(Published in the Business Standard, March 30th, 2015)

How long have Indians been arguing about language? For centuries, in some style. Shankar Goapl Tulpule records that it was roughly seven to eight centuries ago that Mukundaraja prefaced his great work, Vivekasindhu, with a defiant excuse for using Marathi instead of Sanskrit:

“If common trees can bear fruit on par with the wish-tree,
Why should they not be planted with growing zeal?
So also, even if here the language is Marathi,
The content is the same as that of the Upanishads,
Why should it not, therefore, be stored in the recesses of the heart?”

He had, Tulpule writes, “already anticipated the displeasure of the orthodox Sanskrit pundits” of the day – in their eyes, Indian regional languages were not considered refined enough to be used for serious work. That argument over hierarchy and power between languages ran fiercely in the 13th century: another story Tulpule tells is of the time Kesiraja asked the Mahanubhava preceptor Nagadeva a question in Sanskrit. He replied: ““Please, I do not follow your asmat (‘for this reason’) and kasmat (‘why’). The Master preached to me through Marathi. So, ask me in the same language.”

In many of the present-day arguments over language, English and Hindi dominate the discussion. The arguments over English have not substantially changed over the two centuries that it has been an adopted Indian language: it is an alien tongue (not after 230-plus years), it is unfairly the language of power and jobs (as true of English as it once was of Sanskrit, Persian and sometimes Hindi), it is the carrier of class privilege (an increasingly inaccurate claim as the language spreads, adapts and democratises), it divorces Indians from their root language (this ignores the very large number of Indians who are comfortably bi-or-multilingual).

The imposition of Hindi is a tricky subject: claims made for the dominance of Hindi speakers often club together the speakers of allied dialects – GN Devy, the formidable linguist, points out that over 100 “feeder” languages surround the Hindi belt, and act as the “roots” of Hindi. And opposition to Hindi as the national language rests on the fact that it is an alien tongue, just as much as English, for large swathes of the country. On the plus side, Hindi is easy to learn, and is considered one of the fastest-growing languages in India today; it has also become more adaptable in the sense of assimilating words from other Indian languages.

But all of the English versus Hindi (or English/ Hindi versus The Rest of India) debates in the mainstream, if not in academia, ignore a far bigger question: could India’s dominant languages strangle the rest? GN Devy and his colleagues conducted the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, working over a four-year period to track the number of languages still in existence and the number threatened. The Census of India names 122 languages, of which 22 are scheduled; the PLSI found over 780 different languages and 66 different scripts. In the past 50 years, they discovered that India had lost about 250 languages.

What India should be concerned about, more than the reductive and frankly useless Hindi/ English versus the Rest of India debates, is an environmental issue. Given that this is such a radically, almost magically, multilingual country, preserving language diversity is more important than lingering over the angst of the Indian writer who uses English as his primary publishing language.

In a fascinating 2002 paper for UNESCO, Rajeshwari V Pandharipande offers a simple way to assess power equations between Indian languages: how many domains do they cover? In her analysis, English emerges as powerful because it is used across several domains – business, education, national/ international communication and technology. Regional languages, especially state official languages, also have power: they cover private domains (home), but also education, government, law. Tribal languages emerge as the weakest because they are only used in the private domain, and as their power wanes, they are used less and less often at home.

Another historian of Indian literature, Sisir Kumar Das, makes a comparison between the influence of Persian and the influence of English. Persian, used as the “power” language until it was displaced by English, was, he points out, the language of the elite – but that elite was cross-community, and included both Hindus and Muslims. It had the advantage of being a living tongue, unlike Sanskrit whose reach was more written than oral. And for centuries, Persian served as a medium of translation, receiving texts translated from Indian languages as well as translating other Indian language texts into Persian, from where they spread across the world.

The Persian versus Urdu debate raged as strongly some centuries ago as the Hindi versus English one does. However entertaining, these debates should not blind us to a key fact about India: the dominant language in any region has often posed the greatest threat to smaller local and tribal dialects. Even multilingualism does not cut through hierarchies of power. As Das remarks of the 18th and 19th centuries: “Bilingualism was an accepted fact of life. Bilingualism, however, did not mean equal prestige for both languages.”

It might be utopian to imagine a time when Indian schoolchildren are encouraged to learn one of the many Indian languages on the endangered list as their third language. Or to imagine a time when English, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati and other dominant languages do not, like bullies, overshadow the many, many other tongues that people call their mother tongues. But as our understanding of the map of Indian languages changes and shifts, so should the old, atrophied arguments yield to newer debates.