Understanding the Context

On the 31st of May 2019, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) released the Draft National Education Policy (NEP), a comprehensive policy document that aimed to reform and improve India’s education sector. Because multiple teasers have been released since 2016, the Kasturirangan Committee’s Draft has been scrutinized by policymakers and educationists across the board.

The NEP addressed some of India’s most pressing educational concerns, ranging from early childhood education to liberalizing university curricula. It also raised an age-old debate in a new political context. The first draft (released on the 31st of May) proposed a three-language formula, wherein states across the country would teach English and Hindi compulsorily, and then a third regional language of choice, as can be seen below. This version is no longer available online.

Screenshot three language policy
Screenshot of the original recommendation regarding three-language education in Indian schools (Pt 4.5.9)

This sparked an outcry from southern India especially, with stalwarts of Dravidian politics like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) rallying against this perceived cultural majoritarianism at play. As the debate galvanized, protests grew increasingly louder, reverberating within the MHRD halls. As a result, no less than a week after the release of the NEP, the clause mandating compulsory teaching of Hindi in non-Hindi speaking states was dropped. The Committee members and BJP MP from South Bangalore Tejasvi Surya maintain that ‘imposing’ Hindi and disregarding regional sensibilities was never the main intention of the document.

NEP Revised draft
The revised NEP clause regarding three-language education in Indian schools (p. 84)

Regardless of whether it has been dropped or not, there are real fears of a linguistic hegemony at the hands of the Centre, which is raised by the DMK’s spokesperson Manuraj S. These are complicated when the proven benefits of studying in one’s native language are considered.

Could the three-language policy, and education planning at large, be reflective of the elite status (and hypocrisy) of India’s policy-makers and politicians? Noted political theorist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd reminds us that in the end, it is children from Dalit, Shudra, and Adivasi communities who are affected the most by majoritarian policy-planning.

Click on a quote to read an opinion

“The three-language formula is not a matter of ‘Hindi imposition’, but it is one of national integrity…if the people do not want Hindi as a compulsory option in their school system, it will not happen. The revised draft reflects this ethos.”

— Tejasvi Surya

Tejasvi Surya is a BJP MP from Bengaluru South and a practising lawyer in the Karnataka High Court

“A two-language policy is both politically and policy-wise the most pragmatic option for any government to adopt. Through its minimalism, it mandates two necessary languages, does not impose upon the cultures of non-Hindi speakers and also grants the freedom to learn above and beyond the two languages at the discretion of the parent and child.”

— Manuraj Shunmugasundaram

NEP Three language debate Hindi Imposition

Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is an Advocate and Media Spokesperson for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)

“The current system brings to mind the gurukula system, wherein no Dalit, Shudra, or Adivasi child could study in Sanskrit. Now, they cannot easily study in English medium schools, nor can they access the economic opportunities of the global English-speaking market in the same way the children of the rich do.”

— Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd Three language olicy National Education Policy

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author

Written by Tejasvi Surya

The debate around the NEP, unfortunately, has become about imposing certain languages over others. Political leaders across the spectrum, either deliberately or unwittingly, used select parts of the NEP to gain political mileage. However, a brief read of the draft would certainly prove otherwise. 

The main aim of the draft is to create an ‘India-centric education system’, which it does quite well. The biggest evidence of this is the concentration given to one’s mother tongue. Take a look at the following paragraph from the draft:

Three Language Policy Hindi Imposition

As can be seen with this document, in Hindi-speaking states, the three language system encourages students to pick up languages from other parts of the country, and students in other states can choose any regional language as the third subject (the other two being English and the mother tongue). As such, where is the imposition in this revised version? 

I personally believe that as an extension of this system, children should learn five languages — the mother tongue, English, Sanskrit, Hindi, and another regional language. The inclusion of Sanskrit in this list is simply because it forms the root of all major modern Indian languages, and as such is the mother of Indian languages. 

The society and institutions that we have designed have come to accept that English is required as a unifier within the country, as well as to interact with our global counterparts. However, as Mr Pai pointed out at Sansad Dhvani last month, several countries around the world use a local language for all purposes. From South Korea to Germany, Japan to France, their languages form the dominant mode of communication in both, official settings or otherwise. By-and-large, these countries have a single, dominant local language.

India, on the other hand, is blessed with a rich range of cultures and languages, all of which flavour the country uniquely. As such, the education system and proposed pedagogy must be designed to reflect this diversity. This is precisely what the Draft NEP does. While it acknowledges the advantages of knowing other languages spoken in India, it indicates that it is up to us the people to cooperate and work alongside each other for the sake of progress and development. We should, in fact, celebrate this diversity and uniqueness through languages, instead of dividing ourselves with hearsay. Hindi-speakers should learn other languages, and other language-speakers should pick up Hindi, which is the most common language in the North. Unity in diversity is a two-way street. 

Sansad Dhvani Tejasvi Surya
The first meeting of Sansad Dhvani was held on June 15 to discuss the Draft National Education Policy 2019. The speakers included Tejasvi Surya, T. V. Mohandas Pai, Dr. M. K. Sridhar and Dr Rupa Vasudevan.

The three-language formula is not a matter of ‘Hindi imposition’, but it is one of national integrity. This system has been in effect since the original NEP in 1968 and was subsequently reaffirmed in the 1986 and ‘92 updates of the Policy. 

Instead of understanding the benefits of learning other Indian languages, the over usage of ‘imposition’ is unfortunate. Of course, at the end of the day, if the people do not want Hindi as a compulsory option in their school system, it will not happen. The revised draft reflects this ethos. But to look at this issue only through the lens of ‘forcing’ one culture on another is severely myopic. Such an approach underplays the potential of learning multiple languages in a country as diverse as India.

Tejasvi Surya is a BJP Member of Parliament from the South Bengaluru constituency and a practising lawyer in the Karnataka High Court.

Written by Manuraj Shunmugasundaram

It is crucial to acknowledge the heterogeneous context this debate finds itself in and the multiplicity of linguistic identities at stake. The implications this NEP goes beyond the average Indian student, impacting the status of linguistic equality in India. Making Hindi compulsory for students in school would be the starting point for a larger attempt to normalize and nationalize the language in all public spheres.

On the basis of principles and pragmatism, a case can be made for a two-language formula. Such a formula would make it necessary for all students to learn their state language as well as the English language. Former CM of Tamil Nadu and Founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, C.N. Annadurai (Anna), highlighted the benefits of this approach: 

Tamil and English can serve all our purposes, the former as the official language [of Tamil Nadu] and the latter as the link language. If it is accepted that English can serve admirably as a link between our state and the outside world, why plead for Hindi to be the link language here?”

Rationale for a Two-language Formula 

Over the years, considerable (and observable) English proficiency has been achieved across India (125 million speakers), making it worthy of being the link language nationally. It is undoubtedly the language of business transactions across the world and is necessary for the global aspirations of an emerging economy like India. We cannot ignore the advantages that a student comfortable in English enjoys. Arguing the case for the two-language formula in 1967, Anna said that:

“What serves to link us with the outside world is certainly capable of rendering the same service inside India as well. To plead for two link languages is like boring a smaller hole in a wall for the kitten while there is a bigger one for the cat. What suits the cat will suit the kitten as well.”

English does a sufficiently good job of connecting people and facilitating communication internally, leaving no reason to bring in another link language in the form of Hindi. 

A two-language policy is both politically and policy-wise the most pragmatic option for any government to adopt. Through its minimalism, it mandates two necessary languages, does not impose upon the cultures of non-Hindi speakers and also grants the freedom to learn above and beyond the two languages at the discretion of the parent and child.

Historical Role of the Centre 

While the provision in the draft was amended as a consequence of protests, the idea of a Hindi-speaking nation remains a concern in itself. Historical precedence is found in the battles that were fought between 1950 and 1965, at the end of which the proposal to replace English with Hindi as a link language was stopped. It was acknowledged that there was no legal basis for the imposition of Hindi or any other language.

NEP Three language debate Hindi Imposition
The history of ‘Hindi imposition’ is not isolated to the Sangh entity. Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the first INC Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency in 1937, is remembered (amongst other things) for his move to make Hindi compulsory in educational institutions. This sparked the infamous Anti-Hindi agitations (1937-40). An excerpt on the same from Kudi Arasu, Dravidian leader Periyar’s newsletter. Source: WikiMedia

It was the then Madras Presidency which resisted the transformation of India into a one-language nation. Now, ideas of Hindi imposition seem to crop up wherever the BJP is in power, and their recent return only increases this perceived threat. Again, it is the protests emanating from Tamil Nadu which have resulted in the revision of the draft NEP modifying the compulsory Hindi clause. 

A move to impose Hindi through schools goes against the assurances made by PM Nehru and successive Union Governments since 1965, which was that Hindi would not be imposed on non-Hindi speakers. This stance, and the promise of linguistic equality only stands to be diluted by policymakers behind the first draft of the 2019 NEP.

Inequality via Imposition 

It is not the Hindi language itself that the DMK is opposed to, but the act of a language being imposed. This could well have been any other language forced upon our linguistically diverse Indian demography. We would challenge it just the same. 

The policy move falls short of the democratic and federal standards we hold our government to. This form of non-consultative politics only serves as evidence of the larger trend of majoritarianism at play in India. It is worth considering the cultural peculiarity of Tamil Nadu consistently struggling against the national imagination of the Centre. This in itself speaks volumes of the ‘North Indian’ identity of the Centre, and the hegemony it enjoys. The linguistic inequality would increase with our children being forced to study Hindi. Any exercise of imposition be it linguistic, cultural, religious or otherwise by an ‘unbiased’ Centre must be challenged.

Looking Ahead to a Multilingual Future 

In a Lok Sabha address in January 2018, former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declared that the Central government was ready to bear all the expenses to make Hindi an official language at the United Nations. Where is the same commitment towards promoting languages within our own Indian Parliament? It is important that Indian languages are first given due respect and space within the Constitution and within the official Union government functioning before Hindi is taken to other countries. As citizens of the country, we can only wonder as to when India became Hindia in the eyes of State.

It is time that India forges ahead as a truly pluralistic society. Multi-lingual equality means that we at least begin with providing official languages an equal footing. There is a compelling example in the European Union, wherein all 24 officially recognized European languages are listed in the Constitution’s Eighth Schedule for use within Parliament and official EU communications. It is an exercise that is not implausible; there just has to be the will and commitment to actually exercise it. The NEP is symptomatic of a Centre that seems to be lacking such commitment. 

If India is to become the superpower that the government claims to be working towards, then we must ensure more freedom and more equality for Her citizens. Doing so will ultimately positively impact the cultural sensitivity of our education policies, educational outcomes and will hopefully be apparent in the broader ethos of a document such as the NEP.

Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is an Advocate and Media Spokesperson for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Written by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Unlike the 1986 NEP presented by the Indian National Congress (INC), the 2019 revised Draft mandates the learning of an additional Indian language in Hindi regions apart from Hindi and English. This could be a good first step towards national integration. Yet, the most critical thing about the NEP is that while all private schools primarily use English as the medium of instruction, in government schools, the medium of instruction is generally the regional language. Although this is not officially mandated by any policy, it highlights the continuation of an age-old link between social groups and the languages they are formally educated in. 

Elitism in language education stems from a consciously Brahminical education policy institutionalized in India since 1947. It has had detrimental effects on Adivasi, Shudra, and Dalit children ever since, and will continue to do so if this insidious aspect of the NEP is pushed through unopposed.

Public Debate, Private Hypocrisies

The leading anti-English forces in India were constituted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Ram Manohar Lohia network of socialists. Brahminical communists and the INC’s Nehruvians alike openly supported anti-English agitations. They condemned English language education as the brainchild of colonial education under Lord Macaulay. 

North Indian upper-caste elites across political parties and intellectual forces based in universities continued to propagate the notion that Hindi is ‘our’ national language. That English ought to be phased out for its colonial connotations was also a demand. Thus, in the public domain, upper-caste Hindus and elite Muslims were apparently vocal supporters of education in the mother tongue, considering it a great act of nationalist pride. 

Despite this public glorification, behind closed doors, they acknowledged how lucrative English could be in India and international economic networks. Paradoxically, these same elites exclusively sent their children to English medium schools. The rich upper-caste politicians, particularly the Brahmins, Banias and Kshatriyas, easily shifted their children from Hindi or Sanskrit schools to English ones. Their wealth allowed them to buy an English education. This left behind Dalit, Shudra, and Adivasi children, who could only afford to be educated in regional languages in government schools. The traditional control of Hindu upper castes over oppressed castes and communities was sustained through such education models.

This policy also suited the elite Catholic Christians of Kerala and feudal Muslims led by India’s first education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Those upper-caste Christians who ran prominent English-medium schools since the colonial era found this system profitable. Feudal Muslim elites in both India and Pakistan could also buy an English education. Poor Muslims could afford an Urdu education alone, leading to their sustained backwardness within feudal social structures.

This pattern has repeated itself well into independence. By 2019, ironically, most pro-BJP industrial conglomerates have established world-class private English-medium schools across the country, overshadowing the previously mentioned Christian English-medium legacy.

So, today, the leaders of the BJP and RSS and their well-off supporters send their children to private English-medium educational institutes. This double-standard is visible across party elites and their supporters: communists and liberals were (and are) no less hypocritical. Their children study in English-medium schools established by Ambani, or the Wipro group. When it comes to college, they go to the best private universities like Ashoka University and Amity. Except for older RSS workers, many young supporters of the Hindu Right have been educated in English medium schools. However, they all insist (if not rally and protest) that “Hindi is our national language”. Thus, the BJP and the RSS chant “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan Zindabad” slogans on the roads only to further their bogey of cultural and linguistic nationalism. 

The Solution: Liberalize the Medium of Education

The Congress Party used to singularly engage with the BJP on this debate over English medium education. It did not move beyond rhetoric, giving states the freedom to liberalize the medium of instruction. The centrally-sponsored Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas for gifted children are key examples of this phenomenon. Introduced by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, here, the three-language policy with Hindi is enforced through curricula across states, irrespective of locally-preferred languages.

However, the significance of English-medium education is increasingly being realised by the working masses in villages, who want their children to receive an English medium education alongside one in their local regional language. These are the concerns that the NEP should be addressing.

Thus, the three language formula of the BJP inadvertently holds back the prospects of the children of the rural poor, Dalits, Shudras, and Adivasis in the long term. Such policies will only overburden children, as they cannot easily balance learning two other languages, while also developing a strong fluency in English. The best step forward would be to allow children to primarily study in English in government schools, with one compulsory subject taught in their state language. The Centre must introduce a linguistically uniform education policy from age 3 to 18 for all children. 

The current system brings to mind the gurukula system, wherein no Dalit, Shudra, or Adivasi child could study in Sanskrit. Now, they cannot easily study in English medium schools, nor can they access the economic opportunities of the global English-speaking market in the same way the children of the rich do. Following the practices of democratic countries across the world, the medium of instruction in government and private schools, should be the same to ensure a level playing field. It must never matter whether the child is rich or poor, or if they study in rural or urban areas.

If states were allowed to make English the basic medium of instruction in government schools, it would put their students on par with private schools. Yet, the BJP and its supporters would claim that such policies are anti-national. State infrastructure should enable equal access to all; continuing to chant slogans like ‘Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan’ in response only highlights the inevitable endgame of this aspect of the NEP, which is the continued socio-economic marginalization of the poor and lower castes in India, at the implicit hands of upper caste domination and ideology.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author.


  1. Great article and nice to see the different views.

    The stand opposing Hindi sounds a bit forced considering that the writer suggests that having 125 million English speakers makes it a better link language over a 500+ million Hindi speakers. Can’t Hindi in conjunction with our regional language be a better representative of India and Indians?

    Kancha Iliah’s opinion was thought provoking. Why can’t everyone learn in their regiinal language with English as an additional subject till say 6th class? It is only after 6th class that science will include highly technical terminology that are difficult to learn in native languages.

    5 language seems a distant utopian dream but definitely something to hope for.

    However all the authors saw this only from the perspective of politics and linguistic equality overlooking the rationale behind this policy. Learning languages are easier for children and hence the shift of 3 language policy from grades 5-8 to grades 2-5. This policy also seems to have taken several research studies into consideration which have suggested that primary school should focus more on teaching language and related aspects with a greater focus.


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