Press Council of India Chairman and former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju has lived in India all his life, but he made a two-part statement on Sept. 20 that sounds like the kind of innocent remark that would land a visitor like me in trouble.
Here is the gist of what Katju said in an op-ed in The Hindu:
“If (children) did not learn English they would only be fit to drive bullock carts (Hal chalane layak rah jayenge). I said I too loved Hindi, which is my mother tongue, but that did not mean I should behave like a fool.”
“At the same time, people in non-Hindi speaking States such as Tamil Nadu should learn Hindi, because it is the link language in our country.”
This is, as you might suspect, a touchy subject. Hindi, one of the two official languages of India, is part of a group of languages spoken primarily in northern India. The group includes its many regional variations in the so-called Hindi Belt, its sort of twin sister Urdu, as well as Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Assamese, Nepali and more.
The primary languages of southern India, meanwhile, are Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. They are unrelated to the northern languages, which mostly are Indo-European in origin, sharing a common root with English and other Romance languages, Celtic languages, German languages and more.
In southern India, there is a history of people resenting the imposition of Hindi as a compulsory language, and there are people who prefer English as the language of communication with other people in India who speak different mother tongues.