Does India have a National Language?

Does India have a National Language?

The language issue is a thorny one. There is no ‘peaceful’ answer to it. No matter, what position you take, someone will come at you with a ton of bricks. Nehru made sure of this when he lobbied for Hindi as the national language. One of the very few arguments made for the ‘nationalism’ of Jawaharlal Nehru was that he argued for a national language; that he lobbied for Hindi. Even those on the ‘right’ agree that in this, at least, our ‘Jawahar’ was a nationalist.

In my view, it was one of the most seditious and divisive acts of Nehru. In one stroke, he made sure that Indians for generations to come will fight over language and linguistic identities and that Sanskrit would never get the status and function that it deserves. Imposing a regional language as national language, even while you have already conceded linguistic states, was idiocy at best.

Ever since Nehru opened this can of worms, politicians and parties ruling the Centre have periodically argued for Hindi as the national language of India. Initially it was to be expected as the politics of Delhi, post-independence had been overwhelmingly dominated by the politicians from the North and particularly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Recently we have found ourselves in the controversy once again.

The question is: does India really have a national language? And is it Hindi? Is Hindi even a legitimate language? Some claim that Hindi is just Sanskritized Urdu. Others claim that Urdu is Arabized Hindi. Which claim is true?

Let me answer the question of whether Hindi is our national language or not. Hindi is not our national language. Any attempt at imposing it all over India, will only add fuel to fire. There are many reasons why it cannot be so. Let us take a look at the languages of the south first.

Evolution of Dialects into Languages

The languages of South are ancient, with even the most recent of them having literature and manuscripts at least a thousand years old. Their vernacular cultures have been evolving and maturing for hundreds of years. Tamil can claim an even longer history. It is perhaps the only language which has a vibrant literary culture alongside Sanskrit for more than two thousand years. It has manuscripts which are in some cases, as old as Sanskrit.

After the classical age ended with the Gupta Empire, the other vernacular cultures in the south and the rest of India, started maturing alongside a still vibrant culture of Sanskrit literature. While much was written in Sanskrit, original pieces began to be created in regional languages.

This is how dialects mature into languages. And also how a common language becomes a literary culture. A dialect becomes sufficiently distinct and rich. Some of its speakers start creating literary pieces in it. The written pieces spread both orally and through scripts, and finally reverse influence the spoken culture. They also achieve a certain level of standardization of vocabulary and patterns of usage, carving out distinct linguistic identities. In a few hundred years, the process is complete and a dialect finally evolves and matures to become a language and a literary culture.

While in the south these linguistic cultures kept evolving almost without interruption, in the North it was brutally interrupted by the Islamic invasions, almost as soon it had begun. The particular viciousness with which Islam persecuted knowledge, burned books and destroyed knowledge centers, ensured that little novel would happen. It was hard enough to preserve the most essential texts of Sanatana Dharma, let alone going on about creating new ones and making new manuscripts. North India became in the middle ages, one single bonfire of manuscripts.

Due to this, the evolution of dialects into mature literary languages that continued in the South was prevented in the North. Those languages which had already developed vernacular cultures before the invasion of Islam and had already branched out into distinct languages due to other geographical and sociological reasons maintained their status, like Bangla and Punjabi. But even their literary cultures were subdued. Compared to southern languages there are very few medieval and ancient manuscripts to be found even in Punjabi. The other dialects in less populated parts of central India, which had not matured into full written cultures were the ones to suffer most.

Islamic disruptions regularly prevented them from creating manuscripts in their dialects which further prevented a regional standardization of literary language within a certain linguistic area, which is necessary for a dialect to become a language. The common man kept speaking these dialects and also kept creating oral literature in these languages but very few great works of written literature were created. Very few manuscripts were created. As a result, these dialects remained loose, in the absence of any standardization.

Sanskrit Culture vs. Persian Hegemony

In the pre-Islamic era, the over-arching umbrella of Sanskrit culture and literature would continuously keep informing local and vernacular cultures and literatures about classical ideas and would even loan words about concepts which were new or philosophical in nature. This two-way process kept the vernacular cultures rich and made Sanskrit the real lingua franca of India. This umbrella of Sanskrit culture kept India culturally unified and linguistically diverse. It simultaneously preserved diversity and ensured unity.

The real tragedy with the advent of Islam in India, as far as the linguistic evolution of languages in India is concerned, is the collapse of the Sanskrit culture in the North. With Persian taking the place of Sanskrit as the language of the court and the aristocracy, the two-way process discussed above, stopped. While Sanskrit was a loving parent which while enriching vernacular cultures, never tried to smother them, the new overlord, Persian, was hostile and violent. It persecuted anything ‘Hindu’, including its languages, dialects and ideas.

In the South, even with the decline of Sanskrit culture, the vernacular languages evolved and became very strong literary cultures soon, with vibrant linguistic identities. In the north, the standardization of regional languages could not be completed. Dialects remained dialects. Some rose and died, without the literary world taking any notice of them. Oral cultures remained oral, divorced with the written culture, which was completely overrun by Persian and Arabic.

The literary polish that a highly evolved language like Sanskrit regularly provides to a vernacular culture stopped and dialects in the north, instead of evolving, started slouching off into simpler tongues. For example, in many forms of ancient Prakrit in the North, the letter ‘sha’ was present. People from regional languages had no difficulty in pronouncing words starting from ‘sh’. However, at present, it has virtually disappeared from many dialects in north and central India, and hence the tragedy of saying ‘suddh’ and not ‘shuddha’!

Most of the regions that speak Hindi now, remained in a kind of fluid state with different dialects semi-understandable by other regions with many common words loaned from Persian and Arabic. While the common man kept speaking regional dialects with hardly any Arabic or Persian words in them, the literary culture gradually became Persianized. Many started writing in Persian instead. Many who wrote even in regional dialects had no choice but to use Persian script in the absence of Sanskrit and Devanagari.

How the Evolution in the North was Aborted by Islam

In the North, the evolution of dialects into language had also started. ‘Prithviraj Raso’ by Kavi Chandbardai, is an interesting example from thirteenth century. Many quote it to be the first literary creation in Hindi. Its date and setting are interesting. Chandbardai was a court poet of Prithviraj Chouhan, with whose defeat, Islamic destruction in India earnestly began.

After the Second Battle of Tarain, Islamic armies destroyed thousands of manuscripts and much of written literature in different dialects in and around Delhi, Kannauj and many other regions in the North perished. This era, called ‘AdiKaal’ of Hindi literature by historians has hardly any other great epics in a language similar to that of ‘Prithviraj Raso’. There are few other poems and literary works but they lack the standardization of syntax and diction that had started to become regular in the south by then.

In the south, under Delhi Sultanate, Dakkhini or Hindavi was used. Wedged between north and south it had great impact on the evolution of Hindi later on. Refusing to learn regional languages, the Delhi Sultanate invented a pidgin language, bastardized from many dialects in the North, Persian and Arabic. It was written in Persian script. Most of the poets from this region, in this era were Muslims and we can choose to call their language Hindi or not, but it was written in Persian script and very different from what is proper Hindi now. Even today Hyderabadi Hindi is only funnily associated with Hindi proper. Most of the ‘literary creations’ in this Hindi are comic troupes.

The Bhakti Era saw many creations in the North. Goswami Tulsidas was matchless in content, language and skill. His influence can still be felt vibrantly in the North. But can we really call ‘Ramcharitmanas’ to be in Hindi? There is no scientific standard with which to judge when does a dialect become a language. They generally measure it by the scale of divergence of vocabulary. One scale says that if more than 50% (the scale varies from 40% to 60%) of the words in a particular dialect are different from its mother language, then it has become a different language.

Going by that yardstick, ‘Ramcharitmanas’ would be in Awadhi, a language, close to Hindi, but not quite. He wrote Vinay Patrika, another of his great creations, in Braj Bhasha. The Riti Kavya Kaal (18th and 19th centuries) was the era in which manuscripts with Hindi language and Devanagari started emerging properly.

All this while, the spoken language in various areas in the North kept incorporating many words from Arabic and Persian but poets tried hard not to include them in literary works. Things changed with the rise of Munshi Premchand in modern era, who made it a point to use Arabic and Persian words profusely in his stories and novels. His immense popularity meant that his version of Hindi with Arabic and Persian littered profusely would become more popular amongst the next generation.

It is interesting to note that Premchand first wrote in Urdu. Only when the British confiscated his creations in Urdu and also his pen name ‘Nawab Rai’, that he started to write in Hindi under another pen-name Premchand. Though he changed the script, he barely changed the language and his Hindi remained well infused with Persian and Arabic loanwords.

On the other hand, with the rise of the national movement in mid-19th century, a movement started to build up to cleanse Hindi of all Arabic and Persian. Great literary figures like Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, Mathili Sharan Gupt and then Jayshankar Prasad, more than anyone else, helped creating a Hindi which was much closer to Sanskrit. Completing the long due process of homogenization and standardization of Hindi, they also removed the influence of Persian and Arabic from it.

Many other poets and authors used this ‘Sanskritized Hindi’ rather than ‘Hindustani Hindi’ of Premchand. Later on leaders of nationalist organizations and institutions made it a point to use this ‘Sanskritized Hindi’ in their discourses.

Is Hindi ‘Sanskritized Urdu’?

So where does all of this leave us? We shall revisit the questions asked early on.

While definitions of what exactly constitutes a language are not scientific, we can safely say that Hindi is a real language. It is a not a bastardized version of various languages in the north. The process of standardization and evolution of a dialect into a language started with Hindi too. ‘Prithviraj Raso’ is a testimony of that. But it soon got aborted and kept getting interrupted over many centuries until the 19th century provided much needed respite and evolutionary boost to it.

Hindi is not ‘Sanskritized Urdu’. Indian linguistic traditions in the north were always informed by Sanskrit culture. It was just that in the Middle Ages, this process was interrupted brutally by Islam and a hostile Persian culture forced many Arabic and Persian words into dialects that constituted Hindi. When India woke up again, India’s nationalistic leaders cleansed Hindi of the Arabic and Persian corruptions in the 19th century. Every nation, when it wakes up to its identity, does the same. Rather than using the phrase ‘Sanskritized Hindi’, ‘Sanskrit-informed’ or ‘Sanskrit-conducive’ Hindi would be a better phrase. Looking at history from this view, all Indian languages were ‘Sanskrit-informed’. In modern times, Hindi just came back to it.

It is sad that the Sanskrit-conducive tradition became a minority one post-independence. The popularity of Munshi Premchand made Persianized Hindi famous. Gandhi promoted the same under the name of ‘Hindustani’. To add tragedy to it, the official religion of Congress party, secularism, went hand in hand with ‘Hindustani’ and ‘Urdu’ culture. As a result, Hindi in the modern era became bastardized by Arabic, Urdu and increasingly English.

While Nehru pushed Hindi on to other linguistic states, he pushed Urdu, Arabic and English into Hindi. The level of bastardization of Hindi now is unprecedented. Even in the Islamic era, and even the common man had taken care to steer clear of the ‘mlechha’ words. Now we have lost all sense of discrimination.

In 21st century when India rises once again and reaches for its traditional roots, the umbrella of Sanskrit culture should once again inform vernacular cultures. While the languages in the South are already ‘Sanskrit-informed’ or ‘Sanskrit-conducive’, spoken Hindi in the north is brutally bastardized and increasingly so with every passing year. However, the other tradition of ‘Sanskrit-informed’ Hindi is still alive, albeit in minority circles. We should strive hard to make this the new mainstream. We should strive to make Hindi less English, Urdu or Persian in vocabulary and more Sanskrit.

Is Hindi our national language?

Having said all this, is Hindi our national language? Does its location in the north, around the national capital, give it an edge over other languages? Does the fact that it has the largest number of speakers in India, give it an edge over other languages?

In business, maybe. It does make sense to have a connecting language for common people, which makes it easier for people of different regions to conduct business when they come together. Having the largest number of speakers, it should be the logical choice for the business lingua franca. Bollywood, unwittingly, has helped Hindi’s cause in this case.

But it is obviously not our national language. It has no cultural advantage over other languages of the South. If anything, in its current spoken form in the North, it is indeed bastardized by English most of all and also by Urdu and Persian. Try saying two paragraphs without using, ‘jaroori’ or ‘jyada’. Try giving respect to someone without using ‘Ji’. Why would people of the South, who have great and vibrant linguistic cultures, with ‘Sanskrit-informed’ vocabulary, accept something like modern Hindi? And why should they? This should be very clear while going about this debate.

Does India have a national language at all?

And finally, the million-dollar question. Does India have a national language at all? Which would be the language while talking about ‘One nation; One Language’. While it would also necessitate discussion on the nature of ‘nation’, it is beyond the scope of this article. Let us just assume that India is a cultural nation. And thus, the language connecting it, should also be the one promoting its culture and its powerhouse of wisdom.

There is no other candidate for this other than Sanskrit. Sanskrit has always been India’s lingua franca when it came to culture, civilization and literature. And Sanskrit did all this with the loving care of a mother. It nurtured and enriched vernacular cultures while informing and evolving them. Never in India’s history did Sanskrit try to destroy vernacular languages or cultures.

On the other hand, we can easily see that wherever Islam went, its armies destroyed the local languages and except few exceptions like Persia, these local languages were completely wiped out and even in case of Persian, it was heavily Arabized in vocabulary and the script was changed to Arabic. Nothing of the sort was ever seen in India. So any fears of ‘Sanskritization’ are nothing but symptoms of linguistic secularism.

India does have a national language. But it is not Hindi. It is Sanskrit. And before you balk on implementing such a ‘difficult and dead language’, remember the case of Hebrew. It was a thousand times deader than Sanskrit when Israel was created. People are speaking it fluently as I write these words!

Featured Image: News18

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Pankaj Saxena

Pankaj Saxena is a scholar of History, Hindu Architecture and Literature. He has visited more than 400 sites of ancient Hindu temples and photographed the evidence. He has been writing articles, research papers and reviews in various print and online newspapers and magazines. He currently works as the Asst. Professor, Centre for Indic Studies, Indus University, Ahmedabad. He has authored three books so far. He maintains a blog at