Language, Politics and Education in North India, Part II: The National Languages of South Asia

Part I of this article, regarding the Jashn-e Rekhta festival and Urdu in India, is available here.

II: The National Languages of South Asia: A Brief History

“Hindistani” written in Devanagari and Nastaliq (Photograph Source: Creative Commons)

The Republic of India recognizes 23 different official languages under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Among these, English and Hindi are official nationwide. The government register of Hindi is highly Sanskritized, meaning it draws its technical language from Sanskrit. The process of replacing Hindustani and Persian vocabulary in the language with Sanskrit-derived loan words has been ongoing since independence, promoted by the Central Hindi Directorate in New Delhi. In Pakistan, Urdu is the national language and has, like Hindi in India, been ‘purified’ since independence. The National Language Promotion Directorate has actively Arabized the government language there, replacing Hindustani and even Persian words with counterparts from Arabic. Both of these registers differ greatly from the vernacular languages of Northern India, including Hindustani, which contains large amounts of vocabulary from Persian, Prakrit and English. But how did this situation come to be?

In 1835, a debate was raging in London as British leaders tried to decide which language should be used to administer and educate the populace of Britain’s growing colonial territories in India. One man, Thomas B. Macaulay, gave a short speech advocating the use of English instead of other literary languages of the region as the medium of education (Macaulay). By 1837, the government decided in his favor, removing Persian as an official language and making English and Urdu co-official in British-controlled territories.

“I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic… [but] I have never found [a British Orientalist] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” – Thomas B. Macaulay (Photograph Source:  Public Domain)

English would become the new lingua franca and educational medium in the region during the colonial period, but the prospect of independence led to intense linguistic competition within India. The conflict over whether to recognize Hindi or Urdu, in Devanagari or Nastaliq script, stemmed from the idea that English, the language of the colonizers, must be replaced by an indigenous Indian language as part of articulating Indian nationalism and the Indian nation (C. King). Hindustani, being the most widely spoken, seemed an obvious choice, but conflict occurred regarding which language, Sanskritized Hindi, Persianized Urdu, or bazaar Hindustani, should be that lingua franca (T. Chand). A rivalry between these languages began during the late colonial period, as members of specific Hindu castes began to advocate for government recognition of a Sanskritized register of the Hindustani language, rather than the Persianized Urdu that was official at the time (C. King). Both Gandhi and the Indian National Congress supported using a mixed “Hindustani” language that would find common vocabulary between Hindi and Urdu and common ground between Hindus and Muslims (R. King). While this question remained fiercely contested before 1947, partition created a resolution of sorts, as Sanskritized Hindi became the official language of India while Persianized & Arabized Urdu became the national language in Pakistan. The idea in both countries was to phase out use of English in government in favor of Hindi and Urdu, but disturbances in South India against Hindi imposition required that English continue to be used alongside Hindi (Dudney).

Urdu medium schools have faced systematic marginalization in many areas of India, while high Urdu cultural products, like poetry and music, are globally popular (Photograph Source: Creative Commons 2.0)

In India, Hindi was, and still is, promoted directly and indirectly through a variety of policies, including direct promotion the three-language policy, which mandates the teaching of Hindi as a second language across India, and indirectly vis-à-vis Urdu and Hindustani thanks to policies that marginalize Urdu speakers and “foreign” linguistic influences, i.e. those not derived from Sanskrit. Examples of this include situations in Rajasthan, where recent school closings have targeted Urdu-medium schools, denying them access to new Urdu books and merging them with Hindi-medium schools (Chowdhury), in Delhi, where Urdu is an official language, but examinations and courses are rarely offered in the language, and Urdu, as well as Punjabi, lack the qualified teachers to provide quality instruction in these languages (Malhotra), and in Maharashtra, where weak infrastructure and lack of qualified teachers has stunted the ability of Urdu-medium schools to provide quality education to 13 lakh students enrolled there (Shaban). Additionally, Urdu was banned as a medium of education in Uttar Pradesh until from 1947- 1989, whereas Hindi has been official continuously since before independence (Sen). These policies marginalize Urdu speakers and create incentives not to study at Urdu-medium schools, even as Urdu words are used frequently in everyday speech and Urdu music and poetry remain extremely popular across India.

This common man’s everyday speech is very different from Standard Hindi (Photograph: Esmeralda Herrera)

The promotion of the highly Sanskritized Hindi used by the government and taught in schools is problematic because of the distance that is inherent between that language and the dialects of the aam aadmi in North India and because of the reduced student learning that this gap creates (Bhagobaty, Pande). This is especially poignant not only because commonly-used Urdu words are eschewed in shuddh Hindi, but also because English words, some of which have become commonplace in Indian speech, whether it is Hingish or Hindustani, are also avoided (Daniyal, Pande, V. Chand). In this way, the government policy which favors teaching and promoting Hindi is running contrary to the market influences that have created the mixed Hindi-Urdu-English vernacular of North India. At Medha, for example, our curriculum and session collaterals are written in this mixed language so that it will be most accessible to our students.

Despite the initial desire to rid India of the language of its colonizers, it is possible that today, with English as the global language of business and the common use of English loan words in South Asian vernaculars, promoting shuddh Hindi, or any language, with that aim may no longer make sense and may even be harmful to students and educational outcomes in North India.


To be continued in Part III


Bhagobaty, Ranjan K. “From ‘Hindi’ to ‘Hindustani’.” Shillong Times, June 9, 2016. Accessed February 3, 2018.

Chand, Tara. The Problem of Hindustani. Allahabad: Indian Periodicals, 1944. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Chand, Vineeta. “The Rise and Rise of Hinglish in India.” The Wire. February 12, 2016. Accessed May 03, 2018.

Chowdhury, Shreya Roy. “Rajasthan’s School Mergers Have Dealt a Blow to Urdu Teaching, and Its Speakers Allege a Conspiracy.” Scroll India, May 4, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Daniyal, Shoaib. “The Rise of Hinglish: How the Media Created a New Lingua Franca for India’s Elites.” Scroll India, June 18, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Dudney, Arthur. “Imposing an Arbitrary National Language Would Only Divide Pakistan Further.” The Conversation, September 14, 2016. Accessed May 3, 2018.

King, Christopher Rolland. One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in the Nineteenth Century North India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

King, Robert D. “The Poisonous Potency of Script: Hindi and Urdu.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2001, no. 150 (2001). Accessed May 3, 2018. doi:10.1515/ijsl.2001.035.

Macaulay, Thomas B. “Minute on Education.” Speech, Parliamentary Minute, Parliament, London, February 2, 1835. Accessed April 3, 2018.

Malhotra, Neha. “Prevented From Intermingling With Hindi By Language Police, Urdu Dies A Slow Death.” Outlook India, June 12, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Pande, Mrinal. “Hindi’s Prototype Was a Mélange of Dialects – but the Language Is Now Undergoing a Purification.” Hindi’s Prototype Was a Mélange of Dialects – but the Language Is Now Undergoing a Purification, July 24, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Sen, Shreeja. “SC Approves Urdu as Second Official Language of UP.” Livemint, September 5, 2014. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Shaban, Abdul. Urdu Medium Schools in Maharashtra An Assessment of Their Infrastructure and Possibility of Developing Them in Model Schools. Report. November 2014. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Jackson was born in Calcutta, India, and raised in the American Midwest, and completed his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University (NU) in June 2017. After spending the summer studying Urdu in Lucknow with the Critical Language Scholarship Program, Jackson is excited to be returning there to serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Medha. Building upon his undergraduate coursework, where he studied Political Science, Asian Languages and Cultures, and International Studies, and experience interning with an NGO in India through the NU’s Global Engagement Studies Institute, Jackson is looking forward to working full time in the Indian social sector. Throughout the Fellowship, Jackson is eager to serve Lucknow's youth, further developing his language abilities in Hindi and Urdu, and join a community of Indians and Americans committed to pursuing social change in India. After the Fellowship, he plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in policy or academia.

You Might Also Like

One thought on “Language, Politics and Education in North India, Part II: The National Languages of South Asia

  1. Such a fascinating and impeccably-researched post, Jackson! I am a former AIF Clinton fellow and I’ll be in Lucknow this summer studying Urdu on a CLS scholarship… I’m eager to keep following your journey! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Join Us

Stay up to date on the latest news and help spread the word.

Get Involved

Our regional chapters let you bring the AIF community offline. Meet up and be a part of a chapter near you.

Join a Chapter

Help us help those in need.

Subscribe to newsletter

Skip to content