“Even if a child speaks in his native language until the age of five, the moment he goes to school he automatically picks up Hindi. That is the contact language of the peer group,” says Jumyir Basir about the popularity of Hindi among the people of Arunachal Pradesh. Basir, who teaches Tribal Studies in Rajiv Gandhi University at Itanagar, believes that in Arunachal Pradesh, unlike other northeastern states, Hindi has over time grown to become the lingua franca. In saying this, she was only validating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent assertion during campaigning in the state. Modi had stated if there was a state in the northeast where Hindi was spoken widely, it was “my Arunachal”.
“If you travel to Arunachal Pradesh for a day, you will hear more Jai Hind than you will hear after travelling the entire country for a week,” he had said.
The popularity of Hindi in Arunachal Pradesh has been well documented in the past few years. About 90 per cent of the state’s population can speak the language and Hindi is used among other languages during debates in the state legislative assembly as well. According to the most recent language survey carried out by renowned language critic G.N. Devy in 2010, Arunachal Pradesh is home to around 90 local languages. Yet, the state’s preference for Hindi as a common language over its many local languages sets it apart from its Northeastern sister states where the preference for the native language is known to be very strong. “Unlike other northeastern states, we did not have a language movement here because all of us speak different dialects. In my own community I might converse in my own language but if I have to converse with someone from some other tribe, I have to use a contact language. Therefore Hindi has become like a lingua franca,” says Basir.
Ironically, it is the presence of a large number of native languages in Arunachal Pradesh that is the key reason behind Hindi gaining currency in the state. However, historical and political factors have also played a role in spreading the predominantly North Indian tongue across the Northeastern state.
The breakaway from Assam
At the time of India’s Independence, the present territory of Arunachal Pradesh was part of the tribal areas of Assam. It was renamed as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in 1951. Between 1950 and 1965, the area was administered by the Governor of Assam who worked as an agent of the President of India under the Ministry of External Affairs. During this period, the medium of instruction in all educational institutions was Assamese.
However, in 1965, the NEFA was removed from under the administration of the Governor of Assam and placed under the Ministry of Home Affairs, in 1972 the NEFA was turned into the union territory of Arunachal Pradesh and in 1978 it gained recognition as a full-fledged state. The breakaway from Assam was not peaceful and border disputes between the two states remain a regular affair till today.
In fact, since the time the administration of the state changes hands, there has also been widespread opposition to Assamese being used as the medium of instruction in education. In the absence of a common native language, English and Hindi were introduced as mediums of instruction in educational institutions and that remains to be the case till date. “The use and development of tribal languages in education in Arunachal Pradesh was very much restricted, though recently some attempts are being made for the development and use of the major tribal languages like Adi, Nocte, Apatani, Nishi, etc,” writes linguist Hans R. Dua in his work, “Linguistic minorities in India”.
The Chinese aggression and armed occupation
The popularity of Hindi in the state also needs to be seen in the context of the volatile politics of its geographical location. Arunachal Pradesh was right at the heart of the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. The presence of the Indian Army in the state during the period is deemed to be one of the first instances when Hindi was introduced here.
“The Army came with Hindi, they conversed in Hindi. In many ways, the army did provide some kind of service, in terms of opening of schools, hospitals etc. Therefore, it was imperative for the local community to understand Hindi to have some form of interaction,” says Basir. She went on to suggest that the Chinese aggression in the region could have also influenced the language policy of the Indian government. “I feel that Hindi was introduced here for the integration of the then NEFA into the larger nation-state,” she says. However, such a suggestion is a possibility but remains hard to verify.
While the exact reason behind the extensive use of Hindi among the people of Arunachal Pradesh remains debatable, a significant fallout of the same has been the gradual dying out of several native languages in the state. In 2017, a survey carried out by the UNESCO reported 33 languages of the state as endangered, out of which four were enlisted as being on the verge of extinction. In recent times, however, there have been some efforts at documentation and preservation of local languages of the state, which are being feared to be wiped away for want of a common language.