers, NGOs working on public health, civil rights, environment, popular science, etc. film and documentary producers looking for subtitles and multilingual releases, FM and other radio houses who want to air programmes in different languages.

National Book Trust, India (NBT), founded in 1957 is an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. The NBT develops and makes available good quality books at affordable rates. Apart from publishing books in 14 Indian languages the Trust promotes books and reading through reading clubs and books festivals, provides assistance to authors and publishers and promotes children’s literature. The NBT publishes books on subjects ranging from fiction, technology, medical sciences to illustrated books for children. The Trust published 2314 titles (148 originals, 168 translations, 1996 reprints and 2 revised editions) in the year 2010-11.

Centres for Translation: The Sahitya Akademi has established four Centres for Translation at Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Shantiniketan which translate works from their respective regions into English and other languages. The Centres are currently in the process of translating books into English for the Akademi’s ‘One Hundred Twentieth Century Classics' scheme being brought out in collaboration with NBT.

Project for tribal and oral literature: The Sahitya Akademi launched the Language Development Board in 1996 to document the oral traditions of Indian languages that fall outside of the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution i.e. communities speaking the non-scheduled and non-recognised languages. Most of these languages constitute dialects spoken by tribals in various parts of the country. This project aims to document, examine and publish oral literature in these languages before they become extinct.

Some of the activities of the project:

  • To take up the work of conservation and promotion of literature in tribal languages as a national mission, through publications and recording.
  • To constitute an advisory committee of folklorists, linguists, theatre persons, musicologists and writers to consider the possibility of treating tribal imagination as a unified subject.
  • To create a national network of local level folklorists to have local level workers to assist the Akademi in the project.
  • To hold periodical workshops of these workers to train them in the work of the project.
  • To organise seminars on the theme of tribal literature involving eminent folklorists, linguists, etc.
  • To undertake a regular publication journal once in two years on the themes, stories of genesis, subversions and the concepts of the heroic, to begin with.[5]

Chapter published: 22-04-2014