India and Canada: Federal Bilingualism Times Two

In Canada, people most often refer to the Canadian Confederation when describing the country's political structure; but for India, the most common term would be Bharat Ganarajyá (in Hindi), Indian Union (in English) or Union indienne (in French). Still, in strictly technical terms, India is a confederation while Canada is a federation. In administrative terms, the Indian Union is a federal republic comprising 28 states ("provinces" in Canada) and seven federal territories. The table below lists all of the states in question.

Andhra Pradesh,
Arunachal Pradesh,
Himachal Pradesh,
Madhya Pradesh,
Tamil Nadu,
Uttar Pradesh,
West Bengal

India's seven territories are the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar-Haveli, Daman and Diu, Delhi (national-capital territory), the Lakshadweep Islands (or Laccadive) and Pondicherry.

As in Canada, each of India's 28 states is autonomous and thus has its own parliament and executive branch, as well as a public service. The country's official territories are administered directly by the federal government. Thus, despite its status as a republic, India operates with a political system largely similar to Canada's. In addition, at the federal level, India has two official languages, Hindi and English. But one key distinction applies to English: though certainly a mother tongue in Canada, it is essentially a second language in India.

India's Languages

In 2001, India's population topped one billion. That's roughly one sixth of the world's population, and second only to China on the planet. India also boasts an array of ethnic groups, but for simplicity's sake, they can be identified under three broad designations: Indo-Arians (72 %), Dravidians (25 %), and Asians (3 %).

By comparison, "Canadian mosaic," the expression used to describe Canada's population, is a poor fit for India, which is home to more than 1600 languages—almost 400 of which are officially recognized. Of all these languages, only about 40 are spoken by more than one million people, but in combination, they account for over 850 million people or 85% of the country's population. In a nutshell, then, fewer than 10% of India's languages are spoken by the vast majority of the country's citizens, whereas 90% are used by barely 15% of the Indian population.

Hindi remains undoubtedly the country's principal language numerically. It is used as a mother tongue or first language by nearly 200 million inhabitants (20% of the country's population), and as a second language by 400 million more, meaning that Hindi is used to various degrees by more 60% of India's citizens—hence its status as a national official language, which it shares with English (the former colonial language).

Whereas Hindi is spoken as a first language by about 20% of Indians, English holds that status with fewer than 2% of the population (Anglo-Indians). Other languages spoken by more than 25 million people include Bengali (70.5 M), Telugu (69.6 M), Marathi (68 M), Tamil (61.5 M), Urdu (48 M), Gujarati (45.4 M), Kannada (35,4 M), Malayalam (35.3 M), Oriya (31.6 M) and Punjabi (27 M). Together, these languages total 636 million speakers, or 64% of India's population. By comparison in Canada English and, even more so, French seem like "minor languages": according to Canada's 2001 census, only 17.5 million Canadians spoke English as a first language (59.3%) and 6.7 million, French (22.7%).

Given the massive number of languages spoken in India, it's easy to understand that not all can have equal status. Indeed, a rigid hierarchy has been established: first come the official languages of the Union, then the constitutional languages, and finally state or territorial official languages. Joining the mix are the "major languages" (spoken by more than 10,000 people) and the "minor" or "tribal languages" (fewer than 10,000 speakers).

Most of India's languages belong to two main linguistic families: Indo-Iranian and Dravidian. A dozen or so alphabets or scripts are used to write these languages: Devanagari (meaning "god of the city": Sanskrit writing), Bengali, Arabo-Persian, Gurmukhi, Gujarati, Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Latin and Tibetan.

For a more extensive picture, one also has to consider India's religions, an inescapable factor in this complex nation. In all, about 20 religions are practised here, with Hindu leading the way (82%) in front of Islam (12%, and concentrated mostly in the north-west regions), Christianity (3%, mostly in the south), Buddhism (1%), Sikhism (mostly in the Punjab), Jainism (mostly in Gujarat), Parsism or Zoroastrianism (Bombay) and Judaism.

Official Languages of the Indian Union

Hindi and English are the official languages of the Indian Union, that is, of India's central (federal) government. They rank, so to speak, at the top of the linguistic totem pole. Oddly enough, though, both remain "foreign" languages for the Indian population overall, English especially. Again, as a mother tongue or first language, Hindi is spoken by roughly 20% of the population, but is perceived as the language of the Hindu governing caste; English, on the other hand, used as a first language by 2% of India, is seen as a neutral language allowing citizens to communicate with a greater number of people. Together then, English and Hindi are spoken as first languages by about 22% of the population.

Constitutional Languages

There are also 18 so-called " constitutional " languages in India: Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Nepali, Konkani, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Manipuri and Sanskrit.

Sanskrit is to Indian languages what Latin is to French, Italian, Spanish, etc. An ancient religious language now "extinct" in the general population, it is still spoken by a few thousand specialists (historians, linguists, clerics, etc.), who use it mostly as a second language; India has preserved Sanskrit's symbolic status.

Official Languages in India's States and Territories

Canada's two official languages also serve as one or both of the official languages in each province; only Nunavut (a territory) has another official language (Inuktitut) that isn't recognized as such by the federal government. In India, states commonly choose official languages other than Hindi or English, and they can even opt for a non-constitutional language if they like. For instance, in the state of Chhattisgarh, Chhattisgarhi is a co-official language alongside Hindi. Still, Hindi is indeed an official language in many Indian states: Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and in the territories of Delhi, Andaman-Nicobar Islands, etc. The same goes for Urdu: Jammu-Kashmir, Uttaranchal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. English is a co-official language in these states and territories: Kerala, Misoram, Nagaland, Orissa, Goa, Andaman-Nicobar, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Delhi, Lakshadweep, Manipur, Pondicherry, Daman and Diu.

All together, India's states have more than 35 official languages. Other than Hindi, Urdu and English, these official languages are Assamese, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Bhutia, Garo, Gujarati, Haryanvi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khasi, Konkani, Kuvi, Lushai, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Marwari, Miau, Mizo, Naga, Nepali, Oriya, Pahari, Punjabi, Rajastani, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Tripuri.

French also joins the mix in the territory of Pondicherry, where it isn't a constitutional language but has maintained its co-official status with Tamil, English, Telugu and Malayalam. Some co-official languages are used in local parliaments, others appear in local administrative services, and some are taught in schools and published in both print and electronic media. In short, the legal status of Canada's languages seems like child's play when compared with India's; contrary to Canada, India is a linguistic federation because most of its states were founded on the basis of language and ethnicity.

Institutional Bilingualism and the Indian Union

This section refers to the language policy of India as implemented by the federal or central government. So the focus is on Hindi and English, though the policy must also work around the demands of other languages used across the country, be they constitutional languages, official state languages or minority languages (tribal or otherwise).

Upon gaining its independence, India declared Hindi and English as the two official languages of the Indian Union (federal or central government). But this co-official status was to last only 15 years; after, Hindi was to become the Union's only official language. However, it was impossible to eliminate English outright and impose Hindi across the board: India's southern states, whose languages all derived from the Dravidian family of languages, unanimously rejected Hindi as the sole official language because of its close ties to a specific ethnic group. English thus took on an aura of greater neutrality. The Official Languages Act of 1963 instituted Hindi and English as the official languages of the Indian congress, while individual states kept the right to select their own official languages.

The Indian Legislaturee

As of 2004, India's federal parliament operated in both official languages of the Union: Hindi and English. Both of these languages are used during debates, in the cabinet (council of ministers), in the central administration, on forms and national symbols (stamps and currency, for example) and for postings inside federal territories. But the issue is this: representatives of India's southern states, of Dravidian linguistic origin, always prefer to use English instead of Hindi.

However, the Official Languages Acts seems to favour the use of Hindi over English. Indeed, article 6 of the Act even states that, when a state's legislature (except Jammu-Kashmir) adopts a language other than Hindi for use in laws enacted in that state (of for ordinances from its governor), an equivalent translation in Hindi as well as in English can be published under the governor's authority in the state's official gazette; furthermore, the Hindi translation in these cases is considered to be authentic.

Federal or Central-Government Services

The federal administration operates in both official languages, but not across the entire Indian Union. In some cases, both languages are used; in others, only Hindi is spoken; and in others still, only English. For inter-state communications, English is often the only language used, especially when the federal government writes to a state in which Hindi is neither an official language nor a co-official language.

In reality, the use of both Hindi and English revolves around the country's three "administrative regions." For example, in Region A (Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and the territories of Delhi and of Andaman and Nicobar Islands), Hindi-language services are available about 50% of the time (all typewriters being in Devanagari script). However, in Region B (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Chandigarh), that figure drops to 35% and, in Region C (other states and territories) to 20%, because only 55% of the typewriters use Devanagari script. Of course, if Hindi isn't used, authorities opt for English.

For their part, regional administrations operate in the state's official languages, except when dealing with the federal government; in this case, Hindi or English becomes compulsory. Postings and signage are also in the state's languages and in the corresponding alphabet or script (India has about 12 alphabets, in fact). Workplace languages are those of the state, but knowledge of Hindi or English is a key asset for those seeking higher positions; not surprisingly, language-policy management becomes more unwieldy if two or three official languages are vying for predominance in one state.

Yet, in India's northern regions, government signs on federal buildings in each state give English a higher profile. In the country's southern regions (states dominated by Dravidian languages and traditionally resistant to Hindi), only English appears.

Currently, of the 18 recognized constitutional languages, the following 15 appear on the Indian Union's bank notes or currency: Hindi, English, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Urdu, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu.

Federal Courts

In federal courts, only Hindi and English are allowed, but interpretation services are provided for individuals who do not understand the Indian Union's two official languages. In practice, Indian English is the language used most often by the Union's higher courts and by its supreme court.

In other courts, that is, those of each state, the official languages of the state in question can be used, along with English. Rulings are written in English. In lower courts (municipal level) hearings and rulings can be in the local language, but if the case goes to a higher court, the ruling must be translated into English.


In education, India's constitution (article 350A) requires that every state provide children from minority groups with an education in their mother tongue. Specifically, for a state to be forced to provide education in a given language, only 10 out of 40 students need make such a request. Generally speaking, teaching at least one second language is compulsory for junior high school: the second regional language or Hindi. In senior high school, English becomes compulsory.

Not surprisingly, the system can be complex…and extremely costly. In fact, it's not uncommon to come across a school in which teachers and pupils communicate in one language, courses take place in another, textbooks are written in a third, and homework is completed in a fourth.

One way or another, all languages spoken by at least one million people (roughly 40) are deemed "protected languages," as are the country's 18 constitutional languages and the official or administrative languages of each state and territory. What's more, in this one-billion strong nation, languages spoken by more than 10,000 people are usually taught in elementary school. Municipalities can themselves intervene in language matters and declare a certain language as co-official in a given district if the ethnic minority there is large enough. From that point on, public services, schools and official registrations have to be organized accordingly.

A survey in 1990s showed that only 1.3% of primary schools, 3.4% of upper primary schools, 3.9% of middle schools and 13.2% of high schools used English as a language of instruction. As a second language, English is taught for six years in 51% of rural primary schools, in 55% of urban primary schools, in 57% of rural high schools and 51% of urban high schools. English is also taught as a third language in 5% of rural primary schools, in 21% of urban primary schools, in 44% of rural high schools and in 41% of urban high schools. These figures point to Indians' interest in learning English as one of the nation's most popular bridging languages.

Certainly, the complexity of India's language policy dwarfs the challenge of Canada's reality, mostly because Canada operates with only two official languages that share equal status. That's not the case in India: language policy there organizes its many languages into a formal hierarchy while trying to reduce the drawing power or influence of a language that is at once dominant and subordinate: Hindi. The nation's regional languages appear to be well protected by the Indian Union's linguistic federalism, which allows for the territorial separation of languages. In other words, the Union promotes individual rights, while states bank on the territoriality of languages. This helps preserve minor languages, which are shielded by the buffering effect of linguistic borders and the state itself. In short, India appears to have preserved a decent balance between the centripetal force exerted by Hindi and the state-based languages that resist it. That's why the policy favoured by the Union is designed to promote Hindi.

However, Hindi must not only contend with regional sensitivities, but also "tolerate" English, a direct competitor. In the end, Hindi's spread as a national language is hindered, to the benefit of English, a neo-colonial language. Many politicians condemn the situation as abnormal because it bestows considerable privileges on a language that, after all, is a vestige of colonialization.

But most of India's citizens aren't at all ready to make the compromises needed to push English aside in favour of either Hindi (the language of the northern regions) or the Dravidian languages that dominate India's southern areas. Making such a complex nation as India work is no small task. Still, the Indian model holds interest simply because it has succeeded in reconciling the use of two major languages while allowing less prominent regional languages to be given co-official status. The model could indeed serve other countries well, Canada Included.

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