This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

In most European countries there is a standardised tongue, a language for all, that citizens can speak in both social and administrative capacities, which is often taken for granted. However, what happens when cultural and linguistic divides run so deep that a nation cannot identify its own national language?

This is the issue that India has faced for the better part of its existence. Boasting of over 60 different, unique languages, India faces problems that seldom exist elsewhere in the world. 

A quick Google search will tell you that there are only two languages within India, Hindi and English. Although this statement has some truth behind it, it is a vast over-generalisation that tarnishes a deep history of different cultures moving and settling in India. 

Hindi and English represent the official languages of India – languages used by the government to carry out official business. Although English is sometimes used, the main administrative language is Hindi with a Dravidian script. However, only 31% of Indians speak Hindi as their native tongue, so why does Hindi dominate the public sphere like it does?

To assess these questions, one must look at the different religious and ethnic groups that exist within India.

 A 1910 depiction of Indo-Aryans arriving in India

Hinduism is regarded to be at its strongest in the north of India, where it is believed that Indo-Aryan migration took place between 2000 BCE and 1800 BCE. This resulted in the spread of Aryan people to present-day Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

Migration, partly caused by the creation of the war chariot and the desire to move to warmer climates, introduced new races to India. Much research has been conducted on this group of people and results suggest that they are ‘eastern Aryans ‘ – people with a lighter complexion who moved into an area previously inhabited by darker skinned people.

Although the link between a national language and these groups of migrants seems tenuous at first, Hindu nationalist leaders, when mapping their own history, use this link as an attempt to prove that they have been the inhabitants of the land for thousands of years. Therefore, due to the length of time they have been living in the area and with millions of people speaking Hindi, there is a bigger push for this language to be the national tongue than any other language.

This train of thought clearly has its flaws, but these ideas are deeply rooted at the core of Hindu nationalism and provide a basis for nationalist leaders such as Nehru, Bose, Malviya to push for Hindi to be the national language.

The movement of Indo-Aryans into the area had a profound effect on those who were already living there. Those that spoke with a Dravidian based language were suddenly on the move towards the south, marginalised culturally and physically. 

Territories of India by most commonly spoken first language, 2010

It is no secret that India has struggled and continues to struggle with the divide of the north and the south, culturally, economically and politically. The movement of these groups in India speaks volumes of the origins of these problems. How can a country with thousands of years of in-fighting possibly come together under one common tongue? How is it possible to communicate when there isn’t a medium upon which to do so?

There are, of course, other factors that have led to language divides. Being the deeply religious country that India is, throughout her history, Islam, Hinduism, and to a certain extent Christianity, have all played roles in linguistic differences within the nation.

The tension between Islam and Hinduism, of course, led to the creation of West and East Pakistan (East Pakistan eventually became what is now Bangladesh), however, in terms of linguistic tensions, religion was at the root of many discussions surrounding language between the 1890s to succession and onwards.

Named the Hindi-Urdu Controversy, nationalist leaders from both sides fought for linguistic control in north India, starting a bitter war with both sides being staunch in their views of what should be adopted as the lingua franca. Since Urdu is considered to be the language of Islam, Islamic leaders fought for Islamic rights in areas in the north. 

This is when Gandhi’s viewpoint comes to the fore. He suggests that a mix of both Urdu and Hindi was the way forward – a language known as Hindustani. However, Hindu leaders were quick to bat this idea away as they thought that Hindustani, in terms of religious ceremonies, was too ‘low brow’ and thus Gandhi’s words fell on deaf ears.

In any case, it is clear that language problems in India will not be resolved any time soon. Throughout her history she has struggled with quelling cultural and linguistic tensions in the area. Being such a rich and diverse country, India struggles with satisfying all its groups. 

For many, Hindi will always be seen by the ill-informed as the language of India, but few will know the issues that come with making this assertion. India poses a unique situation in which a country is clearly struggling with defining its own identity. Although this can be seen in many different Indian issues, the issue of language will always be representative of how fractured the nation is.