For several weeks, Indian news outlets have erroneously reported that Pakistan had made Mandarin one of its official languages in an attempt to show solidarity with its close Chinese partner. The story had no basis in truth, but in spite of this, the Senate of Pakistan had to formally debunk the fake news in order to set the record straight.
While a fake news story regarding Pakistan in the Indian media is certainly nothing new, this particular story actually says more about how today’s Indian newsmen and women see themselves than it does about what they see in Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become (in)famous for his refusal to speak English, even when meeting other South Asian leaders for whom English is the standard language of diplomacy. This was the case when he met with former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. While Modi did not require an interpreter to understand Rajapaksa who spoke English, he nevertheless communicated with Rajapaksa via a Hindi interpreter.
As Hindi is one of the official languages of India, Modi’s refusal to speak English on occasions where most of his predecessors would have done so, is not controversial in and of itself. However, Modi’s calculated dropping of English does say a great deal about the image he wants to project about his government at home and India’s image abroad.
English is not indigenous to South Asia as it is a product of British colonial rule, just as it is in Singapore or The Philippines, in respect of US colonial rule. However, because Hindi is not native to millions of Indians, particularly those in the south of the country, as well as other regions, English remains a universal lingua franca for national Indian politics.
While the BJP government of Modi is attempting to promote Hindi as the lingua franca of Indians, many Indians disapprove of these measures. In 2014, a census revealed that only 25% of all Indians regard Hindi as their mother tongue. Even when one includes the total percentage of those with an acceptable knowledge of spoken Hindi, this number is still only 40% of India’s total population and naturally, most of these people live in India’s northern provinces.
On the one hand, some argue that forcing Hindi upon non-native speakers will be a way to break the hold of a colonial legacy. On the other hand, while English may have some latent class connotations, it does not have any sectarian connotations, which in a country like India is ultimately more important. In this sense, English is a trans-sectarian equaliser and it also allows Indians to have a potential advantage in an international marketplace and academic space which is still largely English-centric. But for Modi and the BJP, the “Hindutvazation” of the country has always taken precedence over maintaining a non-sectarian society.
How does this relate to Pakistan?
The clear implication in the Indian fake news reports regarding a non-existent Pakistani law to make Mandarin an official language, is that even as an independent country, Pakistan had allegedly adopted a colonial mentality insofar as adopting a non-indigenous language as official, is a sign of submission to a more powerful overlord.
Not only is this insulting to Pakistani dignity, but it is insulting to the trends of modernity, progressivism and interconnectivity between peoples and nations. Mandarin is not and will not be an official language in Pakistan, but it is being taught in an increasing number of Pakistani schools. This has come neither at the expense of English classes, classes in local/regional languages or classes in Koranic Arabic.
Thus, due to the Arabic language of the original Koran, the prevalence of English as a modern lingua franca and a growing number of Mandarin classes, Pakistan may soon become one of the most linguistically rich nations in the world, not least because between English, Mandarin and even some Arabic, a vast percentage of the globe can be interacted with in a native or near-native language.
By contrast, the Indian government is not only discouraging English, but in some circles, the desire to learn Mandarin might be frowned upon as ‘un-Indian’ or worse yet, seen only as a tool for espionage rather than as a business, schooling or social tool to increase cooperation being peoples of the world.
India’s internal language wars are unnecessary, time wasting and can only do harm insofar as it is just a further element of the BJP agenda which seeks to alienate regions outside of the so-called Hindutva heartland.
While Pakistan embraces multipolarity, India is retreating into itself, yet it hasn’t yet decided which part of itself it is retreating into.