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Idea of one country, one language was bequeathed to us by colonialists

Unlike in the past when the Hindi Divas would go by rather uneventfully, the day got special attention this year. Tweeting in Hindi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said: “Today, if one language can do the work of uniting the country, then it is the most spoken language, Hindi. There is so much influence of English on us that we cannot talk in Hindi without its help.” The minister also said that people should realise that if languages are lost to foreign influence, “we will be severed from our culture”.

Do we then assume that after 72 years of independence, the country is not united enough? What is it that divides India that the country needs a unifying factor that can only be a language? And does that language have to be Hindi?

For a country that often ascribes all its ills to colonialism, it is strange that India needs to subscribe to a very European notion — one country, one language. The idea that a language represents a nation is one of colonialism’s gifts to us. The complex process of modern nation building in colonial countries involved questions of cultural unity. How could a country claim historical and cultural continuity, stretching back to centuries, other than through language, especially its written form? Language and literature held the key to this project of cultural continuity from a unique and great past. Almost all European nations had such projects, which they bequeathed to the nations they colonised. Despite having several languages and dialectal differences, European nations adopted their national languages through an elitist and exclusionary project. Today, this idea of linguistic unity is being contested from several quarters, including by immigrants from India. There are, of course, exceptions like Switzerland which has been a relatively stable country for long without ever having a single national language.

It is ironic that our animosity towards English makes us blind to the fact that English gave us the idea of a singular nation: One nation, one language. At no time in the history of the Subcontinent was there a need to showcase national unity through one language or one culture until after colonialism.


Written by | Sowmya Dechamma | Indian Express

Updated: September 20, 2019