Samvada | The Census and the fallacy of our mother tongue 

Do the people in Rajasthan and Maharashtra consider Hindi as their ‘mother tongue’? This unjustified classification norm has led to a denial of linguistic existence

Over the last 80 years, once in every 10 years, the government of India has been carrying out a massive census. The 1931 Census was quite a landmark as it held a clear mirror before the country about its social composition. The 1941 was an exceptional year as the war disrupted the exercise. The 1951 was a rather busy year for the new Indian republic. It was during the 1961 census that languages in the country were enumerated fully. India learnt through it that a total of 1,652 mother tongues were being spoken. For a rather non-sociological reason, this figure was shown at only 109, a reduction of 1,543. The reason was that the government decided to ‘not declare’ any language claimed by less than 1,000 speakers. Not a fair decision; but it has stuck and the practice continues to be followed.

The language enumeration takes place in the first year of every decade. The data collected is disclosed to the public some six or seven years later. This is so as the processing of language data is far more time consuming than processing economic or other scientific data. Thus, last week, the Census of India declared the language data of the 2011 Census. The scale of the entire exercise is simply unprecedented. It takes into account 120 crore speakers of a very large number of languages. The Language division of the Census office therefore deserves an applause. Yet, the data presented leaves one with more questions than before.

During the census, the citizens of India provided 19,569 names of mother tongues. In technical terms, this is called ‘raw returns’. Based on previously available linguistic and sociological information, the authorities decided that of these, 18,200 did not match ‘logically’ with known information. A total of 1,369 names (‘labels’ as they are technically called) were picked up as ‘being names of languages’. These were picked up as they fell in place within established categories of linguistic classification. The ‘raw returns’ left out represent nearly 60 lakh citizens. Thanks to the classification regime, their linguistic citizenship is just axed.

Under the heading ‘Hindi’, there are nearly 50 other languages. Bhojpuri spoken by more than five crore people, with its own cinema, theatre, literature, vocabulary and style, is shown as ‘Hindi’. Nearly three crore population from Rajasthan, with its own independent languages, too is shown as speaking Hindi as a mother tongue

Then, in addition to the 1,369 ‘mother tongue’ names short listed in scrutiny, there were 1,474 other mother tongue names. They were placed under the generic label ‘Others’. These linguistic others are not seen as any concern of the Census! They have languages of their own. They speak; but the classification system could not identify what or which languages they speak. They are simply silenced by slapping an apparently innocuous label on them. Others!

The fortunate 1,369 were further grouped together under a total of 121 ‘group labels’. These are presented to the country as ‘Languages’. Of these, 22 are the languages included in the 8th schedule of the Constitution. So, they are called the ‘Scheduled Languages’. The remaining 99 are described as the ‘non-scheduled’ languages. When one starts looking at these, one finds that most of the groupings are forced. For instance, under the heading ‘Hindi’, there are nearly 50 other languages. Bhojpuri spoken by more than five crore people, with its own cinema, theatre, literature, vocabulary and style, is shown as ‘Hindi’. Nearly three crore population from Rajasthan, with its own independent languages, too is shown as speaking Hindi as a mother tongue. The Powari/Pawri of the tribals in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh has been hitched to it. So is the Kumauni of Uttarakhand yoked to Hindi. The Census states that more than 50 crore people speak Hindi as their mother tongue. And this simply is not so.

A similarly inflated figure is given for Sanskrit by counting the returns given against the question about the ‘second language’. As against this, the use of English is not seen through the perspective of second language. Counting for it is restricted to the ‘mother tongue’ category, in effect, bringing down the figure for it very substantially.

The census should reflect in an unbiased way, the linguistic composition of the country. But by introducing unjustified classification norms without any public debate whatsoever, it has managed to deny linguistic existence to a large number of citizens. It is time we question this aphasia or silence imposed on us in the republic.

(GN Devy is a literary critic and a cultural activist)

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