Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on India's Language Policy

Notwithstanding India being referred to as the "World's biggest democracy", anybody who looks an inch deeper into India realizes that democracy here is at best in the foetal stage far from being mature. The most glaring illustration of this fact lies, perhaps, in India's position on languages.

However, it is heartening to see evidence that we're moving in the right direction. India's linguistic policy has undergone many changes, with the creation of linguistic states being an important step in the right direction. India has begun her march on the road to becoming a true multilingual country, and on that march left behind some of her most illustrious thinkers and policy-makers who were in some ways opposed to the march itself.

One such thinker and policy maker was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar - the architect of the Indian Constitution.

Dr. Ambedkar was a strong proponent of the creation of linguistic states, but asserted that the linguistic states so created must use Hindi as their official language (instead of the language of the state itself). This, he held, was necessary to prevent India from becoming "the medieval India consisting of a variety of States indulging in rivalry and warfare". Today, of course, the Constitution of India itself allows for states to use their own languages as official languages without India becoming what Dr. Ambedkar feared.

In his Thoughts on Linguistic States, first published in 1955, Dr. Ambedkar observed that not creating linguistic states poses a greater danger than creating them. While the consequences of creating linguistic states can be handled, he observed, the consequences of not creating linguistic states poses a danger "greater and beyond the control of a statesman however eminent":
A linguistic State with its regional language as its official language may easily develop into an independent nationality. The road between an independent nationality and an independent State is very narrow. If this happens, India will cease to be Modern India we have and will become the medieval India consisting of a variety of States indulging in rivalry and warfare.

This danger is of course inherent in the creation of linguistic States. There is equal danger in not having linguistic States. The former danger a wise and firm statesman can avert. But the dangers of a mixed State are greater and beyond the control of a statesman however eminent.
Dr. Ambedkar's way of preventing India from becoming "the medieval India consisting of a variety of States indulging in rivalry and warfare" was to prevent linguistic states from using their own languages as official languages, and to posit Hindi / English instead. He proposed in the same essay:
How can this danger be met? The only way I can think of meeting the danger is to provide in the Constitution that the regional language shall not be the official language of the State. The official language of the State shall be Hindi and until India becomes fit for this purpose English. Will Indians accept this? If they do not, linguistic States may easily become a peril.
But, of course, India has gone beyond Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's proposal, and today the states use their own languages as official languages - Karnataka uses Kannada, Tamil Nadu uses Tamil, Andhra Pradesh uses Telugu, and so on. None of this has resulted in the peril of India disintegrating and becoming "the medieval India consisting of a variety of States indulging in rivalry and warfare". It is suppression of diversity which can lead to that result, not its celebration - and we must be thankful to those wise statesmen who have had the courage to do what is good for India.

I have no doubt that the glorification of Hindi in the Central Government and its works will also end, albeit not without effort, especially from the non-Hindi speaking states. There will be a day on which this glorification will be forgotten - just like the truth about Dr. Ambedkar's insistence of Hindi being used as official language in all the states is now forgotten. The little skirmishes that we're seeing today are but pebbles on the road to India becoming a truly multilingual and federal country. Laying down those pebbles is a difficult and time-consuming task, and not achievable without regard for unity in diversity.


Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to the day when a hindi speaker stands next to me not thinking that is superior national.

പാറ്റ്സ് said...

There were many wise men beyond South India. Yet, some of these people turned out to be completely Hindi centric, and I'm wonderung why. Ambedkar was a Marathi himself, still he wanted Hindi to be an All India language. Same goes to Mahatma Gandhi, a native Gujarati. Why were these people ready to abolish their own mothertongues. Now people all over India are maturing, giving their own mothertongue priority Nr.1. How incredibly shortsightened where the decisions of the early leaders? What were the real motives behind the decisions? Will Hindi belt declare an own State, when other Indian languages get equal federal status? Will Hindi pride break up India into two countries? I HOPE SO!

ಮಾಲೋಲನ್ said...

I am not sure what Hindi belt will do when other indian languages emerge now, but one thing is for sure they will start to feel other indians as euqual to them which a Hindian is not used to.

Other language leaders will awaken the whole of India very soon and non-hindi speakers will start removing Hindi from their respective states. give it atleast 50 years and Hindi speakers will be shown their place.

Mannaran said...

@Anonymous: We are better nationals, as we have understood the true meaning of Unity in Diversity. If somebody asks you "Are you an Indian?" just because you don't know Hindi, tell them this

"My language is really native to this land. And ofcourse I will give first preference to it. I have English for business and my mother tongue for thinking, enjoyment, philosophy and what not. If you say English is European saying it entered India just 200 years back, then same with Hindi. Hindi just entered 300 years back."

Feel native. Youngest southern language is Malayalam, which itself is older than most of the western languages of the current day. Compared to this Hindi is nothing. Infact, Hindi natives should feel proud of having such living heritage in the Union.

As said in this article, it is impossible to go back to old days. Hindi will never be accepted as an Indian Language. And as India progresses, it will be more like EU.

Jockey said...


Good points. I'd say Hindi entered the South only 50 years back!

Unknown said...

I am highly concerned about making sure that the translations we do are properly localized within India. We go a long way to work with people who believe as we do - that local langauges should be preserved and nurtured. Thank you for this informative historical piece.


Unknown said...

Language is the heart of any culture. Having all native languages active would only truly represent what "Unity in diversity". When Indians fought British for their freedom, they did not see religion, language, race etc. Without getting i to politics, let me tell you that insisting Hindi as an offical language in a country that has multiple beautiful languages is insane and politically motivated.

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