Speaking Hindi in India, do Locals like it? We get this question quite a lot recently so we decided to address this blog post. Phrasing the question in this way is actually to assume that all the ‘locals’ that are Indian people hold the same standpoint about their identity. Language is, as you know, a prominent part of our self-identity. In India, the question of identity is very complex, just as is the question of language.
In 2007, I was staying in Delhi as part of my University scholarship. I took a ride with a Rickshaw driver from the Main Bazaar which is the backpacker’s center of Delhi’s, to South Delhi. I hopped on the rickshaw and told to guy where I needed to go. He was driving in silence. Eventually, I started to talk to him in Hindi. Just simple small talk, but that was enough to make him so happy that a 25-minute drive turned out to be an hour. It was the first time he spoke with a foreign person. When we got to our destination, he insisted that the ride is free. He made me promise to visit him at home, which I did a few months later. ‘You are truly Indian,’ he said when I was finally able to leave.
A little bit about Hindi as a formal language in India
In the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha (the Indian parliament institutions), representatives from all over the Republic of India sit there and speak hundreds of languages, but mostly English. Not Hindi. During the British Raj, English was the official language. When the Indian Independence Movement gained momentum in the early part of the 20th Century, efforts were undertaken to adopt Hindustani as a common language to unite the various linguistic groups against the British Government. Unity as a whole (cultural, historical, ethnical, religious, etc) was the key factor in ‘earning’ independence through proving eligibility for self-governance. The language was a crucial aspect of this. Did I mention that speaking any certain language is a political issue?
As early as 1918, Mahatma Gandhi established the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha (Institution for the Propagation of Hindi in South India). In 1925, the Indian National Congress switched to Hindustani from English for conducting its proceedings. Both Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister were supporters of Hindustani, and Congress wanted to propagate the learning of Hindustani in non-Hindi speaking Provinces of India. The idea of making Hindustani, or Hindi, the common language, was not acceptable to most of the south Indian leaders; they viewed it as an attempt to make Tamils subordinate to North Indians.
The Madras anti-Hindi Agitation of 1965
For decades, constitutional attempts were made to establish the status of Hindi as the sole official language of India which was eventually implemented in 1965 based on the new constitution.
However, those changes were not acceptable to many non-Hindi Indian states, who wanted the continued use of English as a primary language. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a political party in the state of Tamil Nadu, led the opposition to Hindi and tried to move the government to take action against the constitutional amendments. As the day (26 January 1965) of switching over to Hindi as the official language approached, the anti-Hindi movement gained momentum in Madras State which had mobilized college students to lead the processions. On 25 January, a full-scale riot broke out in the southern city of Madurai, sparked off by a minor altercation between agitating students and Congress party members. The riots spread all over Madras State continued unabated for the next two months and were marked by acts of violence, arson, looting and police stations firing.
The agitations of 1965 led to major political changes in the state. The DMK won the 1967 assembly election and the Congress Party has not managed to recapture power in the state since then. The Official Languages Act was eventually amended in 1967 by the Government headed by Indira Gandhi to guarantee the indefinite use of Hindi and English as official languages. This effectively ensured the current “virtually indefinite policy of bilingualism” of the Indian Republic.
About the political tension in India and its connection to the language
Until the current day, a strong sentiment over regional languages is being demonstrated over and over whenever the tension between the regional and the central ‘forces’ arises. States in India have been reorganized on a linguistic basis and Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have seen vocal protests (such as the one mentioned above) in the past over the imposition of Hindi as the national language. Questions like: “Should Hindi be made compulsory as a national language and be taught in schools throughout India, or is each state within India entitled to determine its official language? Is language being used as a tool for political gains?” are still under constant debate.
Coming back to the question “Speaking Hindi in India, do locals like it”?
I was glad for the appreciation I received from the locals of me speaking Hindi. I even took advantage of it, especially when it came to getting discounts by haggling. However, when I traveled to south India, speaking Hindi was far from being helpful. “This is not the place to speak Hindi,” people told me. Now you know how politically sensitive this issue is. Not to mention states in northeastern India, such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, and Nagaland, commonly known as the “Seven Sisters,” where Hindi skills are not appreciated for the same reason: they want to differentiate themselves from the central government in Delhi. Language differentiation is a good place to start with.
So to sum it up, speaking Hindi In India won’t make everyone happy, but as long as you are around Hindi dominated regions in north India, you’ll be very much appreciated. Even in those areas, Hindi might not be the native language, but you will enjoy a warm welcome from the locals. Anyhow, we can never make everyone happy – no matter what language we speak.