Geography and India’s Language Debate

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the myriad ways that people come up with to differentiate one from another. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these manufactured (by key “elites”) generalized (because they are) identities are *the* cause of conflict, individuals’ willingness to buy into them certainly don’t help. And as fake and static as these communal (I mean this in the most expansive way possible) identities are, they’re still able to mobilize thousands if not millions of people. Partially the reason these divisions, based on religion, ethnicity, race, class, language and so on, still exist is because they’re simple ways to ensure finite state resources go to designated groups. The designated group is dependent on who the distributor is, and that who is typically the government. Obviously the government itself is made up of individuals from the various population groups and are tied, to varying degrees, to these constituents. The United States and parts of the “West” do a fairly good job of casting the “designated” group net fairly wide. But in the case of the U.S., that government did tolerate, legally, the institution of chattel slavery for almost a decade (and that’s just after independence). Slavery and legalized discrimination (Jim Crow laws) was used by representatives of the “designated” core population group of the United States to maintain power. While these institutions are completely overt, I wonder if the indirect effects of these practices, especially from the 1960s amounts to a de facto segregation (rather than de jure). While this is certainly a (Z) Geography topic, I won’t explore it here.

India, as most know, was (partially) partitioned in 1947 by the departing British imperialists along religious lines. As my posts on Bangladesh illustrate (and source), this a largely a myth other factors (such as economics and partisan politics) also played principle roles. What is less well known (at least in the “West”) is the language divide, principally between Hindi (much of northern India) and southern Indian languages. As you may have guessed finding an “accurate” map of Indian languages is difficult so I offer you two below. The first is based on state boundaries suggesting nice, clean divisions between “Hindi India” and the rest of India. The second map isn’t about Hindi per se but its inclusion under the Indo-Aryan family of languages (here differentiated between Iranian languages and Indic languages). South Indian languages, like Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil, are Dravidian. This map drives home the north-south divide. The first map is meant to illustrate that Hindi is not spoken all over the north.

Language in India, by state (via

Language Families in South Asia (via Johns Hopkins Uni.)

The Constitution of India (Eighth Schedule) lists 22 languages protected by the government ranging from Hindi (with over 200 million speakers) to Bodo (1.4 million), and includes Sanskrit. While Hindi is the “official language” of India, the Government of India is under obligation “for the development of these languages, such that ‘they grow rapidly in richness and become effective means of communicating modern knowledge'” (according to wikipedia). The final wrench is English, the language of the British, which also has been the de facto language of government.

With all of this as a bit of background, the “tug of war over language” in the country made it back to the front pages recently, thanks to a new civil service exam (see the Times of India article). The test requires applicants for the Indian Administrative Service (the IAS, a prestigious government position) and other agencies to take the test in either Hindi or English. This new test replaces the previous test, which allowed applicants to take the test in any of the languages scheduled in the Constitution (the aforementioned Eighth Schedule of 22 languages). However, an applicant *can* take the test in a local language if there are 25 other applicants (presumably for the same position) also taking the test in that language.

This is a tricky issue. On the one hand, there is the necessity for a common, unified language for administration and government. On the other hand, I understand the predicament faced by non-Hindi speakers. They’re educational backgrounds are just as sound in Telugu, Bengali, or Bodo as they would be if they spoke Hindi – in that sense personal merit, not language, should be the deciding factor. Further, why is Hindi *the* official language in the first place? In a country like India, with several population groups and a thousand different ways to differentiate them, its more important to identify the things that bind them together, rather than point out the ways in which they are different. Like Bangladesh, India still has some ways to go before solving its own “state identity crisis”. What makes modern India? Speaking Hindi and English? Or adhering to and providing steadfast support the Constitution?

Sometimes I think that Americans are forgetting this lesson.


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