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Bharat Bhasha: Navigating the Linguistic Mosaic of India

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  09-Feb-2024 | Tanmaya Kshirsagar



Introduction

The linguistic mosaic of India is an extremely diverse reality, manifested through the versatility of multiple languages, dialects and language families across the nation. All these language varieties and groups share some common features, stand out in some stark contrasts and have a unique story of origin. Common man is often oblivious to the richness of the diversity of this linguistic mosaic of India and the spirit it exudes. The term Bharat Bhasha, literally translates to ‘The spirit of the linguistic heritage of India’.

The Linguistic Survey of India conducted between 1894-1903, led by Sir George Abraham Grierson, reported 179 languages and 544 dialects spoken in India. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (2010-2012) reported the existence of 780 languages (without making a distinction between language and dialect). The Ethnologue classified 447 languages in India. This data is a testimony to the inevitable need of understanding and navigating the extent of India’s linguistic diversities in an in-depth manner.

Defining Bharat Bhasha

Bharat Bhasha can be inferred as different ideas, like an official language, an inheritance, a mother tongue or an original language from which other languages have evolved. But, when perceived as a single identity, Bharat Bhasha is a concept that tries to capture the essence of the linguistic diversity and unity of India. It is not a single language, but a collective term for the various languages spoken by the people of India, who share a common history, culture, and heritage. Bharat bhasha reflects the idea that India is a nation of many languages, but one spirit.

Bharat bhasha is the voice of India, which expresses the aspirations, emotions, and values of its people in different languages, but with a common vision. It can also be defined as the soul of India, which connects the people of different regions, religions, and communities through the bond of language, literature, and art. Bharat bhasha is the identity of India, which showcases the richness, diversity, and beauty of its languages, and celebrates the unity in diversity of its people.

Different Types of Linguistic Diversities

India is a country with a high degree of linguistic diversity, as it is home to speakers of different language families, such as Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, and Andamanese. Below is a brief account of each language family and its distribution in India:

  • Indo-Aryan: This is the largest and most widely spoken language family in India, with about 33% of the population speaking an Indo-Aryan language. It belongs to the Indo-European family and the languages are mainly spoken in northern, central, and eastern India, as well as in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Some of the major Indo-Aryan languages are Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Nepali.
  • Dravidian: This is the second largest distinct language family in India, with about 20% of the population speaking a Dravidian language. The Dravidian languages which are mainly spoken in southern and central India are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Tulu.
  • Austroasiatic: This is a small but diverse language family, with about 8% of the population speaking an Austroasiatic language, mainly in eastern and central India, as well as in parts of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar. Some of the major Austroasiatic languages are Santali, Mundari, Ho, Khasi, and Munda.
  • Sino-Tibetan: This is a language family, with about 5% of the population speaking a Sino-Tibetan language, mainly spoken in northeastern and northern India, as well as in parts of Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar. Some of the major languages are Meitei, Bodo, Garo, Naga, and Lepcha.
  • Tai-Kadai: It is a very recent addition to the language families of India, with less than 1% of the population speaking a Tai-Kadai language, especially in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Some of the major Tai-Kadai languages are Ahom, Tai Phake, Khamti, and Tai Aiton.
  • Andamanese: It is the smallest and most endangered language family in India, with less than 0.1% of the population speaking an Andamanese language, only spoken in the Andaman Islands, a remote archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. Some of the major Andamanese languages are Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese.

There also are other prominent differences and varieties in the linguistic heritage of India like the several mother languages, even in the most remote parts of the country and the 22 official languages recognized by the Constitution of India. Dialectical differences according to the changing geographical locations are also a major feature of the linguistic mosaic.

The Debate of the Official and National Language

The debate of the official and national language of India is a long-standing and contentious issue that involves several deep-rooted political, social, and cultural aspects. The Constitution of India does not declare any language as the national language, but it recognizes Hindi in Devanagari script as the official language of the Union, along with English as an associate official language for a period of 15 years, which was later extended indefinitely by the Official Languages Act, 1963. The Constitution also lists 22 languages under the Eighth Schedule, which are given recognition and protection by the central and state governments.

However, there is a strong argument that Hindi should be the sole national language of India, as it is the most widely spoken and understood language in the country, and it can foster a sense of national unity and identity. People also claim that Hindi is the language of the freedom struggle and the composite culture of India. Paradoxically, some people oppose this idea, as they fear that imposing Hindi would undermine the linguistic diversity and rights of the non-Hindi speaking regions and communities, and create a cultural and political hegemony of the Hindi-speaking belt. They also assert that India is a multilingual and multicultural nation, and no single language can represent its diversity and federalism.

Conclusion

After gaining some insights on the nature of origin of the linguistic diversity of India, ongoing debates about certain issues around the main theme and the contemporary sentiments of the masses, it is important that we respect the multitude of opinions in the matter. The linguistic heritage which has been endangered or extinct in many parts of India due to neglect and other human-made factors, especially in small villages and rare speech communities, should be preserved and revised.

It is important to note that language is a descriptive entity and is subject to changes with time; thus its study, nature and perception cannot be framed in a rigid structure lifelong. Extinction is a requisite for many languages and similarly, many languages adapt to contemporary trends and undergo transitions. The linguistic roots of India, that amalgamate into Bharat Bhasha, are unimaginably widespread and branched out, which necessitates harmony and understanding on behalf of every group and section of society while negotiating the status of any language.

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