Notes and Numbers: How the New Currency May Resurrect an Old Language Debate

The cacophony of analyses on the demonitisation has overlooked the quieter yet constitutionally significant issue of the new notes having Devanagari numerals printed on them.

A specimen 2000 rupee note. Credit: ANI/Twitter

A specimen 2000 rupee note. Credit: ANI/Twitter

Much has already been written and said about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement demonetising the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes on Tuesday night. However, the fine print (large on the actual notes) has eluded most, if not all, analysts and commentators. As people raced to ATMs to retrieve as many Rs 100 notes as they could, discussed the policy implications of the decision, had a laugh about the entire issue on social media and various politicians praised or condemned the move, a particular feature of the new (but yet to be issued) notes was missed by everyone – that of the Devanagari numerals. While this may seem like a minor change in the design of the currency notes, there are significantly larger issues at stake here. 

The language debate

While all aspects of the Indian constitution were fiercely debated in the Constituent Assembly, the role of language in the Indian union was perhaps the most contested issue given that it is such an emotive subject. The debate on the language(s) for the Indian Union was tortuous and protracted. While people from the Hindi-speaking states advocated for Hindi to be the national language of the country, those from states where Hindi was not spoken were averse to this and saw it as an imposition. After myriad suggestions, interventions, arguments, counter-arguments, amendments, drafts and committee reports, it was agreed that Hindi would be the ‘official’ language of the country along with English.

Attendant to the language question was the form of numerals that would be used by the government for official purposes. Granville Austin, who described this as “the sorest point” of the language debate, details the back-and-forth on whether to use the Nagari numerals or the Arabic numerals. Internationally also known as the Hindu-Arabic numerals, the final terminology that was agreed upon in the constitution was the ‘international form of Indian numerals’, thus showing some cognizance of the Indian origin of the ‘international’ numerals. After some concerns were raised by a few south Indian members of the Assembly – notably T. A. Ramalinga Chettiar – about the Hindi connection of the Devanagari numerals, there emerged a fair consensus that it would just be more practical to use the international form, especially in the fields of banking and science and for other technical purposes.

A compromise was reached in the end, enshrined in Article 343 of the constitution, which states that “[t]he form of numerals to be used for the official purposes of the Union shall be the international form of Indian numerals”, with the provision that a presidential order could be issued to allow the use of Devanagari numerals in addition to the international ones for a period of 15 years starting from the commencement of the constitution. In accordance with Article 344, the Official Languages Commission (constituted in 1955 and headed by B.G. Kher) was given the power to make recommendations on “the form of numerals to be used for any one or more specified purposes of the Union.” The Commission had “no recommendation” to make on the issue according to its report. Consequently, the Parliamentary Committee on Official Language (headed by G.B. Pant), which was constituted in 1957 to review the recommendations of the Kher commission, submitted additional recommendations that formed the basis for the Presidential Order of 1960. The order has the following to say on the matter, “As suggested by the Committee, a uniform basic policy should be adopted for the use of Devanagari numerals, in addition to the international numerals, in the Hindi publications of the Central Ministries depending upon the public intended to be addressed and the subject-matter of the publication. For scientific, technical and statistical publications… the international numerals should be adopted uniformly in all publications’. Clearly, the order limits the proposed use of Devanagari numerals by central ministries to Hindi publications if there is a need for it.

The Official Languages Act of 1963, which effectively extended the status of English as an official language indefinitely, beyond the 15 years stipulated in the constitution, has nothing to say about numerals. Article 343 also says that following the initial period, parliamentary legislation is required for the use of Devanagari numerals. To the best of our knowledge, no law has yet dealt with this issue; hence, the constitutional provisions and those of the 1960 presidential order stand.

The silent rise of Hindi

This brings us to the issue at hand – the new currency notes having Devanagari numerals on them. It is certainly not the case that these currency notes fall under “Hindi publications of Central Ministries”, as delineated in the 1960 order. There is hence no basis for the government to use Devanagari numerals on the soon to be issued Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes. Using this line of argument, the design of the new notes is in contravention of the constitution. Of course, one can debate whether currency notes fall under ‘official purposes’. According to the RBI website, the RBI “coordinates with the government” for designing the notes. One can guess how much of the contribution to the design came from the RBI given that the obverse side of the notes has the Swachh Bharat logo on them. Why did the government change a robust and established policy that adhered to the constitution by including Devanagari numerals in the new notes?

Is this surreptitious change in consonance with the present government’s policy of promoting the widespread use of Hindi and characteristic of a creeping Hindi-isation? Having exhausted other means of encouraging the use of Hindi, has the government pushed for a back-door entry of Devanagari numerals in the union?

In the noise that surrounds the demonetisation and replacement of the current batch of high denomination notes – mostly caused by the policy and economic-financial implications of the move – the immensely significant issue of the quiet introduction of Devanagari numerals will probably be drowned out. It is in this light that we draw attention to this move – the legalities of which should be taken up by the Supreme Court. We fear that the dangerous trend of creeping Hindi-isation has reached new levels with this move: the highest possible level, that of contravening the constitution.

Kavin Aadithiyan is a research scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, and Sahil Mathur is a research scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.