This upset the Gods who scrambled their languages so that people couldn’t understand each other and got scattered around the world. Language can be a great unifier, or dividing force. This is why it’s important to consider Chief Minister Stalin’s move to make all languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which includes Tamil, as the Union Government’s administrative and official languages. Stalin had alluded to his father, DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi’s efforts to grant the status of a classical language to Tamil, a notification for which was issued in 2004, by the erstwhile Congress-led UPA government.
The question of granting an administrative language status to Dravidian languages has risen in the backdrop of a flashpoint that highlighted the North-South divide clearly. Last week, a state-run hospital in New Delhi grabbed headlines when it issued a circular instructing its nursing employees to refrain from speaking Malayalam at the workplace. The circular had been issued after a complaint was received that a majority of patients and colleagues did not understand Malayalam at the hospital, which was causing a lot of inconvenience. After criticism was levelled at the hospital for its narrow-minded approach to employees, the circular was withdrawn. The Kerala Chief Minister also said it was unacceptable for civilised society to divide employees based on language and culture.
Such levels of discrimination on the basis of language are not isolated instances. Last year, Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi found herself flustered at the Hyderabad Airport when she was asked by security personnel if she was an Indian, on account of her not being able to speak Hindi. Similarly, during an Aayush meet held during the peak of the pandemic last year, the mode of instruction was Hindi, which went completely over the heads of the contingent from Tamil Nadu, who decided to boycott the event.
At the centre of this debate on the need for officiating languages for administrative use, lies an important question. How does the Centre decide upon what language can be used for official communications in a country of over 1.4 bn people with 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects under each language? A majority of official communications passed around India is in English, which has essentially become the lingua franca of the world.
Having said that, there is a clear need in India to build consensus around minimising hesitation when it comes to the adaptation of languages from different parts of the country. For instance, Hindi is the language that can be used for communication in pretty much all parts of India, more predominantly the northern and western belts. But all you need to do is try hiring an autorickshaw in Chennai to see how rapidly the tone of the driver might change if you happen to negotiate on the fare in Hindi.
And it’s a quid pro quo situation in the north where senior journalists have often reported how they have attracted unsolicited attention from miscreants when they were found conversing in Dravidian languages in public transport setups.
Both the Centre and States need to meet at a middle ground and make a proper assessment of the effort made to promote languages intrinsic to the state and languages beyond it - both in a cultural and administrative sense. In a multi-cultural nation such as India that prides itself on its unity in diversity aspect, let us not allow something as fundamental as language, to become a casualty of needless bias and bigotry.