There are over 1,369 different languages in India but many face the real threat of disappearing in the near future. P Avinash Reddy looks at the available constitutional protections as well as the institutional threats that minority languages face – and how affirmative action might hold the key to protecting them.

Language is a crucial and defining aspect in the life of every individual. Not only a medium of effective communication, it is a harbour of culture and systems of knowledge. Various activities and elements of life stem from ones’ own mother tongue. Language acclimatises the individual and the community to the surrounding environment by equipping them with the necessary knowledge, which has been accumulating and evolving together for centuries. In India, the data collected about mother tongues through the 2011 census showed 19,569 languages, which after linguistic scrutiny and categorisation resulted in 1,369 ‘rationalised’ mother tongues. Nearly 400 of these languages however are facing the threat of extinction in the coming 50 years. While this data speaks volumes about the linguistic diversity in India, it also highlights the continued need to protect and nurture the languages spoken by the minorities.

The protection of linguistic minorities: the constitution

Article 30 (1) of the Constitution of India provides a fundamental right to linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutes of their choice. The Constitution however, under Article 351, provides a directive to the Union to promote the usage of Hindi across India, so that it can serve as a medium of expression among the diverse population. This provision has an imperialising effect on the speakers of languages other than Hindi, and linguistic minorities are the ones who face the blunt of it, especially when English is also promoted across the country at the cost of local and regional languages.

The Constitution of India (Article 350 A) provides that every state must provide primary education in a mother tongue and also provide for the appointment of a ‘Special Officer’ for linguistic minorities (Article 350 B), who is responsible to investigate matters relating to linguistic minorities and report them to the President. Neither the constitution nor any piece of legislation however defines linguistic minority. It was in 1971, in the case of DAV College etc. v/s State of Punjab, and other cases, that the Supreme Court of India defined a linguistic minority as a minority that at least has a spoken language, regardless of having a script or not. In the case of TA Pai Foundation and Others vs State of Karnataka, it further held that the status of linguistic minority is to be determined in the context of states and not India as a whole.

The protection of linguistic minorities: commissions

According to the Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities however linguistic minority status of a community is determined by numerical inferiority, non-dominant status in a state, and possessing a distinct identity. The report states that “exclusive adherence to a minority language is a leading factor that contributes to socio-economic backwardness, and that this backwardness can be addressed only by teaching the majority language”.

The Commission should have rather emphasised the need to develop mechanisms and institutional structures to accommodate linguistic minorities so that they do not fall into the traps of socio-economic backwardness merely because of the language they speak. Instead of addressing the gaps in the education system which makes invisible the language of the linguistic minorities, the commission recommends that such individuals and communities learn the majority language to survive. This is a clear acknowledgement of systematic state discrimination emanating on the basis of the language that an individual and community speaks. The state is responsible to create equal opportunities for everyone regardless of whether they belong to the majority or the minority but is clearly fails to do so.

A workshop on linguistic minorities, held in 2006 by the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, lead to the recommendations that the term linguistic minority must be defined properly and that such a definition should then be used while framing a law to provide affirmative action based on socio-economic backwardness. Even though the criteria suggested for identifying socio-economic backwardness among linguistic minorities is the same as that applied while identifying backward communities in India, to be regarded as more backward, the individuals among the linguistic minority must not have the knowledge of the majority language. This again is problematic as the additional criteria to determine the backwardness of a linguistic minority group should not be the lack of knowledge of the majority language. Instead it should be the vulnerability of the particular language to extinction, lack of institutional support to develop, sustain and promote a language.

It is necessary to emphasise that the mere knowledge of the majority language does not alleviate the backwardness of the linguistic minorities and that it can only be achieved by integrating the minority languages into the education system. This will help in preserving such languages and the associated knowledge systems while also easing the process of learning for students belonging to linguistic minorities. The recommendations of the workshop can only be aptly referred to as half-hearted attempts to integrate the minority languages into the education system. While it does provide that the teachers in schools with sizable linguistic minority must know the minority language, it does not suggest any steps to ensure that the medium of education should be in the minority language for students belonging to the particular linguistic minority. It only means that the state is trying to impose assimilation on linguistic minorities by not providing them adequate support to integrate their language in the education system.

Affirmative action and language

The most vulnerable among linguistic minorities are those belonging to tribes. Despite the vulnerability of their languages, there are hardly any government schemes or mechanisms that try and integrate these languages into the education system. Most of the linguistic minorities in India belong to indigenous groups and hence, they can avail reservation in Institutions for Higher Education under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. This, in essence, amounts to linguistic discrimination to impose assimilation on such students through the primary and secondary education system by instructing them in a majority language. It even paves the path to disappearance of languages as the individuals belonging to the linguistic minorities are assimilated into the majority language and culture at the cost of their own language. Especially in a scenario where the government itself promotes assimilation into the majority regional language or English by offering it as a means of alleviation from backwardness, it creates a strong dichotomy between retaining one’s own language and upward social mobility. Since the medium of instruction is alien to the students belonging to the linguistic minorities, most of them discontinue their studies and the ones who continue with their studies, do it at the cost of their own language.

A High Level Committee on Socio-economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities in India rightly points out that the reasons for extremely low literacy rates among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups are poor educational infrastructure, poorly trained teachers, lack of teaching in the tribal languages and completely irrelevant curriculum. Even the Draft National Policy on Tribal Groups acknowledges that the changing educational scenario can push many of the tribal languages into extinction and provides that education in mother tongue in the primary level of education needs to be encouraged. As many of the schools for Tribal Groups are witnessing a sudden shift to English medium of instruction, students belonging to the indigenous linguistic minorities are facing the blunt of it as they cannot understand their curriculum and are also losing their own language. Based on the above analysis, it is evident that most of students belonging to such indigenous linguistic minorities fail to utilize the benefits of affirmative action in the sphere of higher education.

It is high time that the government understands these gaps in the education system for the indigenous linguistic minorities and take the necessary steps to integrate the languages of the linguistic minorities into the education system. The available affirmative action can only be effectively utilised by the students of indigenous linguistic minorities if their medium of instruction is their own language and English/majority regional language is taught comprehensively as a second language. Therefore, paving the path towards “real education” of such students while also equipping them with a resourceful second language.

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P Avinash Reddy is studying Law at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, India. He is the co-founder of DEVISE (Developing Inclusive Education), a charity that is working towards providing better access to opportunities in higher education to the children from rural areas.


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