next up previous contents
Next: The Soviet Model Up: Language Policy in Independent Previous: Language Policy in Independent

The Fatal Error: the Importation of the Soviet language policy model.

When independence came to India, most people seemed to be in agreement that the colonial language, English, was inappropriate for Independent India. What it should be replaced with, and how, was not so clear. Since India had been rushed to independence by Mountbatten in 1947, agreement on a constitution and what it should contain had been lacking. As far as language was concerned, it was decided to appoint a Language Commission to study the matter and make some recommendations. The commissioners heard many reports, read many sources, and even made trips abroad to study other multilingual polities. Though it is not usually explicitly characterized as such, the recommendation they arrived at was essentially to adopt a modified `Soviet' model of language policy. The most telling document in this regard is the report of the Secretary of the Commission, S. G. Barve, who travelled to the Soviet Union to observe conditions there and see whether the Soviet experience could serve as a model for India. His report ``note" is a very insightful analysis of the Soviet model, and he contrasts conditions in the USSR with those in India, pointing out similarities and differences as they appear to him. At several places in the report he explicitly warns against borrowing any model without adapting it to local conditions.

Obviously no two cases in a field like this are exactly or even broadly similar; therefore any lessons to be had from the experience of like circumstances in other countries must be drawn with great care. Ultimately the language problem of our country can be solved only in terms of solutions we can devise ourselves for our specific requirements; it would be manifestly wrong to expect to find anywhere else a ready-made policy of prescriptions immediately applicable to our particular problems.

Nevertheless, broadly-speaking the experience of the U.S.S.R. which is the only experience yet extant as to the successful tackling of multi-lingual problems would appear to lend support to the following broad propositions.

He then lists a number of ideas, principles, and recommendations which the Commissioners ought to take into account in deriving lessons from the Soviet experience. Most of them are quite laudable--the need for pragmatism and objectivity, the problems associated with a multiplicity of scripts, the desirability of promoting all languages, no matter how small, but noting the limitations of small languages for such purposes as higher education, etc. He also notes the need to teach whatever common language is chosen as a common linguistic medium as widely as possible and as systematically as possible.

But his final warning was apparently ignored by the Commissioners:

In a sense, the Indian problem is not similar to but sharply contrasted to the Russian [i.e. Soviet model]. In Russia they had a historical tradition as well as the elements of a situation in which a strong pan-Russian medium of expression was readily available; their undertaking was the comparatively easier, congenial and `flattering' task of developing and `enfranchising' local languages that had been suppressed under the weight of too great an insistence on the common linguistic medium. In Indian conditions the problem is that we have strong regional languages and we have to evolve anew a linguistic medium for pan-Indian purposes out of the regional language spoken by the most numerous linguistic group in the country. While the Indian problem is obviously far more difficult than the Russian problem ever was (as was readily conceded in all the numerous discussions I held with Russian scientists and scholars) the broad principles of the Russian experience are not without an element of benefit for our purposes. (Barve 1956:494-5)

Despite these caveats and warnings, however, it seems clear that the Commissioners modelled their recommendations on the Soviet policy. Barve, and the Commissioners after him, accepted at face value the pronouncements of Soviet planners on the successes and advantages of their plan, and despite Barve's careful exposition of the differences between Russian and Hindi (``the most numerous linguistic group in the country"), India's planners plowed ahead.

That is, they saw the model that had been developed for the Soviet Union under Lenin, with Russian as primus inter pares, and territorial rights for other `minority' languages, as an appropriate one for Independent India.[*] But they turned a blind eye to the differences, and with disastrous consequences.

next up previous contents
Next: The Soviet Model Up: Language Policy in Independent Previous: Language Policy in Independent
Harold Schiffman