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Amit Shah Wants Hindi To Be India's Common Language. Here's Why He's Wrong

The BJP's latest push to promote Hindi makes this a good time to revisit the numbers around this contentious issue.

Since coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has frequently been accused of trying to impose Hindi on a country which has 22 official languages and thousands of unofficial ones. The latest fuel to the fire was home minister Amit Shah’s claim on ‘Hindi Diwas’ last week that only Hindi could unite the country.

The remarks riled non-Hindi speakers, especially those from the Southern states. Shah’s own BJP colleague, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, came out strongly against the suggestion, along with Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and political parties in Tamil Nadu. DMK leader MK Stalin has even asked his party cadre to prepare for the next anti-Hindi agitation.

On Wednesday, ANI reported that Shah clarified his remarks, but even this is unlikely to soothe critics. He reportedly said that he never asked for Hindi to be imposed on other languages but for it to be a common second language after one’s mother tongue.

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But a 2017 Mint analysis—written before the 2011 language census numbers were released—showed that the share of people who speak Hindi, despite it not being their mother tongue, actually increased in India between 1991 and 2001 without any state push. It attributed this to factors including migration, popularity of Hindi films and cable TV.

“In fact, had there been attempts to push Hindi through official diktat, the results could have been counter-productive. During the peak of the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, theatres were not allowed to or would not screen Hindi films. Today southern states have become a lucrative market for the Hindi film industry,” it said.

When many people still believe that Hindi is the ‘national language’ of India (it’s not, it’s just one of the official languages of the country), it’s inevitable that the debate goes off into tangents.

One statistic quoted by people supporting Shah’s move was that Hindi is the mother tongue of 44% Indians. This, however, reflects an incomplete understanding of how India conducts the language census.

According to the 2011 census, which was released in 2018, 43.63% of Indians speak Hindi. But various other languages such as Magadhi, Awadhi and Marwari—56 in total—are also counted under the rubric of this official Hindi.

So how many people actually count Hindi—just Hindi, and not these other dialects—as their mother tongue? Only about 26%, The Hindu points out.

Shoaib Daniyal wrote for Scroll last year that “among the 10 largest languages in India, Hindi is the only one that saw the proportion of its speakers rise”.

The Hindi hegemonic project has been slowly eating away several languages in the north as well, Roshan Kishore wrote for Mint Lounge in 2017.

“Much has been written on the pitfalls of forcing the use of Hindi as the national language on non-Hindi states. But what about the hegemonic project which is threatening to subsume the likes of Magadhi and Bhojpuri?” he asked.

Resistance towards Shah’s remarks

Several political leaders, including BJP’s own Yediyurappa, have rejected Shah’s pitch to make Hindi the common language. Yediyurappa said that Kannada is the principal language in Karnataka and its importance would never be compromised.

Actor and Makkal Needhi Maiam president Kamal Haasan warned the Centre that trying to force Hindi on non-Hindi states like Tamil Nadu would have adverse consequences.

“No shah, sultan or samrat should renege” on the promise of unity in diversity when India was made into a republic, he added.

Pinarayi called Shah’s statement “a war cry against the mother tongues of non-hindi speaking people.”

In Tamil Nadu, both the ruling AIADMK and DMK have spoken out against the suggested move. “The AIADMK’s concertised policy is two-language formula for the country. One is regional language for the state and English for intra-state,” AIADMK’s state organisation secretary, C Ponnaiyan, told Moneycontrol.

DMK has announced protests across Tamil Nadu on 20 September to condemn Shah’s Hindi push.

(With PTI inputs)

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact