On July 25, 2012, the day Mukherjee was sworn-in as the 13th President of India, he had made a fine speech — touching upon terrorism, democracy, secularism, the Constitution — in English. It was vice-president Hamid Ansari, who had then read out a Hindi translation of excerpts from his speech.
His last Independence Day address to the nation, on August 14, 2016, was also in English, dubbed and subtitled in Hindi on Doordarshan.
1. Did you know that Hindi is not India’s national language?
2. The Constitution does not recognise any national language, but 22 “official” languages and three “classical” languages.
3. India is seriously multi-lingual: according to the Peoples Linguistic Survey (PLS), India has 780 languages, of which just 122 are enumerated by the Census.
4. Statistics show that while Hindi remains the most spoken mother tongue in the country, nearly 60 per cent Indians speak a language other than Hindi.
5. Out of 29 states and seven Union territories, barely a dozen (Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Jharkhand) have a majority who list Hindi as their mother tongue.
6. Out of all those who list Hindi as their mother tongue, 40 per cent do not speak pure Hindi but in 49 tongues similar to Hindi.
7. What’s more, India is also losing languages faster than any nation on earth. The UNESCO lists 197 Indian languages as endangered or vulnerable, more than any other country. According to the PLS, we have lost 50 languages in the past five decades. That means extinction of history, world views, communities and culture.
8. The Constitution extends protection to minority languages as a fundamental right: “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part of thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”
President Mukherjee has a penchant for quoting Rabindranath Tagore. There is almost no presidential speech, where he has not quoted the poet. The good thing about it is that it gives him an intellectual aura missing in his peer group.
But Tagore’s thoughts on Hindi were much more complex. In letters to the Mahatma (National Language of India, 1918 and 1937), the poet wrote:
“Whatever the national convenience of a language that can facilitate inter-cultural communication in our country, it remains a mere convenience and cannot replace the value of one’s native tongue as a vehicle of intimate self-expression.
“I have in my institution at Shantiniketan provision for the teaching of Hindi as well as Urdu.
“I hope those who have undertaken the lead in replacing English by a national medium of communication will realise their responsibility in this respect. I wish them all success.”