Mother India and Modern India: the Mother Tongues or English?

Each and every window in the house of language opens to a different landscape and temporality, to a different segmentation in the spectrum of perceived and classified experience. It is the multiplicity of spoken languages which has been ‘the enabling condition of men and women’s freedom to perceive, to articulate, to redraft the existential world in manifold freedoms’ (Shelley Walia quoting Francis George Steiner, The Hindu, 2009) 

In two earlier essays in this journal, it has been my thesis that “India divides; Bhārat unites”.  The first essay interpreted “the Idea of India” (originally written in Nov 2008), the second examined pilgrimage in the construction of Bhārat (Apr-Jun 2009). This third essay explores language and nation-building (June 2010).

A “mother tongue” is quite literally the language of the speaker’s mother. However, a child is not born with knowledge of this language nor is it something which is genetically transmitted. According to linguists, children can learn easily whichever languages they are exposed to till around the age of twelve. Few children are formally taught the mother tongue. They pick it up mainly through imitation, and it is environmental influence rather than heredity that determines their linguistic performance. For instance, a child of Hindi-speaking parents brought up by a Tamil-speaking family in Chennai is likely to know Tamil far better than its “mother tongue” Hindi (which it may not know at all). But such instances are relatively rare. In the Indian context, for other than an elite (but growing) minority in which mothers choose to speak in English to their children, the overwhelming majority of Indian mothers still communicate with their children in an indigenous language or dialect (Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar).

Therefore, for the overwhelming majority of Indians brought up in environments congenial to learning our mother tongue, our language is still not only of great cultural importance and sentimental value to us, but it also provides a community identity that protects us from the anomie so characteristic of modern society.

The creation of a modern society appears to be our national objective. Our models for a modern society are the so-called advanced societies of the West, especially the UK earlier and the USA now. It is well-established that to achieve modernity, mass literacy is a requisite. It is equally well-established that for the achievement of mass literacy the mother tongue is the appropriate first medium. [1]

In India, according to George Grierson’s 1903-1928 linguistic survey and according to the Report of the Official Languages Commission 1956, there are 179 languages and 544 dialects. According to the 1951 Census of India, there are 845 languages or dialects spoken in India. The 1962 Census of India reported 1,652 “mother tongues” including 103 foreign ones. Shashi Tharoor claims 35 languages, each with over a million speakers, and over 22,000 dialects. In other words, there can be said to be in India at least 723 mother tongues, if not more than 22,000!

Conventional wisdom echoes Madame Bhikaiji Cama about the role of language in nation-building as a medium for maintaining the political unity of the country: “India must be free/ India must be a Republic/ India must remain united/ India must have a common language/ And India must have a common script“.  The assumption, as reflected in Article 351 of the Constitution, is that only a single language can both politically and culturally hold India together. This view is clearly contrary to historical indigenous reality – the people of our subcontinent as Bhāratis evolved a common civilizational consciousness that was well-established by the time of the Mahabharata, about 5000 years ago. They did this through different ways, including through pilgrimage, and through many languages with scripts connected mainly to one language and its script (Sanskrit – or Prakrit from which Sanskrit is claimed to have evolved – and Brahmi).

Unfortunately, India’s Founding Fathers, in their well-intentioned zeal to model our polity on Westminster-style democracy (rather than on, say, principles of ramrajya, pitched even today in electioneering), strongly espoused the Western perspective which has been carried forward by our government and its language and education advisors, and by our Macaulayan elite.  Differences are mainly over the relative importance to be given to an exoglossic language (English) over endoglossic ones, and of one endoglossic language over the others as the Union’s “official” language (Hindi – Art. 342.1). However, English is also by law an “official” language, and the States can and do have their own “official” languages, often more than one in a State.

It is the view typified in the relegation of Bhārat to one single (and parenthetical) mention in the entire English text of the Constitution of India.  The authoritative original text of the Constitution of India is the English text, as also are the authoritative original texts of all laws of the Republic of India. [2]

In retrospect, the development of a dominant common Indian language for Modern India hasn’t quite worked the way Madame Cama or the Founding Fathers envisaged. Modern India requires one tongue, Mother India has many. Linguistically, from a Western perspective, and from the perspective of our Macaulayan elite such as Shashi Tharoor [3], what is today the Republic of India is an unfragmented, multilingual, part-exoglossic, multinational State.  This means that it is a bounded territory comprising more than three largely entire speech communities, with the status of a national official language being awarded to an imported language as well as to an indigenous one.  India being “multinational”, this means that one language could very well be “foreign” for the others, and so (just as English at one time was resented as an imposition) Hindi becomes an imposition for, say, Tamil speakers. As one consequence, Mother India experienced the tragedy of language riots and Tamils burning themselves in defence of their mother tongue against “Hindi imperialism”.

Western political scientists draw a distinction between nationalism and nationism. The former is a sociocultural manifestation, the latter a politico-geographical one, and they need not necessarily coincide. A nationality may acquire its own nation (Israel) or a nation may compress many nationalities (again, from both a Western and Macaulayan perspective, India). Our language policy arose in nationism but continues to be modified because of nationalism (e.g., the formation of linguistic provinces and acceptance of minority group claims for self-governance based on linguistic autonomy). At the popular political level, while nationalistic forces press for the official use of indigenous languages, global forces successfully promote a demand for English, resulting in the rapidly increasing spread of mixed speech – khichri bhasha – such as Hinglish and Tamlish, especially through our media and through both State and private primary schools.  JS Rajput in this journal noted the strong State-sponsored, actually deracinating, push for English as our first language even as China, Russia and Japan have prospered with their own languages as their first language (“No Alternative to Mother-Tongue in Primary”, Feb 2010).  One consequence of this is the growing number of young Indians who can neither speak, read and write correctly their mother tongue nor English. Another consequence is the aggravating of the class divisiveness between those who can communicate in English, even if it is slangy and ungrammatical and ill-spelled, and those who cannot. And a third consequence is the rise of a class of young Indians who are like the dhobi’s dog – na ghar ka na ghat ka, na des ka na pardes ka (e.g., amongst our English-educated elite, “Tweeny Boppers”).

It is, in DN Mishra’s telling label, “Macaulay Part II”  (editorial, April 2010).

Given that various Indian “nationalities” must be melded to make a modern Indian nation of the Western type, it is instructive to see whether there are other linguistically comparable States whose example can educate us. The cases of the so-called advanced States can be ruled out not only because their politico-linguistic evolution has been different from ours but also because in none is the triple combination of unfragmented-multilingual-“multinational” so complex. As an analogy, what would be the common language for a Republic of Europe?

The politico-linguistic evolution of the so-called developing States has been heavily influenced by colonialism, so that nation-building sees a tension between what in the jargon are called architectural forces and what are called organismic forces, that is, between the process of conscious integration and that of conscious differentiation. The closest linguistic examples to ours are of Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, undivided Pakistan, and the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In Indonesia the language of a small minority was successfully imposed as the national language because of weak political competition for national status by the regional languages. This is probably unworkable in India though a strong case can be argued for Sanskrit.  In Malaysia, unlike in India, linguistic and religious divisions coincide, and the national official language is that of the religious and linguistic majority. This is unworkable in India because the “religious” majority speaks many languages unless, again, a case is argued for Sanskrit.  Sri Lanka experienced civil war between its two major nationalities. In both Pakistan and the Soviet Union, forces of nationalism overcame the force of nationism to create Bangladesh and the Commonwealth of Independent States respectively.

Therefore, the lesson for India should be clear — in a multilingual, “multinational” State, imposition of a national/official/link/common (call it what you will) language is counter-productive to modern nation-building of the Western type.  In words of one syllable, it did not work, it does not work, it can not work, it will not work. Such an objective and its strategy are divisive, and yet Indian policymakers continue not just to subscribe to but also to expand it.   R Vaidyanathan in this journal noted our “colonial genes” (“Foreign Universities Bill: Gifting India to the West”, April 2010). These genes that we inherited from our British rulers are dominant in the Indian phenotype, but it is not just that we are “gifting India to the West a second time”, it is also that, in obedience to Western design for us, we continue to fission India to do so.

What should be even clearer is that this Western perspective and its labels, that still condition us, are completely inappropriate for us.  We cannot forge ourselves into “Modern India” in imitation of Western models whose history and experience and civilization is in sharp contradiction to ours.  At least for the last 2000 years (and the root goes back farther), their guiding ethos has been from their predatory death-dealing monotheism, and Western understanding of its constructions of “nationism” and “nationalism” and so on cannot be divorced from its monotheism that does not have a territorial “home”.  Its monotheism is a “homeless religion”, and historically it has sought to legitimize itself through omnipotence, through global conquest, through making the entire world its “home” by decimating and exterminating those it considers the other as well as their worldview (this, in fact, is so for all the monotheisms, including communism that for Deity substitutes a deified human).

So, do we have an alternative?  

Consider the bhāratiya perspective, and the picture becomes very different.  S Kalyanaraman (“Rashtram: Hindu History in Indian Ocean Community) has an enlightening description – the rashtram is feminine (rashtrii) in the Rig Veda and is personified as the divine, nurturing mother

Rashtrii, rashtram have to be distinguished from the commonly used term, ‘nation’, as distinct from ‘state’ which is a grouping for governance.

 ‘Nation’ is a concept still unresolved….But, rashtram is founded on adhyatmika foundations from the Rigveda and is governed by the active terms, samgam, samgamanii – united movements of people towards abhyudayam. Thus, rashtram is not a restricted construct related to a common language or territory but a common zeal to achieve welfare of people through united actions……The key to rashtram is personification as mother, devi, the representation of shakti or power of the people, impelled by a common purpose, transcending language and united by the life-giving waters. Hence, the personification of rashtram as rashtrii, genitrix, the biological mother of a child.”

There cannot be a more emphatic and precise definition of the rashtram which was founded on dharma…..”  

The Rig Veda goes back at least 6000 years.  And therefore this understanding of rashtra that infuses the bhāratiya consciousness goes back unbrokenly at least 6000 years.  And it is totally the opposite of the one that informs “India”.

In conclusion, consider the following:

First, the need for modern-nation building on the Western model as appropriate remains generally assumed.  Unilingualism underpins nationism.

Secondly, the favoured medium for successfully achieving mass literacy can only be the mother tongues.  But multilingualism nourishes nationalism.

Thirdly, experience shows that this antagonism between nationalism and nationism exacerbates in the absence of community-accepted means of conflict resolution.

Fourthly, local and regional eruptions are partly a reaction to an elitist, foreign-derived construction of a highly centralised nationism, including the imposition of a locally exoglossic language.

Fifthly, neuroscience establishes for children a distinct cognitive advantage both in learning the mother tongue before learning English (Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar) and in learning the Devanagari script before learning the Roman script (Das, Kumar, Bapi, Padakannaya and Singh, “Neural Representation of an Alphasyllabary – the story of Devanagari).

Sixthly, a layered cultural consciousness — “a certain unified coherence” to borrow Sunil Khilnani’s words — transcending the multilingualism and “multinationalism”, evolved and pre-dates by millennia the construction of
the “modern” Republic of India.

Seventhly, the plurality of the mother tongues in India is at the heart of the pluralism of our civilization. A mother tongue provides linguistic and psychological identity and security, and our plurality of mother tongues provided thousands of people and communities with their own linguistic and psychological identity under the overarching linguistic and cultural umbrella of Sanskrit. Their very diversity is part of the Bhāratiya genius, is part of the uniqueness of Bhāratiya eclecticism. In the jargon, such a civilizational quality or rasa is expressive, that is, archetypically feminine. The rasa of modern Western civilization is its instrumentality, that is, archetypical masculinity of a Western construct.

Finally, the clear evidence is that it is forcing the pace of nationism that in fact dismembers it into its nationalities. In the United Kingdom, even after hundreds of years, the Scots and Welsh still press for their place in the sun. The Quebecois in Canada and the Hispanics in the United States assert their linguistic identities. There must be space and time for organismic evolution. This was well-recognised by MK Gandhi who opined that a common Indian language must emerge from among the people themselves, unifying them as it grows, mobilising them socially and politically, and connecting them to successively higher levels of social and political authority.[4]   If indeed this is the appropriate way, then the world’s history and our own teach that it must be a very gradual and patient way.  But the Republic of India, legatee of the missionary-colonial ideology of divide-and-rule and of its Macaulayan educational system that furthers this ideology, is increasingly being riven by political and sociolinguistic dissension (e.g., linguistic identity and “sons of the soil” politics).

Futurologists describe global civilizational transformations in terms of waves. The first wave, perhaps 10,000 years long, crested on sources of renewable energy and is usually described as agricultural. The second, industrial, wave, about 400 years long, exploded up on non-renewable energy sources and raged through mass slavery and colonial plunder and exterminations, world wars, genocides, and religious and class annihilations.  Millions upon millions died, and millions remain to die. A second wave modern world of the Western type arises only by engulfing the first wave traditional world. It is put succinctly in the commonplace saying that 20% of the earth’s population consumes 80% of its resources. In our zeal to transform ourselves as the West has done, thoughtlessly we choose to follow their bloody path even though there is little to suggest that the Western principles on which the first Indian Republic is modeled are holding it together.  Already the writ of the Republic does not run over vast tracts of our country that are controlled by different monotheisms.  There are real fears of a second Partition.  There is mainstream talk of letting Kashmir go.   We willingly succumb to “external aggression” (para 38, Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India), and the Republic, instead of repelling these aggressors, all of a particular monotheism, uses Census 2011 to invite them to entrench themselves firmly in our land, in the “largest ever regularisation of illegal immigrants anywhere in the world… – post this census – lakhs [actually, crores] of illegal infiltrators will morph into Indian `nationals’”. [5]

Our subcontinent is witness simultaneously to all three waves; the ebb of the first, the relentless surge of the second, and the new ripples of the third. This third, informational, wave will flow on a sustainable energy base. The data suggest striking structural similarities between the agricultural and informational waves, and the very strong opportunity open to still first-wave societies such as ours of surfing directly to the third wave.  But not if we continue to ape the West. [6]

Ours is the world’s oldest continuous civilization.  Outlasting all the empires that extended over our subcontinent has been the cultural consciousness of Mother India – Bhārat Mata.  Ordinary endoglossic conversations declare our existentially significant perception of energy as a female principle, a perception that in fact goes back unbrokenly to our pre-historic past.  Heinrich Zimmer reminds us that it is “the Mother Goddess through whom the Absolute moves into creation”, and in the Rig Veda she is addressed as prajanam bhavasi mata – ‘Thou art the mother of created beings‘.  Atharva Veda 12.1.12 has “The Earth is mother; I am son of Earth”, and it is entirely unsurprising that our land is personified as Dharti Mata, Mother Earth, and our country as Bhārat Mata, and so jananijanmabhoomischa swargataapi gariyasi – ‘Mother and Motherland are both above the heavens’.  Francis Hsu and Alan Roland describe the psychological and structural centrality of the mother in our tradition. It is the mother who gives us birth, nurtures us, teaches us, and grows us up. If our world is indeed to be a family – vasudhaiva kutumbakam – then it is the mother who can hold us together. She is, as Alan Roland shows, the pivot of the generations and, as woman, “keeper of the culture”. It is her archetypical attributes, her archetypical strengths that are third wave attributes, third wave strengths.

The mother tongue has a sanctity that goes back through the ages — Rig Veda 10.125 is the Vagambhrni Sukta, a hymn to the Mother Goddess as Vak or Speech. The psychocultural significance of the mother and the polysemic richness of the mother tongues are an enormous conceptual resource for our third wave. Mother India through her many tongues speaks a profuse diversity of local wisdoms; a treasure of information and experience on which to build. It remains for us, her children, to recognize the matricidal nature of the second wave, and the generative character of the third.

The mother tongues are the roots of the vatavriksha, the banyan tree, of our civilization. If they flourish, this tree will flourish. Without them, this tree will die. They are what keep Bhārat Mata alive.

x    x    x

Three caveats – Not for a moment do I suggest that Bhāratis should not learn English or other foreign languages.  Of course we must.  And learn them well.  But we must study and acquire fluency in them as foreign languages.  First we must acquire fluency in our own mother tongue.  There are concepts in our own languages that simply have no counterpart in English.

For example, consider dharma, the very basis of our civilization.  In “Hinduism: The Eternal Tradition”, David Frawley’s lucid introduction to the sanatana dharma, the author prefers “religion” as his translation of dharma, though in the title he translates it “tradition”.   In English, the conventional understanding of “religion” is abrahamic – recognition of, obedience to, and worship of an exclusive creator “God”.  This has no counterpart in any Indian language, since “God” – let alone an exclusive one – is not essential in the dharma (e.g., Hindu “atheists”).  In expanding “religion” to mean dharma, Frawley includes in it natural law(s), spiritualism, culture, tradition, right living, and our many indigenous “religions”.  There is no such confusion in the Indian languages.  Anyone thinking in an Indian language will, from the context, readily understand dharma and its nuances. It really is much simpler – and accurate – to call the dharma “dharma”, and to note that the words we have closest to “religion” (yet still essentially different because they are non-exclusionary) are pantha (a way, a path) and sampradaya (a spiritual lineage or tradition).  Thus, Christians were “ishupanthis” and Muslims “mohammadpanthis” till the missionary-colonial translation into English of dharma as “religion”.  Indians now reverse-translate the abrahamisms as “isai dharma” and “mussalman dharma” (and, for example, so also Sikhs in Bhārat were “nanakpanthis” but India has made Sikh belief a separate religion).  We have now not just accepted in English this procrustean reduction of dharma to “religion” but, as English-educated Indians with English as our first language, we learn of no other meaning and, therefore, we are ignorant of the foundation of our own civilization.  I can testify to this from my own experience over the years with b-school students.  [7]

The second caveat.  I certainly do not suggest we not “modernize” but we must evolve our own interpretation of what it is to be “modern” and not mimic the Western, specifically the American, one.  Thus, must “development” and “progress” consider the individual as the unit of society (as in the West), or the group (as in Bhārat)?  As just one example, consider the remarkable effectiveness of indigenous community-based water conservation systems that are being revived in different parts of our country.  Certainly our polity has problems – many of considerable severity – but in blindly seeking a White solution to Brown problems, the remedy can be worse than the disease, and we seek it at our peril (Krishen Kak, “The White solution to Brown problems”, Vicharamala 68). 

The third caveat.  I use “India” and “Bhārat” as conceptual and historical categories.  In khichri bhasha and in popular discourse in English, “India” is the conventional usage for both.  While we are reverting to indigenous names at the local level (Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Pune) and these have eased their way into English usage (notwithstanding English-speaking elitist brouhaha against “Mumbai”), it will require very strong political will to revert to our proper name formally at the national level – and of such political will there is no evidence so far.


  1. “Countries like Norway are mandated to provide instruction in the language of the child even if the language is that of a remote African tribe” – Nandana Reddy, “Learning the Lohia Way”.
  2. “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect” TB Macaulay
  3. “I have often argued that we are all minorities in India….. The idea of India is not based on language” (Tharoor, op.cit.).  The idea of India may not be based on language alone, but certainly it was a language – Sanskrit – that made an essential contribution towards creating the “idea of India”.
  4. Agencies such as Samskrita Bharati quietly (perhaps too quietly in India; its official website is more informative about its presence in North America) are making the effort of “bringing Sanskrit back to mainstream by making it a widely spoken language once again”
  5. See also S Gurumurthy1 and 2
  6. The UK was in colonial times the world’s superpower (“Britannia rules the waves” and “The sun never sets on the British Empire”); today it is derided as “America’s poodle” or as “America’s lapdog”.  The USA peaked to superpowerdom with WW2 and then again with the collapse of the USSR.  Today it is the world’s largest debtor economy and it is heavily in hock to China and Japan . Considerably briefer than the British Century, the American Century has run its course.  ”The axis of power has shifted and the West is in terminal decline or monotonically declining for those who are mathematically not challenged.  When the West is in decline on all fronts and when its weltanschauung or world view is not [worth] being bothered about, what is the necessity for India to try and adapt to their…system.  [Their educational system] is broke from financial point of view as well as philosophical point of view.  Their models have not worked, their family system is broke their community system is broke their social security system is broke their church is broke…and they are just broke…..Let us understand that India is a civilization and not just a market… not measure the quality of our life by the retail footfalls or soda consumption” (Vaidyanathan, op. cit.).  The West and the monotheisms have reduced the human to a commodity to be acquired by purchase or possessed by force, not a sentient being to be liberated.
  7. “The Radhakrishnan Commission said in their Report (1950); `one of the serious complaints against the system of education which has prevailed in this country for over a century is that it neglected India’s past, that it did not provide the Indian students with a knowledge of their own culture. It had produced in some cases the feeling that we are without roots, and what is worse, that our roots bind us to a world very different from that which surrounds us’” (italics added).

This article is adapted slightly from the one first published in June 2010.


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