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Diplomacy

For Decades, MEA Has Promoted Only One Indian Language Abroad – Hindi

Indian diplomatic missions sponsor Hindi lessons even in countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where a majority of the diaspora is not Hindi speaking.

New Delhi: The Ministry of External Affairs’ preparations to celebrate another World Hindi Conference are a timely reminder that the Indian foreign ministry has been largely promoting only one Indian language abroad for decades now.

This point was brought out clearly in a recent parliamentary question posed by a former Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and now independent MP from West Bengal.

Rajya Sabha member Ritabrata Banerjee had asked whether the Indian government was attempting to get official language status for Hindi in the United Nations. This is a very common query that features regularly among questions posed by parliamentarians to the external affairs ministry.

But there was a further twist to Banerjee’s question. The 38-year-old politician asked whether the Indian government was “also trying to get Bangla and the other official languages of India recognised as the official languages of the UN”.

The written reply from external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on April 5 said that there was “no formal proposal before the United Nations for getting Hindi or other Indian languages in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution of India recognised as an official language of the United Nations”.

The reasons cited for the lack of any such initiative was the requirement of a two-thirds majority resolution, as well as the provision that all UN members will have to contribute towards the additional expenditure.

Earlier in January, Swaraj had said that India was willing to bear the financial burden of even “Rs 400 crore” for Hindi to be accorded the status of UN official language, but rules did not allow such a step. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had pointed out that Hindi was the official language only in India, which led to Swaraj pointing that countries like Fiji and Mauritius also had similar provisions. Of course, languages like Tamil and Bengali are also official languages in other countries.

Further, in answer to Banerjee’s question on the promotion of Hindi and Bengali language abroad, Swaraj rolled out the boilerplate reply on government initiatives taken by the MEA “to spread Hindi worldwide”. “Indian leaders have delivered statements at the UN and other international forums in Hindi,” she wrote.

As the minister indicated, the singular focus on promoting Hindi has not been just limited to the current NDA government. “A World Hindi Secretariat has been set up in Mauritius in February 2008 to promote Hindi as an international language,” she stated.

President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurating the World Hindi Secretariat in Mauritius in March 2018. Credit: Twitter/Rashtrapati Bhavan

President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurating the World Hindi Secretariat in Mauritius in March 2018. Credit: Twitter/Rashtrapati Bhavan

The first memorandum of understanding between India and Mauritius to establish a World Hindi Secretariat was signed in August 1998. It took another four years to flesh out the various guidelines to include in an inter-governmental agreement that was inked in November 2003. India has funded the construction of the secretariat building, which according to an estimate in 2015-16 was over Rs 14 crore.

The logo and website of the 11th edition of the World Hindi Conference were launched by Swaraj and Mauritian education minister Leela Devi Dookhun Luchoomun on Tuesday.

At the launch, Swaraj said the conference is important to ensure that the language exists among Indians living abroad. “Language and culture go hand in hand. If language is gone, culture is gone. That is why the conference is being organised, to make sure that the Indian staying abroad do not forget it,” she said, as per an ANI report.

The MEA currently only funds the World Hindi Conference. In fact, the first World Hindi Conference was held in 1975 by Rashtrabhasha Prachar Samiti, Wardha, a voluntary organisation set up by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930s.

There have been ten World Hindi Conferences held since then, with more regularity since the 1990s – every 3-5 years. The last one was held in 2015 in Bhopal.

Incidentally, the tradition of a World Hindi Day was started by the UPA government in 2006. It has since been an annual activity in Indian missions, with sponsored quizzes and special functions.

While the minister has spoken about how the language of Indians abroad should not be forgotten, the government does not sponsor similar activities for other languages in the eighth schedule.

“Efforts to promote Hindi worldwide are also being made by our Diplomatic Missions abroad in coordination with Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) through activities such as establishment of Chairs of Hindi language in universities abroad, scholarship and fellowships to foreign students to study Hindi, internationally distributed publications such as “Gagananchal”, and holding of various types of international conferences pertaining to Hindi,” Swaraj stated in her written answer to a question in Rajya Sabha on April 5.

The MEA’s detailed budget accounts have a separate section for the promotion of Hindi through diplomatic missions. The priority given to this activity is also reflected in the MEA’s latest annual report, with more information provided on Hindi propagation compared to even the ministry’s cultural wing, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

Through its budget, ICCR funds nine chairs on Hindi in various international universities. Besides this, it also sponsors the deputation of 11 Hindi teachers in several educational organisations. The exceptions, in language teaching, was the sponsorship of three Sanskrit teachers to Thailand, Cambodia and Mauritius, and two Tamil teachers tor Polish universities.

Indian Cultural Centres also hold Hindi classes, for which Hindi teachers are selected by ICCR. As per the list on its website, it has appointed 25 local Hindi teachers in 14 cultural centres. This includes sponsoring Hindi classes in countries like Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where the majority of the diaspora has a mother tongue that is not Hindi.

In a couple of countries, ICCs also offer classes in languages other than in Hindi, but they are usually offered with the help of the local Indian community. For example, Bangla classes at the ICC in Johannesburg are conducted with the support of the local Bengali association. Similarly, Urdu classes in the ICC, Maldives are being taught by an Indian expatriate.