A classroom with Indian elementary school students in blue uniforms, sitting at rows of desks.

Anthropology: Multilingualism and Post-Colonialism in India

Language has become a strong factor in defining people’s place and status in the world, representing (among many things) their loyalty to a larger group identity. More than just an identity-marker, however, language can also be transformed into a political and economic tool in order to regulate societal boundaries and hierarchies. This manipulation of language becomes an especially multifaceted phenomenon in a country with a diverse and heterogeneous population — a country such as India. A nation with not only a complicated cultural history but also a linguistic one, India has the second-largest population in the world. Among this population, hundreds of regional languages and dialects are spoken and exchanged and lead to multilingualism. 

It is here, in this South Asian subcontinent, where language ideologies play out in the form of national language debates, and society is hierarchized by value-based policies. The consequences of these ideologies continue to perpetuate a societal division based on a mindset of language purity. At the same time, English has played a crucial role in the post-colonial formation of India’s national identity. The culmination of these language discourses in India reveal the wide-reaching effects multilingualism has in our increasingly globalized world today.

A map of India showing where each language is spoken by region.
There is a large variety of regional languages spoken throughout India; Image source: Guide to indian tourism

National Language as an Ideology

The concept of a national language is constructed in order to build up the idea of a singular nation, and it functions as a connecting link between the people that live within its borders. Because of this, a national language promotes an ideology of homogeneity, one that is essential to strengthen cultural unity and the existence of a singular, integrated nation-state. A national language ideology is not without its faults, however. In India, the push for a national language is problematized by the amount of diversity in languages spoken. Choosing one language to be the national language of India ends up suppressing the minority tongues, and leads to resistance from non-national language speakers. 

An illustration of different people talking to each other, with colorful speech bubbles above their heads.
A national language could connect people together, but also could overlook diversity within a nation; Image source: Stanford News – Stanford University

The government’s top-down national language policy is therefore taken as a form of oppression for minority ethnic groups in India. Florian Coulmas, in “What is a national language good for?”, explains that such conflicts are common in developing countries (such as India), where the central government is still trying to figure out a way to accommodate people speaking minority languages as their mother tongue while still maintaining a uniform way to communicate. Read Coulmas’s piece here! This battle between the ideology of nationalism and the diversity of ethnic groups in India results in a complicated question.  What is the best way to preserve a national identity without erasing sub-identities within the nation?

Gandhi’s Solution

The answer to this question was tackled by Mahatma Gandhi, a leader of the Indian Revolutionary Movement of the late 19th century CE and the 20th century CE. Gandhi rejected the “colonizer’s language”, English, as the national language of India because in his eyes it did not serve as a reliable medium of religious, economic, and political communication across the country. Instead, he preferred the speech of the majority, Hindi, due to its widespread use and ease of learning for government officials. You can read more about Gandhi’s thoughts on India’s national language here

This brings up the problem of those outside of the majority: do they have to learn Hindi in order to be a part of the newly independent nation, even if it isn’t their mother tongue? For Gandhi, the answer is yes. He argues that the costs minority groups have to face in order to have a strong Indian national identity are justifiable, saying, “We have a right to appeal to their patriotic spirit and expect them to put forth special effort to learn Hindi”. This view demonstrates an unreasonable expectation of homogeneity in India, especially when it is achieved by valuing certain languages above others. While Hindi might be valuable for the majority, Gandhi’s proposed solution overlooks the significance that other regional languages play for minority groups within the nation. In rejecting the oppression of English, then, this solution is in turn oppressing the non-Hindi speakers of the country.

A black-and-white picture of Mahatma Gandhi from the waist up.
Mahatma Gandhi promoted Hindi as a national language of India instead of English; Image source: The Hindu BusinessLine

Diglossia in Indian Society

This dual oppression has resulted in a strong presence of diglossia in the Indian social system. Diglossia is when there is a High (H) language used in formal or religious situations, while a Low (L) language(s) is present and unregulated in vernacular, daily settings. Read about diglossia here! The H-language is therefore one associated with the majority or higher classes, for example Hindi and Sanskrit speakers in India, while L-languages are relegated to the periphery and lower (non-Brahmin) classes. Therefore, diglossia allows society to deal with the tension between diversity and unity in India. 

The system acknowledges the heterogeneity of language in the nation, but still maintains separation between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” languages. In his article “Indian linguistic culture and the genesis of language policy in the subcontinent”, Harold Schiffman states that this diglossia in India was inevitable since it is rooted in a value-based linguistic culture. Explore Schiffman’s article here. Since H-languages are seen as more “valuable” in society, India’s diglossia presents a clear case where linguistic diversity and classification become “a product of the [hierarchical] culture”.

A yellow railway sign with Hindi, English, and Arabic script saying "Rudauli" and a train on the right side.
The Rudauli railway station sign shows an example of diglossia in India, where both formal and vernacular languages are used; Image source: Wikipedia

The Driving Forces of Hierarchy

Schiffman’s argument therefore ties Gandhi’s prioritization of Hindi over other Indian languages, forming a diglossia, to the concept of purity as a driving force of hierarchization in the Indian linguistic culture. The oral spoken tradition of Hinduism places great importance in speaking and transmitting Sanskrit as a way of communicating with the gods. As a result, Hindu religious influences play a large role in the integration of purity into language attitudes: when people are concerned with preserving sacred texts, they are by extension trying to preserve the purity of the Sanskrit language as well. Those who are able to lay claim to the language, then, also derive religious and social authority from it.

A stack of books that with flowers on the top, and Sanskrit text inside.
The Vedas of Hinduism are recited in Sanskrit, considered to be the purest language in the Aryan linguistic hierarchy; Image source: Vedicfeed

Religious purity and tradition not only fuel India’s value-based hierarchy, but also frame the way people classify and categorize each other based on language. Schiffman explains this phenomenon by saying that “Although the Aryans saw themselves at the top with all other peoples and languages in an undifferentiated mass…those below them…applied the same dichotomy to themselves and people/languages they felt were below them”. We can see here that the hierarchy was not just created by those at the “top” (H-language speakers), but also propagated through all levels of society by different L-language speakers. This demonstrates how labels of “standard” and “substandard” are applied to languages from a very egocentric mindset — all language attitudes are determined from the perspective of those who see their own language or dialect to be better than others in some way.

A Counter-Movement: The Case of Tamil

Since the Indian language hierarchy is preserved by groups wanting to distinguish themselves from others, minority communities emphasize their own unique identity and traditions in response to the devaluing of their languages. One such community speaks Tamil, an indigenous language in the south of India. The biggest pushback against the prioritization of the Aryan tradition in India has been the Tani Tamil Iyakkam movement. This post-colonial movement emphasizes the pride that the Tamil community has in the language, especially in how it is different from the Aryan identity. Read more about the movement here!

This pride also connects to how language in India acts as the medium of transmission of culture, tying the importance of language to the preservation of culture. By highlighting Tamil as worthy of cultural transmission, the Tamil community used the movement to resist the peripheralization of Tamil within the national language debate. The Sanskritization of Hindi made it inaccessible to non-Hindi speakers, but the case of Tamil shows that these regional groups fought, and continue to fight, for equality of representation and language value in Indian society.

Carvings of ancient Tamil script on stone, in horizontal lines.
The Tamil language, one of the oldest in the world, is a symbol of pride used to counter Hindi nationalism in India; Image source: Britannica

Decolonizing English in Post-Colonial Contexts

These questions of national language, diglossia, and hierarchy were brought into clear focus especially in the post-colonial period of Indian history. This was a time for India to establish its autonomy and identity, and to figure out the role that English would play in its society. Despite Gandhi’s fervent protest against English as a national language, the reality was that India needed to rely on English to achieve stability after independence. This irony that exists around the world — newly independent governments of the Third World were forced to recognize the practicality and efficiency of using the colonizing language. 

A classroom with Indian elementary school students in blue uniforms, sitting at rows of desks.
English has become crucial in post-colonial Indian society, and is taught in schools as part of the Indian identity; Image source: Harvard Political Review

Since India needed to urgently create a national language to mark its independence and find a way to manage its ever-growing population, the government made use of the already-present infrastructures and regulations set in place by the colonial British government. Therefore, the colonizing language itself became crucial in India’s “re-nationalization”, and transformed into a vital part of the decolonized country’s heritage and linguistic history. The fact that English (which is currently one of the 22 official languages of the country) became repurposed by India displays that the language policies in a nation are heavily dependent on structural functionality as well, in addition to nationalist ideologies. When India naturally decolonized English over time, the language became not just a way to sustain the ease of communication among the state’s population, but also ended up strengthening India’s own political autonomy and national identity in a post-colonial India context.

Multilingualism and the “Three-Language Formula”

With the continuing persistence of English in Indian society, India emerges as a nation even more multilingual than before. It therefore becomes more apparent that homogeneity would not be an effective solution to this unity in diversity paradox. Instead of aiming for social harmony through homogenizing the population and the language that people speak, India has to look for another way to bring together its population into a singular national entity. It is at this point where multilingualism itself shifts from being perceived as an obstacle for social and cultural integration, into a tool for making India a globalized and multilingual nation. 

A solution presented itself in the “Three-Language Formula”: the secondary school system of India became a site for educating the future youth in a multilingual setting. Within this government policy, English and Hindi are taught to all students, and the local language (such as Tamil) is added on as a third language. You can learn about the “Three Language Formula” here. Through this method, multilingualism is incorporated into the educational structure of the nation, and becomes a way to spread this language ideology. The “Three-Language Formula” accounts for diversity and allows for multilingualism, but it also leads to a fractured conception of national language in India. It is this fracturing that has eventually led to English emerging as the main lingua franca across the nation, taking its place as both an international and intranational mode of communication in a multilingual India.

A cartoon illustration of a man holding three colorful book on his back, which show Hindi, Tamil, and English scripts on each of their spines.
The “Three Language Formula” in India attempts to solve the problem of language diversity and difference; Image source: Mangalore Today

English as Capital in a Globalized World

The more languages that are spoken in India, the more it marks its place within a globalized world. It is this linguistic diversity that allows for India to become a competitive source of labor, even though it is in the periphery (and not the core) of the global economy. English is an important language since it acts as economic capital, or value, in the world market. This is not lost on India’s government and economic policy. By educating students in English-medium schools and emphasizing its economic advantages, the government spreads the language ideology of English as the key to success in a globalized world. Those who can speak English well get better, white-collar jobs and English transforms into a minimum (and essential) requirement for success. 

A black-and-white illustration of a man sitting at a desk holding a pen, with a book open upside-down over him and spilling out English letters.
English is seen as the mark of economic opportunity and success in India; Image source: Telangana Today

In India, we can see that the phenomenon of “brain drain” has been common the last few decades — where educated and skilled workers get professional opportunities in Western nations, and leave the periphery to join the core of the global market. English plays a significant role in this “brain drain”, which encourages more of the Indian population to use it as a tool to increase their economic capital. As a result, a value-laden language ideology is once again apparent in India: where English is associated with higher economic opportunity, and linguistic capability and competence is equal to economic value. Tying together the beginning of India’s national language question, where English only held a tentative space, to the current globalized world, where English is crucial for India’s participation in the global market, we can see the progression of English into forming the multilingual nation that India is today.

Anthropology of Multilingualism

India has experienced many shifts in language policy and linguistic ideologies from its time as a British colony into a post-colonial, autonomous nation. Exploring the influences of Aryan traditions, religious purity, and colonial infrastructures reveals the ways which the Indian government, and the society it manages, perpetuates a value-based linguistic hierarchy. This hierarchy applies not just to languages, but to the speakers of those languages as well. The result is a diglossic societal structure, where stratification occurs with language as a justification. Despite resistance to these hierarchical structures by regional and minority language communities, these subjective ideologies continue to run deep within Indian society. 

English is also a central aspect in the intersection of multilingualism, national language, and post-colonialism. Its economic advantages and functional effectiveness for communication within India continue to be weighed against its position as the “colonizer’s language”. While many solutions have been proposed and implemented to remedy this fragmented linguistic culture of India, a truly inclusive language policy remains yet to be found. In the meantime, however, we can continue to examine the ways in which such linguistic hierarchies have shaped India’s national identity, and how this identity changes along with national language ideologies while moving forward into the future.

A colorful collage of different Indian language names, each in their own respective script.
Each language that is spoken in India has its own unique script and marks the diversity in the country; Image source: Tableau Public

Leave a Reply