In the midst of the triple talaq furore, an intervention by Shashi Tharoor, MP, in Parliament seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. The issue came up during Question Hour in the Lok Sabha on January 3 during a Starred Question about the steps taken by the Union government to make Hindi an official language at the United Nations. In the reply given by Union Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, delivered entirely in Hindi, she said the government “continues to take measures for the acceptance of Hindi as one of the official languages of the UN and to popularise Hindi worldwide”. She further assured the House that the government is ready to spend even Rs 400 crore every year to achieve this. If the government were to succeed, Hindi would become the seventh official language of the UN after Arabic, English, Russian, French, Spanish and Chinese.
For Hindi to be accepted as an official language of the UN, it will involve the adoption of a resolution by the General Assembly with a two-thirds majority. At first sight, it appears the government is on a weak legal basis to embark on this complex pursuit to move a resolution to change the official languages of the UN and persuade at least 129 countries to vote in favour of such a resolution. The government has failed to even initiate a discussion on such an important agenda either in Parliament or among the people. It is equally worrying that the minister says the government is ready to foot a bill of Rs 400 crore every year when there is no indication that the finance ministry has accorded the provisional sanction of funds or made any budgetary allocation in this regard over the past two years.
The core issue is whether and why Hindi should be promoted over other languages spoken in India. Article 343 of the Constitution of India deems English and Hindi to be official languages of the Union. There are more than 600 million (close to 60 per cent) non-Hindi speakers in the country, according to the 2001 Census data. There are 22 languages recognised as official languages by the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. There have been repeated requests by non-Hindi speakers to give these languages constitutional status equal to that of English and Hindi. It is ironic that the government is expending significant diplomatic capital trying to place Hindi along with the six official languages of the UN when they have consistently denied equal official language status to the languages in the Eighth Schedule.
The prime minister speaks to the nation on Independence Day and during his weekly radio addresses only in Hindi. On March 31, 2017, the BJP government accepted the recommendation made by the Committee of Parliament on Official Language that “all dignitaries including Hon’ble President and all the ministers especially who can read and speak Hindi may be requested to give their speech/statement in Hindi only”. Public sector banks, the Railways and other Central government-run services are all tacitly being Hindi-ised.
The situation is compounded by the fact that Parliament can itself hardly lay claim to being a multi-lingual institution. Article 120(1) of the Constitution states the speaker “may permit any member who can not adequately express himself in Hindi or in English to address the House in his mother tongue”. Moreover, the Rajya Sabha Handbook indicates that Parliament provides simultaneous interpretation services for Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Oriya, Tamil and Urdu only. When a member speaks in any of these nine languages, the speeches are translated into Hindi and English only. Therefore, a Malayalam-speaker will not have his speech translated to Bengali but only to Hindi and English. Or a member of Parliament representing Central Chennai will not be able to hear a Gujarati speech translated into Tamil but only in either Hindi or English. Compare this with the European Union Parliament in Strasbourg where 23 languages are simultaneously translated into one another.
Without making the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha multilingual and inclusive, any efforts to make Hindi an official language of the UN will renew the fears of non-Hindi speakers. These cumulative events remind us of a question posed by DMK President Karunanidhi, where he wonders if we are living in India or “Hindia”.