The Language Politics of Narendra Modi

Daniela Dos Santos – Portugal

Since coming to power in 2014, Narendra Modi and the BJP have pushed a pro-Hindi agenda and have limited the use of English by the government and by Modi himself on the world stage. Behind this story lies a Hindu nationalist agenda and the displacement of India’s English-speaking elite from power.

On February 29, the Modi government sent a letter instructing all ministries not to issue English language advertisements in Hindi language publications. This was followed by another letter, three days later, asking all ministries to specify within the next 30 days what portion of their advertising budgets would be set aside for advertisements only in Hindi.

These stories may appear to be simple matters of bureaucratic protocol, barely newsworthy. Yet, they can also be read as small pieces of a much larger story: Narendra Modi and the BJP’s attempts to promote the use of Hindi both within India and on the global stage. Language policies such as these are an often unexamined facet of the party’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Furthermore, the rise of the pro-Hindi BJP is an unseating of India’s traditional English-speaking elite.

The Modi government’s dictates at the beginning of this month are not the first time that internal memos have promoted the use of Hindi. In 2014, a month after the BJP came to power, India’s home ministry instructed civil servants in Delhi to use Hindi rather than English in all social media communications. This move was much more drastic and prompted criticism from regions where Hindi is not the primary language. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, which was the setting for anti-Hindi violence in the 1960s, wrote to Modi saying that the document should be amended as it ran counter to the spirit of the Official Languages Act of 1963, which lists both Hindi and English as official languages. Accordingly, this ‘highly sensitive issue’ would cause ‘disquiet’ to the people of Tamil Nadu. Congress leaders, Kashmiri politicians, and even some BJP members also criticized the circular along similar lines. In response to such criticism, the BJP eventually backtracked and amended the document only to apply to Hindi-speaking states—a move that still asserted the priority of Hindi over English, India’s other official language.

While one part of Modi’s agenda is to promote Hindi use at home, another is to elevate the status of Hindi on the world stage. Shortly after his election, there were reports that Modi would stick with Hindi when meeting with foreign leaders though his English is quite good. When meeting with Barack Obama, Modi indeed spoke to the American president in Hindi through a translator. As well, the Ministry of External Affairs started a division in 2015 to promote Hindi abroad.

On another occasion, when addressing the U.N. in 2014, Modi also chose to speak in Hindi. In addition to being more comfortable for the prime minister, this was also a rare occasion for Hindi to be included in the U.N. Though Hindi is the fourth most prevalent language in the world after English, Spanish, and Chinese, it is not one of the U.N.’s official languages and enjoys little use in Europe or North America. As Prashant Agrawal notes, “the presumption is that an Indian visitor to these places would know English—or, at least, the majority would.”

However, that assumption is quickly changing. The rise of the BJP and their pro-Hindi policies must be viewed in terms of a shift in power that is displacing India’s traditional elite, and in terms of a longer history of language conflict.

Language was one of the principal challenges facing India after the departure of the British in 1947. At that time, India was home to over 1,500 languages, and a shared official language was needed. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, initially wanted to select Hindustani as an official language. Following resistance from South Indian states, English was given official status alongside Hindi as a compromise to calm the fears of non-Hindi speakers. In addition, twenty-two other languages are used as official languages in individual provinces and for provincial administration. It was in part assumed that English use, with all its connections to the colonial regime, would fade with time.

However, English use—perhaps because of that connection to the British colonial regime—has remained entrenched as a status symbol among the nation’s elite. Nehru later came to speak of “an English-knowing caste separated from the mass of our people.” 550 million Indians can speak Hindi while more than 125 million Indians can speak English, according to the 2001 government census. By some estimates, however, only 5%—coming from the country’s elite—are fluent English speakers.

Narendra Modi and the BJP’s rise can be seen as a displacement of this traditional English-speaking elite from power. As the Bharatiya Janata Party rose, the Congress Party, which represents those very elites, fell. In the 2014 election Congress faced its worst performance everwinning only 44 of the 543 seats in the lower house of parliament. Modi himself comes from a very different background than this traditional elite. Coming from humble beginnings, he did not attend an English medium school and may feel that he has little in common—both personally and politically—with the nation’s English-speaking, secular elite.

That feeling is perhaps mutual. In the 2014 campaign, an English-speaking Congress party rival, Mani Shankar Aiyar, commented that Modi would be better suited to serving tea at campaign rallies—a reference to Modi’s childhood helping his father sell tea at a railway station. But, as Samanth Subramanian writes in the New York Review of Books: “it was Aiyar who lost his parliamentary speak while Modi went on to become Prime Minister.” Modi’s rise represents a shift in the opinion of voters and a surge of confidence in India’s regional languages.