Official Language Act, 1963

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

Multilingualism is indeed a common phenomenon in several countries around the world so is in India. Multilingual nations share a common feature of having an official language. An official language is a language that is declared by a country’s government, with legal backing. The Use of Official Languages Act is intended to “regulate and track” official language use.

On 14 September 1949 Hindi was adopted as the Union of India’s Official Language. Later in 1950, the Indian Constitution proclaimed Hindi the official language of India in the Devanagari script. The Official Languages Act was promulgated in 1963. This maintained that English “can” still be used in official communication along with Hindi as of 1965.

Purpose served by the Act

On achieving independence, India confronted with the issue of having a Union language. For a long time, the administration in Indian was in English under the British rule. The constituent assembly had the task of determining whether to continue functioning in the same way for official work or to abandon it in a different language, mainly Hindi. So Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave the nation an assurance that English would not be replaced by Hindi until no Hindu-speaking citizens desired a move. Since the people who spoke Dravidian languages were more confident in English than they were in the most spoken language in India, i.e. It’s Hindi. To establish that in 1963 the Official Language Act was passed, which enabled English to continue as an official language. 

National language v. Official language

India’s multiculturalism is well established and cherished and extends to the multitude of languages spoken in the country. With this, there’s always ambiguity in this scenario about whether India has one national language. A national language and an official language are divergent. While a national language will have a patriotic and nationalistic character, an official language is something that is endorsed at an official level for communication.

Hindi as national language: Decoding the myth

The Indian subcontinent has been unified under separate empires over the last few years, as well as split into several small kingdoms. This has helped to spread many common linguistic features among Indian languages without allowing for overwhelming supremacy of any particular language. And the dominant language that we are talking about here is, “Hindi”. According to a study, 52 crores described Hindi as their language out of 121 crores people. That means that in India, Hindi is the language of less than 44% of Indians and the mother tongue of just over 25% of people, therefore, the pride of place is granted by considering it as an official and not ‘national’ language.

How / why makers enacted this Act?

When the Constituent Assembly met for the primary time in December 1946, it had its work cut out. Among the earliest decisions taken by the body was to have the House’s proceedings to conduct in   Hindustani and English. This decision in favor of Hindustani was followed by an unforeseen drama by a member of Jhansi, RV Dhulekar, who started speaking in Hindustani before any rules on language use were constructed. To patch up the language question, the Constituent Assembly did have few precedents to travel, just like The Motilal Nehru Commission Report of 1928 where mainly recommendations were around language.

Partitioning was inevitable by July 1947. The National Indian flag was chosen. This was the time to announced national language. Now Hindi protagonists made their move and built a firm argument in support of Hindi and against Hindustani since they assumed that Hindustani was an Urdu mask they were willing to give up. The Anglo-Indian leader, Frank Anthony, gave an odd suggestion among those claims and counter-claims: Hindi in the Roman script. This resulted in demands for recognition of the Urdu language, as well as a appeal in the Roman script to Hindustani.

Besides that, half in jest, Bengali and Odia were also suggested as national languages. due to their established character and history. Clearly the discussion was heading in many directions and there was no definitive decision on the horizon. At this point, a proposal was referred, “Munshi-Ayyangar formula” named after the people who had drafted it: KM Munshi and Gopalaswami Ayyangar. Incorporated under Chapter-I Part XVII within the Constitution. This concept did not make allowance for a national language. It proposed that Hindi would be the “official language of the Union” in the Devanagari script, and that English would remain to be used for all official purposes for fifteen years from the date of the Constitution, which Parliament may extend.  

However, the idea of the switchover spurred to resistance in non-Hindi-speaking areas, especially Dravidian-speaking regions in South India for whom languages are not Hindi-related. The Indian constitution makers also separate between the language to be used in legislative proceedings and the language to be used in law making. According to the Constitution, parliamentary affairs can be conducted in either Hindi or English. At the end of fifteen years, the use of English in parliamentary proceedings was to be phased out unless the Parliament wanted to prolong its use. All this chaos and on request of the opposition by non-speaking Hindi Indians forced the Parliament to adopt an Official Language Act, 1963.

Development around the Act

Article 345, 346, 347 of Constitution of India 1949

  • Part XVII of the Indian Constitution
  • In Articles 343 to 351, Part XVII of the Indian Constitution deals with the official languages. The Constitution does not specify the official language of the various State but at present 22 languages (originally 14 languages) are specified in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
  • Official Language Rules, 1976: Main features of these rules were:
  • The rules apply to all Central Government Offices, including any office of a Commission, Committee or Tribunal appointed by the Central Government and Corporation or Company owned or controlled by it.
  • It shall be the responsibility of the officer signing the documents specified in section 3(3) of the Act to ensure that these are issued both in Hindi and English.

Conclusion

This Article has aimed to explore into the meaning and growth of the 1963 official language act. Of more than 900 million inhabitants and over 1,000 languages, India is undoubtedly one of the world’s multilingual nations today. It is home to the families of the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages, This multitude of languages represents the long and varied history of India.

After gaining independence from the British in 1947, Indian leaders chose Hindi as India’s official language hoping it would facilitate regional communication and foster national unity. They were aware of many of the challenges involved in adopting one tongue in the multilingual world of India, therefore accordingly they set out a specific timetable and schedule for adopting Hindi and phasing out English. Despite this scheme, Hindi and English even now share their status as official languages today.

Author: Astitva Kumar from JIMS Engineering Management Technical Campus School of Law, Greater Noida (Affiliated to GGSIP University, New Delhi).

Editor: Silky Mittal, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.

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