India is one of unique countries in the world that has the legacy of diversity of languages. The Constitution of India has recognised 22 official languages. Multilingualism is the way of life in India as people in different parts of the country speak more than one language from their birth and learns additional languages during their life time.
Though officially there are 122 languages, Peoples Linguistic Survey of India has identified 780 languages, of which 50 are extinct in past five decades.
The twenty two languages that are recognised by the Constitution are: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri,Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Kannada, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdue are included in the Eigth Schedule of the constitution.
Among these three languages, Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada have been recognised as classical language with special status and recognition by Government of India. The classical languages have written and oral history of more than 1000 years. In comparison to these, English is very young as it has the history of only 300 years.
In addition to these scheduled and classical languages, The Constitution of India has included the clause to protect minority languages as a fundamental right. It states” Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part of thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”
The language policy of India provides guarantee to protect the linguistic minorities. Under the Constitution provision is made for appointment of Special Officer for linguistic minority with the sole responsibilities of safeguarding the interest of language spoken by the minority groups.
During the colonial rule the first linguistic survey was conducted during 1894 to 1928 by George A. Grierson that identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. Due to lack of trained personnel as linguists this survey had many deficiencies.
In the post independence era Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), based in Mysore was assigned to carry out an in-depth survey of languages. However this is still remains incomplete.
In 1991 the Census of India listed 1576 mother tongues’ with separate grammatical structures and 1796 speech varieties that is classified as other mother tongues’.
Another unique feature of India is the concept of protecting the interest of children to get basic education in their mother tongue. The Constitution provides” it shall be the endeavour of every State and of every local authority within the state to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups”.
Thus, even before the United Nations declared the International Mother Language Day (February 21) the founders of the Indian Constitution gave top priority to teaching in mother tongues’, enabling the child to develop its full potential.
This concept is in total agreement with the 2017 theme of United Nations World Mother Language Day “to develop the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged in education, administrative systems, cultural expression and cyber space”.
In 1956 reorganisation of states in India was carried out with linguistic boundaries that had its own script. Sardar Vallab Bhai Patel, the then home minister played key role in formation and amalgamation of states based on linguistic attributes.
The language policy of India has been pluralistic, giving priority to the use of mother tongue in administration, education and other fields of mass communication. The Language Bureau of Ministry of Human Resource Development is set up to implement and monitor the language policy.
Supporting the cause of promoting and conserving the language diversity in cyberspace, Union Minister of Electronic and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad cautioned the Internet providers “the language of internet cannot be English and English alone. It must have linkages with the local and local means local languages. I appeal to make local languages available for more internet users”.
He said that the ministry has initiated Technology Development for Indian Languages with the objective of developing information processing tools and techniques to facilitate human machine interaction without language barrier, creating and accessing multilingual knowledge resources.
The Government of India under the vision of digital India has mandated the mobile phones sold from July 2017 should support all Indian languages. This will pave way for bridging the digital divide, empowering one billion people who do not speak English with connectivity in their own languages. This will also enhance the capacity of large number people to be part of e-governance and e- commerce.
Despite these efforts by the central government minority languages are under threat of extinction due to multiple causes. In Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the death of Boa, the last speaker of Bo language is one of those instances that have lead to extinction of Bo language with the history of 70000 years.
In recent years the language diversity is under threat as speakers of diverse languages are becoming rare and major languages are adopted after abandoning the mother tongues. The problem needs to be addressed at societal level, in which the communities have to take part in conservation of language diversity that is part of cultural wealth.
*Author is an independent journalist and columnist based in Karnataka. Views expressed in the article are personal.