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Linguistic States in India

In an otherwise uneventful journey, recently, I had the pleasure of talking to a bus driver who was plying between Indian states A and  B. He was ruing about how commercial and other state transport vehicles(from the ‘other’ states) do not let you overtake based on the letter code on your number plate.

Anecdotes are the lowest forms of data, that is if it can be considered data at all. That said, the story about overtaking(or the lack of it) is an excellent example of how linguistic sub-nationalism surfaces in India.

The movement for linguistic states in India existed much before Independence, but became a reality due to the unfortunate death of Potti Sriramulu who fast unto death for the creation of a separate Andhra Pradesh. Linguistic states are a now reality and have, depending upon the situation, been a matter of great elation and/or chaos.

Language cloud

Creation of linguistic states has had many advantages but it has also had several negative effects. First, boundary tensions exist between several states. Second, water-sharing agreements between higher and lower riparian regions are still not sorted. Third, multilingual scholarship has been a serious casualty  —  it has become the job of another state to promote their own language.

It is undeniable that strong sentiments are attached to languages. The sub-continent itself has witnessed civil wars and creation of an independent nation on the basis of a language. Therefore, it is important to be cognisant about this sentiment, but it is also important to ensure that sentiments do not get the better of us.

In his excellent essay titled State Name and Linguism in  Public Affairs in 1972, the Kannada poet and intellectual D.V Gundappa, says the following

 Emphasising the linguistic element in the nomenclature of the Provincial states in India is a way of promoting separatism and disharmony. (…) The names of the Provincial States should not be such that they could be used as a handle by a fanatic of any kind. Language is emphatically such, as much as Religion. The name could no harm if it is based upon locality or town or upon a  historic dynasty now extinct and incapable of separatist or offensive sentiment — like Kadamba or Chola. If unprovocative is not found , the best course would be to assign a number to the State. The names of States given in Schedule I to the constitution may be rearranged in alphabetical order and numbered consecutively so that they will be known as State the Eighth, State the Fifteenth, State the Twentieth and so on. This may not be the most convenient nomenclature. It may put great strain on memory. But at whatever cost, our provincialism must be subordinated to our nationalism.

Although DVG’s suggestion about numbering the states is not too practical, it raised extremely valid points, especially at a time when the fervour for linguistic states was at its peak.  It is therefore important for us to now ask similarly important questions: Are linguistic states a ticking countdown for something bad? Will linguistic states continue to strengthen the Indian state with a sub-nationalist layer? Is the linguistic organisation of states truly successful both economically and culturally?

This topic deserves holistic analysis and should not be pushed into the realm of taboo.

Varun Ramachandra is a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution and tweets@_quale

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