The Official Language: Lessons from Europe

Whose official language is it anyway?

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On 23 March 2006, when French businessman, Ernest-Antoine Seillière, started speaking at the annual business summit of the European Union (EU), Jacques Chirac, the French President, walked out. As he gathered his papers and reached for the exit, Philippe Douste-Blazy, his foreign minister, and Thierry Breton, the finance minister, joined him. What provoked these gendarmes of political correctness was that Seillière spoke in English, an official language. Chirac could be mollified and brought back only after Jean-Claude Trichet, the French President of the European Central Bank, started speaking in French.

The EU is a long-term project following the Treaty of Rome of 1957. When it became effective only in 1958, it recognised only four languages: Dutch, French, German, and Italian. English made an entry in 1973 when the UK joined the EU. Today, it has 24 official languages, of which, English, German, and French, are working languages. Nearly six years after the UK voted to leave the EU and more than two years after Brexit became a reality, English continues to be an official language of the EU.

English also remains the most popular one. More than half the European population speak English as their first or second language. Only 32% speak German and 26% French, followed by Italian (18%) and Spanish (17%). That explains why English remains the lingua franca in which Europe discusses complex energy and trade regulations. Seillière, a businessman wanting to reach the widest audience possible, was being practical. As he put it, English is the language of business. It is also a language of convenience. I have also heard representatives from non-English speaking countries address international gatherings in English. Speaking in another language, one might be heard but not listened to. Ignore it at the peril of being rendered irrelevant.

Current controversy on official language

The above anecdote is a prologue to the recent controversy when Amit Shah, the Home Minister, suggested that Hindi be the link language between states. Home Ministers in different eras and political hues have said more or less the same thing in the past with the same result. Even P. Chidambaram from Tamil Nadu courted controversy as Home Minister for the same reason.

Amit Shah was then speaking on Hindi Diwas, or Hindi Day, an occasion to remind the people of that elusive goal of one nation, one language. These are occasions when ministers speak what people expect to hear. Nevertheless, Amit Shah has the political acumen to have foreseen the furore that his comments would invite. Unfortunately, it came when BJP was still trying to make inroads into its last big frontier in the South, Tamil Nadu. At a time when it can ill afford to sow seeds of further distrust. Expectedly, the matter soon acquired political and even religious overtones.

The controversy reminded us that the question of “official language” remains an unstable equilibrium with differences brushed under the carpet. It is high time we sought long term stable solutions. This search requires us to delve into history.

Official language history

National language

Not long after his return from South Africa in 1915, following his travels crisscrossing the country, Gandhi felt the need for a unifying language. Addressing the Gujarat Educational Conference in 1917, he identified five requirements for a national language: (i) easy to learn for government officials, (ii) capable of being a medium of religious, economic and political intercourse throughout India, (iii) spoken by the majority, (iv) easy to learn for the whole country (how is this different from (i) – my question) and (v) considerations of temporary or passing interest should not count. He felt that Hindi alone met these conditions, notwithstanding its numerous dialects. Of course, the details in his views changed over time, just as they did in many other issues. But, these essentially involved Hindi, in Devanagari or Persian script, as the official language, and Hindustani with more than a smattering of Persian words as the lingua franca.

Hindi Prachar Sabha

In 1918, Gandhi established the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha. The youngest of his four sons, the 18-year old Devadas, became the first pracharak. It functioned out of an office in George Town, Madras, and moved to Mylapore and Triplicane over the years before settling at its present grand pink building in T. Nagar in 1936. By then, Devadas had become the Editor of the Hindustan Times after having married Lakshmi, daughter of C. Rajagopalachari.

Hindi in Madras

When Rajagopalachari became the Premier of the Madras Presidency a year later, he introduced compulsory teaching of Hindi in schools. This reform led to the first anti-Hindi agitations led by ‘Periyar’ EVR Naicker, imprisoned for three years. His arrest only strengthened the protests ending in two self-immolations. After Rajagopalachari resigned, the British Governor Lord Erskine revoked the Hindi order in 1940.

Hindustani Prachar Sabha

The year was also significant as the Muslim League under Jinnah passed the Lahore Resolution calling for a separate homeland for Muslims. Following this, Hindi advocates like Purushottam Das Tandon dropped Hindustani and the Persian script from its national language agenda. Piqued by this, Gandhi established the Hindustani Prachar Sabha in 1942. It has a short but impressive list of publications on the language issue by eminent people, including CD Deshmukh, VKRV Rao, and Suniti Kumar Chatterji, all out of print. I presume these were Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lectures, of which VKRV Rao’s lecture appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly in 1978.

Constituent Assembly Debates

The official/national language issue was one of the most hotly debated topics in the Constituent Assembly. These lengthy arguments need not detain us but mention that Dr Ambedkar wanted Sanskrit as the national language. Maybe he was deliberately pulling in a different direction to bring about a more acceptable compromise. But, it is also worth noting what Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, who later founded the Jan Sangh, the precursor of the Bhartiya Janata Party, said in the Constituent Assembly:

“If it is claimed by anyone that by passing an article in the Constitution of India, one language is going to be accepted by all by a process of coercion, I say, Sir, that that will not be possible to achieve. Unity in diversity is India’s keynote and must be achieved by a process of understanding and consent.”

The compromise was to continue English for official purposes for fifteen years after adopting the Constitution (Articles 343 onwards). The sentiment behind removing English was understandable. How can the occupiers’ language continue even after independence? After seven decades, I still see comments that English is a foreign language. At the same time, there were large sections of people who would choose the former if given a choice between English and a language other than their mother tongue. That is because of the historical accident of English having entered the Tamil and Telugu speaking lands in the early 17th century. At the same time, Hindi only appeared in 1937, when the opinion-making Madras gentry, including teachers, lawyers, middle-class professionals, officials, and landed gentry, had long become English-friendly. In this context, the constitutional provision discontinuing English by 1965 was untenable.

Preparing for 1965

In preparation for discontinuing English for official purposes, Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Home Minister, piloted the Official Languages Bill, which became an Act in 1963. It aimed to provide for the languages which may be used for the official purposes of the Union, for the transaction of business in Parliament, for Central and State Acts and for specific purposes in High Courts. It was to come into force on 26 January 1965, the “appointed day.”

As the appointed day approached, the political situation in Tamil Nadu, then still known as the Madras State, grew tense. On the eve of the constitutional provision that gave English a lease of life till 1965 was to come into effect, C.N. Annadorai led the agitations. The Chief Minister, M. Bhaktavatsalam, from the Congress, countered this with strong-arm tactics, supported by Shastri, who had become the Prime Minister. There was rioting across the State, determined youth fearlessly facing water cannons. ‘Hindi Ozhiga, Tamizh Vazhka’ chants rent the air. On the appointed day, two persons self-immolated, and a third died a few days later, having consumed an insecticide, all in the cause of Tamil.

Two Union ministers from Madras, C. Subramaniam and O.V. Alagesan, resigned. Shastri, whose heart was on Hindi as the official language, recommended to the President that their resignations be accepted. But, after S. Radhakrishnan refused to accept his recommendation, Shastri backed down.

Shastri backtracks on official language

Finally, Shastri decided to implement Nehru’s assurance that English would be continued as an official language as long as the non-Hindi speaking states wanted it. He gave four assurances in an address over the All India Radio, later adding a fifth. Ramachandra Guha summarised these as follows in his India After Gandhi:

“First, every state would have complete and unfettered freedom to continue to transact its own business in the language of its own choice, which may be the regional language or English.

Secondly, communications from one state to another would be either in English or accompanied by an authentic English translation.

Thirdly, the non-Hindi states would be free to correspond with the central government in English and no change would be made in this arrangement without the consent of the non-Hindi states.

Fourthly, in the transaction of business at the central level, English would continue to be used.

Later, Shastri added a crucial fifth assurance – that the All-India Civil Services Examination would continue to be conducted in English rather than (as the Hindiwallahs wanted) in Hindi alone.”

(Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, p. 395)

The aftermath

In 1968, Indira Gandhi further amended the Official Languages Act to provide for the continued use of English for official purposes. However, for communication between a state which has Hindi as an official language with one which does not have Hindi as an official language, the correspondence in Hindi will be accompanied by an English translation.

In 1969, Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai renamed Madras State Tamil Nadu. The Indian National Congress, which had misjudged the sentiments of the people, would never come back to power in the State. It became the first State to junk the party, seemingly forever.

An uneasy calm

After the language riots, the government stopped its attempts at making Hindi the national language by coercion. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, in his “India: A Polyglot Nation,” quoted Lenin in support of this stand:

“We, of course, are in favour of every inhabitant of Russia having the opportunity to learn the great Russian language. What we do not want is the element of coercion.”

VKRV Rao took stock of the situation three decades after independence. He called for:

“a strong and nation-wide language movement which will make it easy for the country to build up an official language representative of the nation’s composite culture and the linguistic wealth of its many languages; and to give its masses an oral link like Hindustani which in turn will also be linked with the official language of Hindi and with the classes who will be its main users.”

VKRV Rao, Many Languages, One Nation: Quest for an All-India Language, Economic and Political Weekly, 24 June 1978, 13(25): 1025-1030.

Issues relating to language continued to simmer. Writing in 1981, Boris Kluyev observed as follows:

“Language conflicts in India take most diverse forms. It may be a comparatively innocuous campaign of painting out signboards and road signs in an unacceptable language, that is, what Lenin called petty, vulgar, contemptible national squabbling. But sometimes, they take the form of mass action with destructive results. It should be noted that there is not a single State, nor a Union Territory where, within the last twenty years, conflicts have not arisen in some form or other.”

Kluyev, India: National and Language Problem, 1981, page 100.

Official language in practice


The implementation of the official language progressed slowly after that. But the record has been patchy and not without hiccups or even their moments of hilarity. Nevertheless, the visits of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Language remained a grim affair and dreaded by many public sector institutions and government departments for more reasons than just the language.

In its implementation, interpretation of the official language provisions varied. The government monitored the achievement of region-wise targets. Some institutions found that signing a letter in Hindi mysteriously transformed it into a Hindi letter for statistics, even if the contents were in English. Arguments flew back and forth on whether a similar DO letter sent to 100 institutions counted as one or 100. The odd Hindi Officer, distraught under pressure to show progress, would guide how to beat the system.

There were instances of promises not being kept. Non-Hindi speaking states often received communication in Hindi, unaccompanied by an English translation, as was the policy and assurance. I have heard stories of bureaucrats throwing such letters in the waste bin. After all, the golden rule in communication is that the sender is responsible for writing in a language and form that the receiver understands. The onus is not on the receiver.

The States which implemented the three-language formula felt cheated when many others did not follow suit. Finally, progress in Hindi, if significant, was achieved because of the people, without coercion. Migration across States helped.

Some issues in official language

But, one thing that constantly agitated me was on what grounds one can deny a reply in the same language as what the sender chose to write. For instance, if someone in New Delhi writes in English to a government department in the same city, the rules mandate that the reply should be in Hindi so that the department can achieve its 100% target.

Once, the Ambassador of a large and friendly West Asian country wrote in English under his signature, addressed to the Governor, to complain against a foreign bank. Following the rule book, a reply would have gone from the lower ranks, acknowledging the letter and allotting a complaint number, filling in details in a printed format, all in Hindi. Thankfully, it came to my notice, and I sent a proper DO letter promising to examine the matter.


The official language also had a tendency to encroach on other activities. In my earlier job, until around the year 2000, Bank inspection reports had a paragraph where the inspecting officers had to comment on progress in implementation of the official language! In a Bank inspection report? This paragraph was usually added at the end, and was invariably a copy from the previous year’s report. Let me proudly add that, as someone in the Policy Planning Division, I had a small hand in ending this practice.

Some others took it upon themselves as the guardians of this yeoman service to the nation. In my last department in Mumbai, one lady lamented the drop in Hindi letters from 99% to 93% and went on to strategise on how to increase this. I argued that when the government-specified target is 70%, do we need to sweat any further as long as that has been achieved. But that would not do.

There was once a suggestion that officers speak by turns in Hindi on any subject. I suggested that I might read out the Hindi version of the chapter on Assessment and Prospects. The source was the Bank’s Annual Report. The Administration and the powers that be had a look at that chapter. Perhaps wary of the prospects of listening to my long drawl on the subject, they shelved the project.

Inbuilt inefficiency

In practice, the official language policy breeds a great deal of inefficiency. In my last posting in Jaipur, I discovered that one colleague in Administration drafted his lengthy notes in English, translated it using Google Translate, and copied the output in hand. And this was one who was from the Pink City itself and never seen a transfer. And I thought only I knew the trick!

A related mandate was that Hindi letters be signed in Hindi. After all, even the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India signed in both languages. Thankfully, my signature was an indecipherable scrawl, and I insisted that I always sign in Hindi.

Official language in European Union

Hello in European languages

In discussing the way forward for India, the EU experience is significant. India and the EU are moving towards similar goals of federal structure and devolution of powers, though from different directions. The experience of the EU is therefore relevant. It is roughly 30% larger than India by area but has only 1/3rd of India’s population. The 27 members of the EU have 24 official languages and three alphabet sets. In addition, there are another 60 languages in specific regions and groups, including immigrants from around 175 nationalities.

United in Diversity

At the same time, the EU does not aim at manufacturing unity either by coercion or stealth. Its motto, ‘united in diversity,’ I feel is more inclusive than ‘unity in diversity,’ which creates the impression of having to forge unity.

Article 41(4) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU states that “Every person may write to the institutions of the Union in one of the languages of the Treaties and must have an answer in the same language.”

Article 21(1) further states that “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.” Similarly, Article 22 respects cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity.

In India, such protection on the grounds of language is not explicitly available under sections 14 or 15 of the Constitution of India.

In practice, this right translates into the Lisbon Treaty provision that “the right to petition the European Parliament, to apply to the European Ombudsman, and to address the institutions and advisory bodies of the Union in any of the Treaty languages and to obtain a reply in the same language.”

European day of languages

The EU observes 26 September as a European Day of Languages to celebrate linguistic diversity through various events. It aims to promote “awareness among the general public of the importance of language learning and protecting the linguistic heritage.” It raises awareness of the variety of languages in Europe and promotes cultural and linguistic diversity. It encourages people of all ages to learn languages. Knowing more than one language makes it easier to connect with people, find a job, and help businesses grow.

As part of its European language initiatives, the EU promotes eTwinning. It partners schools and their staff to communicate, collaborate, and develop projects.

These initiatives are based on the insight that “bringing very young children into contact with foreign languages may result in faster language learning, improved mother tongue skills and better performance in other areas.” EU thus supports teaching at least two foreign languages from an early age.

Early language learning

Apart from “laying the foundations for later learning, early language learning can influence attitudes towards other languages and cultures”. The relative success of Southern states in India in the IT and knowledge-based sectors is not only about English. It is also about knowing and learning more languages than their mother tongue.

Linguistic diversity

The EU charter recognises that “languages define personal identities, but also part of a shared inheritance. Therefore, they can serve as a bridge to other peoples and cultures by promoting mutual understanding and a shared sense of European identity.” Therefore, according to the EU policy, “Effective multilingualism policies and initiatives can strengthen the opportunities of citizens. Language skills may also increase individuals’ employability, facilitate access to services and rights, and contribute to solidarity through enhanced intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.”

The EU supports language learning and linguistic diversity through, for example, developing an evidence base, mobility programs, cooperation projects and the support for European Capitals of Culture. In addition, Creative Europe supports literary translation for broader access to literary works and maintaining linguistic diversity.

National minorities within member states are also defined based on language groups. However, the linguistic diversity and ways to manage them vary across member states. This results in a range of pedagogical approaches in bilingual regions and multilingual classrooms.

Eurydice, the European Union’s network of national units for education analysis based in all Erasmus+ programme countries, supports teaching of regional or minority languages.

Official language: Going forward

Approach to Official Language

Language can be more divisive than religion, as Bangladesh showed us. And language-based issues can fester for years, as Sri Lanka also demonstrated. In its long-term European project of integration, Europe took proactive steps to prevent language-based divisions through its policy of multilingualism. The EU motto of ‘united in diversity’ is more inclusive than what we in India call ‘unity in diversity.’

Junk the link

For VKRV Rao, the convenience of one official language (distinct from national language) cannot be disputed. But, the concept of a link language is passé. The world is moving towards greater linguistic diversity. In its midst, arguing for a link language and its dominance is anachronistic, even if not through coercion. We have moved far beyond mere literacy. The number of languages one is literate in is equally, if not more, important. More the languages a child learns more excellent her thinking capability and better her world view. Can we not, therefore, factor this in recruitments and promotions?

The concept of a link language belongs to a period when technology could not provide simultaneous and intelligent translations into multiple languages. Moreover, a limited understanding of a child’s ability to master several scripts and languages supported the view.

Applying the EU principle, a Bengali in New Delhi and a Maharashtrian in Chennai should be able to communicate with a central government office in the language of his choice and receive a reply in the same. A sole Armenian in Kolkata or Chennai or a Jew in Mumbai or Kochi should not expect communication in the language of his choice. But, indeed, when tens of millions speak a language, and their numbers are large enough to make them linguistic groups bigger than several nations, there is reason to protect their cultural identity.

More people speak Bengali than Russian or Portuguese, even though more than half are in Bangladesh. More people converse in Gujarati, Tamil or Telugu than Italian or Polish, both languages of EU member countries.

Indian Day of Languages

Following the EU, an Indian Day of Languages would be more inclusive than celebrating only one language. Rather than a ‘One Nation, One Language’ policy, one should follow Europe in pursuing a ‘One Nation, Many Languages’ policy.

Approach to English

We should move away from quotas and targets and the irrational fear of and aversion to English. In 1918 it was the language of the oppressor for nearly two centuries. But, a hundred years later, it has become a language of convenience. MS Word offers 19 versions, from English (Australia) to English (Zimbabwe), with English (India) somewhere in between. Moreover, as we saw at the beginning, it also connects countries with millennia of war and hatred.

Even though the Indian States saw reorganisation on a linguistic basis in 1956, linguistic diversity has only increased ever since. Large scale inter-state migration accounts for this, as shown by the recent pandemic.

Promoting other languages

The EU page on its language policy states, “Languages unite people, render other countries and their cultures accessible, and strengthen intercultural understanding. Foreign language skills play a vital role in enhancing employability and mobility.” The earlier we recognise the aspirations of India’s different regions and cultures, the more it will bind India as a nation. Rather than weaken the country, this can only go towards promoting national unity with language and culture as a strong adhesive.

It is not about downgrading Hindi. It is about bringing up Hindi, its nearly 50 dialects, and their speakers. Also about equal space for other languages however small. Thus, every individual should have a right to receive a reply in the language they desire to communicate. In addition, the government should increase the number of languages to operate as working languages corresponding with the three such languages in Europe: English, German, and French.

To start with, this could include at least one language from each region. These could be those languages spoken by at least 50 million people. Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, and Urdu would join Hindi and English with this. Aadhaar-linked information on education and languages known could be the basis for identifying the number of speakers in a language.

Lest we forget, the new Parliament building had better provide more cubicles for interpreters.


A long term and forward-looking policy on official languages would drop one from the host of issues facing the country. Such a proactive and inclusive approach would be a binding factor. When India aims to be at the centre of global politics, it should leave behind its straitlaced approach to English. It is time tolive with global realities. Learn from Europe!

© G. Sreekumar 2022. Last updated 16 April 2022. 11 a.m.


7 thoughts on “The Official Language: Lessons from Europe”

  1. Brilliant as usual! Would only disagree on the assumption that India and the EU are moving towards similar goals of a federal structure! Can’t see that in India as we have centralised all powers and economic freedom of the States are eroded considerably.

    1. Thank you Dr Ashok for your comment. In my view, the Union of India formed by the accession of nearly 600 native states along with the earlier British India formed a monolithic unity of sorts. Geographical boundaries were largely based on what existed prior to independence. Regional assertions began early, first for reasons of language, resulting in the reorganisation of states based on languages. A second type of regional assertion begins with the rise of the regional parties moving alongside a gradual decimation of the Indian National Congress finally resulting in a situation where for over three decades it became impossible to form a government at the centre without some of these parties. Regional outfits with their narrow outlook, like the TMC, DMK or the AIADMDK holding important portfolios like the Railways was unimaginable prior to 1989. A third type of regional assertion is the rise of regional symbols, like state flags, and state anthems. In Tamil Nadu, it was only recently that Thamizh Vazhthu, incidentally written by somebody born in my hometown of Alleppey, in Kerala, was raised to the status of a State Anthem. There have been similar assertions of identity in other regions as well. As for financial powers, different Finance Commissions have only increased the share of states in taxes collected over the years. And the state subjects remain where they were. Perhaps, the Union has been asserting more in subjects coming under the concurrent list. So, in my view, the big picture shows a long term assertion of regional identities. Hence my observation that Europe and India are moving towards a similar middle position, but from different directions.

  2. There is an even better example closer to home. Guess what is (or are) the official language(s) of Puducherry?

    Tamil: In the Tamil majority districts
    Telugu: Used within Telugu district Yanam.
    Malayalam: Used within Malayalam district Mahé.

    1. Thanks. These are in addition to English and French. So, the small UT of Puducherry uses five official languages.

  3. While the USA does not have an official language, the IRS(Internal Revenue Service) will offer to send you information in twenty different languages, including Gujarati, Punjabi and Bengali. See and

    Another thing to note is that many of the developed countries have given Sign Language official status. See for a list. India has an estimated 63 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing, a number that is between Tamil speakers(69million) and Gujarati speakers(55 million).

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