Parliament Session Reignites ‘One Nation, One Language’ Debate Amid Hijab Row

Parliament Session Reignites ‘One Nation, One Language’ Debate Amid Hijab Row
People in Kolkata protesting against Amit Shah's proposal of 'one nation, one language' in 2019 | Representational image source: Reuters

Last week, during the question hour session in the Lok Sabha, DMK MP A. Ganeshamurthi posed a question regarding FDI inflow to Union Minister of Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal. The MP missed the translation while Goyal replied in Hindi, and asked him to repeat in English. “You’ll hear the translation in your headphones, and I can reply in any language I want,” said Goyal, refusing the demand to speak in English. 

It didn’t take long for the MPs from Tamil Nadu and ministers from the opposition present in the meeting to get triggered and start protesting against what Goyal said. Meanwhile, Speaker Om Birla tried calming them down in English, stating, “You’ll get the translation.” 

Amidst the altercation, Ganeshamurthi also pointed out that he has already given a notice to the House to speak in Tamil, obliging to the rule, which says, “Any MP who wants to speak in a language other than English or Hindi must give notice before the commencement of the session so that arrangements for the translation could be made.”

The Bahujan Samajwadi Party’s Danish Ali was one among many who stood up and said, “Is desh mai one nation, one language nahi chalega,” (one nation, one language will not work in the country). Several MPs from Tamil Nadu stood in support of MP Ganeshamurthi. The Congress also didn’t back down from attacking the BJP, and said that the government has an “arrogant attitude towards Tamil Nadu”.

Monolingualism And The UCC In India 

India is known for multiculturalism. People from diverse backgrounds, religions, and cultures are on a perpetual search for common denominators. They are known to build bridges and unify different communities. Language is merely a popular instrument used by governments to put forth an idea of unifying the masses.

There’s a huge disagreement among scholars about whether a monolingual nation will lead to development and improved functioning of the administration. 

People in favour of monolingualism believe that language is a unique identifier that will bring masses together. The first president of independent India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, is usually quoted to bring gravity to their claim. Dr Prasad had said, “A country that does not take pride in its language and literature can never progress.” 

Historically, several attempts have been made to bind people together through the imposition of a common language. During British reign, English became the main mode of communication and an integral part of the higher education curriculum and administrative communication. 

Politicians from the north viewed English as a foreign language and argued that it should be quashed from the administrative framework of the country. On the other hand, southern India politicians were in favour of English becoming a common mode of communication. This subsequently created a divide and gave rise to the never-ending discourse of picking a ‘common language for India’. 

France is known for holding on to its common language for a long time. This was not the case initially, but the gradual implementation of strict policies and regulations over time resulted in French becoming the most spoken language in France. In comparison to the European nations, India is very diverse as a country, and applying those concepts here seems like a logical impossibility. 

Language is more than just a tool for communication. Having a proper framework pertaining to the languages of the country is crucial for better formation of policies and uniformity in the country, ultimately leading to growth.

The concern with the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code is very similar to that of monolingualism for India: conflict of ideologies. A precursor of possible reactions can already be seen in the ongoing hijab row.

In a nutshell, the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) means a uniform and secular personal law for the citizens. It’s supposed to transcend all the personal laws that are believed to be fragmented throughout various religious communities and govern interpersonal issues, which creates internal conflict.

Article 44 of the Constitution states, “the State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code (UCC) throughout the territory of India.” But the possibility of the implementation of UCC has received severe backlash from various groups of the country, the majority of which believe that it’s violative of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. 

In an interview with The Sparrow, Ms Humera Niyazi, a Delhi-based legal consultant sheds some light on the issue pertaining to the language debate and UCC in India. 

Q: What are the constitutional provisions regarding the official languages?

The Constitution recognises 22 languages in the 8th Schedule. With regards to the official language of the Union, it is Hindi (in Devanagari script) that is mentioned in Article 343. It is imperative to clarify that Hindi, as mentioned above, is recognised for the Union. When it comes to the states, Article 347 gives the President the power to recognise a language as an official language of a given state, provided that the President is satisfied that a substantial proportion of that state desires that the language be recognised. Such language for the state can be recognised either for the entire state or for a part of it.

Q: Do you think that the English language is considered superior to other languages of the country? If yes, why is that the case?

It is indeed true that a certain privilege and status is attached to the English language in Indian society. While the roots of this thought process may be traced to colonisation, it stands true in today’s era as well, and has more to do with social conditioning than anything else.

Q: Does India need Hindi to unify the masses?

Unity comes with thought, not with speaking the same language. My question here would be, how unified are the people in the Hindi speaking belt? 

The Constitution, at the time when it was made, recognised India’s diversity not only in religious beliefs but also in language and culture, and the provisions manifest that accommodative approach. We have the northeast, north, south, west, all regions with different languages, and to the extent that languages change into different dialects even within such smaller divisions. Imposing anything which should otherwise be a matter of personal/religious/social choice is wrong.

The Constitution recognises 22 languages and even when it comes to the states, does not impose a certain language, chosen by a select few.

Q: As a country, are we ready for a Uniform Civil Code?

Given the deep emotions and values that Indian masses attach with their respective religions, introducing UCC would only leave certain communities feeling oppressed, unheard, and unacknowledged. On a one-to-one level, are you, as a reader, ready to give up on your personal laws? Do you apprehend that the UCC, if implemented, may have certain provisions that would be against what your religion prescribes?

Q: Is the application of the UCC in conflict with Article 25 of the Indian Constitution?

While Article 44 of the Constitution says that the State shall endeavour to secure the UCC, the same is a Directive Principle and not enforceable under law. However, the freedom of religion under Article 25 is a fundamental right. The aim of directive principles is to lead to the betterment of citizens. Given the volatile condition of the Indian society, imposition of UCC would not only create chaos and imbalance but would also be against the fundamental rights of citizens.

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