In the initial writing of the article “Hindi, English or Nothing: Politics of India’s National Languages“, this author made an error, using the terms “official language” and “national language” interchangeably at one point. The mistake is deeply regretted. Since this blog aims to be a credible source of information and analysis, it must own up to its mistakes. By the way, thanks to Achal Kathuria for pointing it out.
There remains considerable confusion over the clear distinction between Official and National Language, to the extent that Gujarat High Court had to rule on it 2010. Even now, it seems there are no good legal definitions on the subject. Here is a good way to understand it:
While every legal system defines (or chooses not to) both terms differently, by and large, “National Language” doesn’t have any real legal value other than as a national symbol like the national flag or national flower. “Official Language”, on the other hand, is the language in which the government conducts its business and therefore carries far more political and legal significance.
Inclusive societies usually have no National Language or choose one for symbolic purposes only. They either have several Official Languages (like United Kingdom or Germany) or define no language as the Official Language (like the United States). Every nation needs one or more Official Language to conduct its business. However, too many languages and the government machinery will collapse under the weight of translators, too few and the government would be excluding certain minorities from benefits of the government.
Exclusionary regimes, on the other hand, sometimes choose to impose one “national” language on all the minorities by adopting it as both National and Official Language. For example, after independence, Pakistan chose Urdu as its National Language and Urdu and English as its Official Languages, causing great agitation in East Pakistan where Bengali was the commonly used language.
Constitutionally, India has no National Language. In fact, constitution doesn’t even recognize a concept like National Language. It has Hindi as an Official Language with English as “Associate Official Language”, which essentially means it is the second Official Language. But every state can choose its own Official Language and non-Hindi states can communicate with the Central Government or with other states in English, Central Government business will be conducted in English or will be translated in it. Finally, the Civil Service Exams will be conducted in English.
However, the Constitution of India also states that “it shall be the duty of the union to promote the spread of Hindi language…so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India.” This embedded contradiction in the constitution may very well be used by some oppressive government in the future to impose Hindi on the entire country.