Can India Sustain Linguistic Imperialism?


Dr. Ravi P. Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

The present world that we are all part of, shows imperialism or domination of large parts of the world by some imperial power such as USA, China, Britain. In fact, Britain used to pride itself at the end of WWII by the statement that ‘the sun never sets on the British empire’ since Britain had colonised several countries north and south, east and west — from North America to Australia to New Zealand.

India was one of its proudest, biggest colonies among these regions. Britain had entered India for trade purposes, by the agency known as ‘East India Company’, but gradually metamorphosed into a colonial power. This happened not only in India (which was under British rule for two centuries), but in several other regions from North America to South Africa, Singapore, New Zealand, and so on.

Apart from the UK as a colonial power, there were other countries that colonised most parts of the world. These were Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium and to a lesser extent Germany and Holland.

The regions colonised by Spain were largely in America both North and South (except Brazil). France had small empires in Northwest Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Haiti and parts of India. Portugal had also a small empire in India (Goa) but large ones in Brazil and Africa. Portugal was forced to move out of India in 1961.

These countries were exploited by the colonial masters economically, politically and linguistically. For example, Portuguese is the main language in Brazil and small parts of India; Spanish is the principal language in South America (except in Brazil), French is dominant in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Eastern Canada, Tahiti and Haiti. English was the dominant language in India, in eastern South Africa apart from Australia and New Zealand. The colonial powers promoted their own languages at the expense of local and tribal ones.

For example, all Australia’s local languages were sidelined and ultimately only English remained there. In New Zealand, fortunately, a tribal language Maori remains as an official language in addition to English.

English maintains its dominance today in most parts of the world — USA, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, in United Nations and other world bodies.

What were the main reasons for this? Not only English was taught in most parts of India, but Indian languages were derided for having no worthwhile literature . Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) said as much. When he was in India, he held the western education in high esteem and was dismissive of Indian culture and languages. He felt he was civilising the Indian education system and wrote that he must promote a section of Indians who were Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinions and intellect.

When Britain was ruling India, the Indian officers and others holding high positions not only spoke in English but also dressed like Englishmen — they wore coats, neckties and boots like Englishmen. To emphasise this aspect they also smoked cigars. Many top Indian officers proudly stated that they spoke in traditional Indian languages only with fellow Indians holding low positions, but in English language with Indian people holding high positions.

The Constitution of India recognises 22 Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Sanskrit and even Nepali and Sindhi which relate to our neighbouring countries Nepal and Pakistan. Today, some Indian scholars have criticised the attitude of denigrating Indian languages and promoting English language. This has resulted in promoting western system of education at the expense of traditional Indian form of education.

Although, the present political system promotes usage of Hindi in our everyday life, the economic system overwhelmingly uses English in law, in the outer covers of various products — be they chocolates or milk or noodles. English is also used to advertise these products. This creates an undesirable impact on the marginalised sections of India.  First, they do not buy these products because they are too expensive for their purse. Second, the English language deters them from purchases.

The obvious question they have is why cannot Hindi or local languages be used to promote the products? Fortunately, India’s government headed by Narendra Modi does use and promotes Hindi language. He is held in high esteem not only in India but also worldwide for his pro people policies and traditional means of governing the country. Even when he goes overseas, he speaks in Hindi and promotes Indian values and culture including traditional agricultural systems and yoga.

These policies help in suitably governing India which is a vast country with many cultures, values and languages that bind the country in a holistic manner. They also prevent linguistic imperialism — India from becoming a linguistic imperial power by promoting English or any other Indian language–such as Hindi.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 May 2023.

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