NEW DELHI: On May 31, the Union Ministry of what is called Human Resource Development published a draft new National Education Policy on its website, causing instant and widespread uproar.

The proposal that raised the most controversy was the long contested “three language formula” which would mandate compulsory education in Hindi and English, and a third language “of the student’s choice” – the region’s language.

Reacting to the vehement opposition to this proposal, especially in Tamil Nadu, the recently reelected union government on 3 June revised the draft somewhat.

The proposed rule now is that students may change one or more of their three languages in Class 6 or 7, “so long as they still demonstrate proficiency in three languages (one language at the literature level) in their modular Board examinations sometime during secondary school.”

But protests continue to roil the non-Hindi majority of Indians, with politicians terming the proposal a “back door” to imposing Hindi as an official language. And the Indian social media landscape is still churning with strong opposition to the policy, as #HindiIsNotTheNationalLanguage trends on Twitter and other platforms.

Why the stink? According to Aditi Ghosh, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Calcutta, the attempt to impose Hindi on a national scale is not a new trend. Even before independence, Indians presented such streams of thought, which were and continue to be rooted in the ideology called nationalism.

“This ideology essentially believes that to be a united nation, we must have a monoculture – a single culture, language, religion, and a single way of life,” said Ghosh.

But do we have to be uniform in order to be united? “Sociocultural and political unity are two different things. And even if you speak the same language, and have the same religion or habits, conflict is still probable.”

According to Apoorvanand, a professor of Hindi at Delhi University, “The three-language formula was developed in a context when India was being created and national integration was a big task at hand. The purpose of this formula was integrative, and the idea was that people in different regions would learn the language of others. But to put the burden of national integration onto the shoulders of children is a bit much.”

Apoorvanand believes that implementing a three language formula which makes Hindi compulsory (initially suggested by the Communist Party of India during the 1966 language agitation in the state of Madras) is deeply flawed.

“The 50 year history of the formula tells us something. In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and other Hindi speaking states the expectation of studying other regions’ languages under the three-language formula has always been circumvented by teaching Sanskrit instead.

“This has made a mockery of the formula. In contrast, in Kerala and Karnataka, as well as in Bengal, you will find a huge number of people who can speak Hindi. But in north India there is a refusal to even try and learn other languages.

“The important question is, does the education policy document grapple with such pertinent questions? If not, then what good is it? We need to focus more on the ground reality of things,” Apoorvanand told The Citizen.

The consequences of imposing Hindi on non-Hindi speakers extend beyond politics and formal education. “The tendency to associate language with national identity has led to pejorative epithets like Madrasi. As long as this happens, prejudices - which have to be combated in language - will continue to prevail.

“The teaching of language has to somehow be separated from identity, which means that we probably need to reinvent ourselves as a nation - to reinvent our national identity itself. That, to my mind, is the greatest challenge before educationists and policymakers today,” Prem Kumar Vijayan, who teaches English at Hindu College, told The Citizen.

Many scholars believe that the very idea of a single national language is deeply problematic. According to Karen Gabriel, head of the Department of English at St Stephen’s College, “Historically, the nation-state has been formed along an idea of religion, language, and sometimes even race. But these models of nation-formation have not necessarily proved very successful.

“In the case of India, we have a unique means of nation-formation which used none of these as the basis. India is formed as a unified territory with heterogeneity as its primary basis of identity. I see no reason to disturb that.

“The current move, coming as it is from a BJP government and from the RSS as well, is part of the old slogan of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, which has the additional element of a kind of hegemony to be imposed by instituting Hindi as a national language.”

Gabriel further believes that among the most important and least discussed problems stemming from the imposition of Hindi occurs in translation. “The untranslatability of certain words is a major issue. Words are not to be regarded as mere bearers of meaning, or mechanical ways of communication - they are actually bearers of thought, of culture, of an entire history.

“There is a consistent refusal in India to adopt Hindi as the language, because it becomes instrumental in a cultural genocide of sorts. Any linguist will tell you there is an unfortunate situation where many languages are dying in India because they are not being preserved, as some communities are slowly being culturally decimated or simply being overwhelmed by other forms of culture.

“For the state to actively promote ways of diminishing the number of languages we have, rather than fostering them, is a serious problem,” Gabriel told The Citizen.

Besides the clearly stated linguistic ideology of present-day policymakers, Aditi Ghosh remarked the overwhelming reason for the ineffectiveness and inapplicability of most education policies in India.

”Due attention must be given to the attitudes of parents and students, who have, for a long time, held an ideal of education that is oriented towards material output. Once a language is seen as insignificant in the job market, the question is raised of why it is necessary to learn it. This is an unfortunate development, as children should open their minds, and realise that not everything has to have a functional value. There is a life outside jobs, careers and professions,” Ghosh told The Citizen.

“As an alternative, the teaching of a non-dominant language, in all parts of the country, is a good idea. Endangered languages could be considered, even made compulsory,” she suggests.

Meanwhile, Karen Gabriel believes that learning an equality of multiple languages can be fruitful, if it is made viable for everyone, including non-Hindi speakers. ”Even though the HRD Ministry has gone back on the stand that Hindi is not to be made compulsory, there is a degree of non-seriousness about this move.

“The adoption of Hindi as a subsidiary language, and making it mandatory for students to have some working knowledge of it, has already been done at the college level, because of which non-Hindi speaking students have had to struggle,” Gabriel says.

“This has, of course, got to do with a larger problem with the higher education policy: even though it’s called the Choice Based Credit System, there’s hardly any choice. A delimited choice is what the government places priority on.

“I have had students from the North East in my own college, who haven’t gotten their degrees, because they didn’t clear the compulsory Hindi paper. This is, in a very sly way, putting pressure onto students who want to move out of their states, to study Hindi in school and to compromise their mother tongue, which will only spell disaster.”

These are some of the veiled currents, behind hegemonising certain languages - making them transparent, invisible things that can only be accepted - and imposing them on the children of others.

There is a need to see the anti-Hindi “sentiments” of so many Indians as a legitimate political position, born of real, pertinent questions of existential richness, the survival and growth of one's cultures and identities, and the principles of freedom and equality in a diverse India, that will not be wished away.