Hindi vs ‘dialects’: Internal challenges to Hindi imperialism

Many 'dialects' of Hindi are saying they are not dialects but languages. Among the major ones that have risen in rebellion are Awadhi, Braj, Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, and Magahi.

ByArun Sinha

Published Nov 10, 2022 | 9:30 AM Updated Dec 23, 2022 | 12:55 PM

The then President Pratibha Patil receives the 2011 Census. Speakers of many languages grouped under Hindi in the 2011 Census are saying these are not dialects but independent languages

The Englishmen left but English stayed on in India. Hindi has been battling for the past seven decades to expel it, only to find that it has grown deep roots in the soil.

The reason is Indians no longer see English as a colonial language but as a commercial one — as the language of the global market where they may find a job at a lower level but cannot climb the ladder without knowing how to speak or write it.

There are more English-medium private schools coming up in India today than public schools teaching in Indian languages. According to a 2022 Unesco study, 67,000 of 97,000 schools (nearly 7 out of 10) opened in India since 2014 were private. For more than 70 percent of parents placing their children in private schools, English medium was a key factor.

As demand makes English-medium private school fees prohibitive, some state governments are opening English-medium public schools. The rush for admissions has been phenomenal. In 2020, the very first year the Chhattisgarh government opened 52 such schools, it had to stop enrolment after taking in 28,000 students as the bulge in the demand did not flatten. When the Rajasthan government opened English-medium schools last year, there were three applicants for every seat.

Medical textbooks in Hindi

The Modi government — the BJP being an army with a flag bearing the inscription, “Hindi nationalism = Hindu nationalism” — would not let Hindi lose out to English on the education battlefield. So, while Congress governments in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are opening English-medium schools, the BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are introducing Hindi texts in medical and engineering.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while unveiling medical textbooks in Hindi recently in Bhopal, said: “Now, the students of the country will not have any inferiority complex about not knowing the English language, and they can study with pride in their own language.”

Union Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah launches an MBBS book in Hindi

Union Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah launches an MBBS book in Hindi on 16 October (Twitter/CMMadhyaPradesh)

A proclamation of victory over English with the introduction of medical texts in Hindi was nothing but a preposterous boast. The texts do not carry any original material. They are but English texts in Devanagari. They use the English terminology for all the organs (kidney as kidney, liver as liver) and most of their functions. The rest of the text borrows words from Sanskrit. The chances are the students may find navigating through these books difficult and turn to books in English for their rescue.

But even if we suppose they are able to navigate through them without seeking shelter in English-language texts and get an MBBS degree, how will they cross the seas of higher courses without English? How will they acquire the latest knowledge in their field without knowing how to swim in the oceans of medical research published in international journals? How will they participate in a telemedicine call with doctors or patients abroad without English in the globalised world?

Ousting English not successful

As is apparent from the growing demand for English-medium schools, the parents and students will find their way of going round the Hindi zealotry even to get technical education in English. There are already a large number of private engineering colleges in the country. And there are more than 270 private medical colleges, 80 of which have been opened in the past eight years.

Much like their campaigns to defeat English on the education battlefield, the Hindi imperialists’ mission to oust English from the government has not been successful. When they proclaimed Hindi as the official language over seven decades ago, they had set a target of 15 years to remove English. English continues as an associate official language.

Related: Hindi imposition, language protests in Karnataka then and now

‘Dialects’ of Hindi

Anti-Hindi protest in Dharmapuri by the DMK youth and students wings on 15 October

Anti-Hindi protest in Dharmapuri by the DMK youth and students wings on 15 October (Twitter/DMKYouthWing)

Hindi’s attempts to displace other Indian languages too have failed.

It has failed to spread its empire beyond the 10 states—Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan — where it is spoken, because the regional languages such as Tamil, Bengali and Telugu have proven too strong to be forced by it to submit to vassal status.

Related: The anti-Hindi sentiment in TN

As a matter of fact, Hindi is facing resistance even in its own 10 forts. There are nearly 50 “dialects” of Hindi. Many of them are saying they are not dialects but languages.

Among the major dialects that have risen in rebellion are Awadhi, Braj, Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, and Magahi. They are asking for recognition as independent languages. They have been petitioning the Central government for their inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, so they can get government support for the preservation and promotion of their language and literature.

Hindi vs its ‘dialects’

Hindi would like to concentrate on the two “external” challenges — English and the other Indian languages — so it finds the “internal” challenges from its dialects disturbing. After all, the 10 states are like its 10 forts that have made Hindi the big brother in the world of languages in India.

A language that is spoken in 10 of the 28 states can legitimately stake a claim to be the “national language”, rather than languages confined to the boundaries of a state. Hindi’s demand for a queen status, its whole irritating hubris, flows from the elephantine sum total of the number of ‘Hindi speakers’ in the 10 states.

Rebellion inside forts could reduce the strength of Hindi. It could make Hindi ineligible for claiming to be a “national language”. So, the Hindi imperialists would do everything to stop its dialects being recognised as languages — because if they get recognition as independent languages, their speakers would not record themselves in the Census as Hindi speakers.

Related: How was constant growth of Hindi in Censuses possible?

Manipulation of numbers

In most of the Censuses since Independence, the “dialects” have been grouped under Hindi, so their speakers are counted as Hindi speakers.

Manipulation of numbers in Censuses has of course been a part of the Hindi imperialist design. This design worked because vast numbers of speakers of “dialects” were themselves not aware what their mother tongues were called (though they used it) or whether they should name it even though it is not recognised as a language, thus giving the enumerators the liberty to put them under Hindi, with or without their consent.

But once the language gets recognition, its speakers will consciously record themselves as its speakers, not as Hindi speakers.

In an article titled ‘How grouping of numbers inflated number of Hindi speakers’ in Outlook (9 May 2022), Snigdhendu Bhattacharya noted the number of Hindi speakers jumped from 30.39 percent (13.34 crore) of India’s population in 1961 to 43.63 percent (52.83 crore) in 2011. However, if we took just the speakers of 12 “dialects” out of the Hindi group, the number of Hindi speakers actually fell from 28.02 percent (12.3 crore) in 1961 to 26.61 percent (32.22 crore) in 2011.

With speakers of 12 “dialects” included, the number of Hindi speakers rose by 13.24 percent, and with them excluded, it fell by 1.41 percent in 50 years. If the speakers of all the 50 “dialects” record themselves independently, the number of Hindi speakers might sink to a very low level.

Where will Hindi be? Would it still be able to legitimately claim itself to be the national language? Or be reduced to the status of a regional language?

(This is the first article in a series on the serious challenges Hindi faces from the languages it calls its dialects)

(Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and author of the ‘Battle for Bihar’)