Prime Minister Narendra Modi has returned from a week-long visit to the United States where he made at least three public references to the diversity of language in India. Speaking in Chennai, he said Tamil echoes around the United States adding to the reference he made when speaking about the nation’s linguistic diversity during his speeches in the past week. In his first visit to Tamil Nadu since BJP returned to a second term in May, the Prime Minister spoke about the diversity of language with the comments coming after Home Minister Amit Shah’s controversial remark about Hindi becoming a common language.
“When I was staying in America, I spoke in the Tamil language once and told everyone that this is one of the ancient languages. Even today, the Tamil language echoes in entire America,” PM Modi said while beginning his speech at Chennai Airport with the Tamil greeting “Vanakkam (Hello)” amid loud cheers. The Prime Minister is in Chennai to attend the convocation ceremony of the Indian Institute of Technology (Madras).
While addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, PM Modi stressed on the need for a universal brotherhood and went on to quote Kaniyan Pungundranar, a Tamil poet. “We belong to all places and to everyone,” he said. Two days earlier while making a strong pitch for India as a destination for foreign investors at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, the PM reminded those in attendance that the nation was comfortable conducting business in English.
The Prime Minister’s repeated reference to the linguistic diversity of India and his presence in South India today is seen by many as attempts to reduce tensions between South India and the center. Imposition of non-regional languages has long been a sensitive issue in the South. This comes after a furious reaction to Home Minister Amit Shah’s tweet on September 14. Days before leaving for the United States, Mr. Shah’s appeal to unify India made on Hindi Diwas with Hindi drew sharp criticism from regional leaders. The leaders saw this as an attempt to impose the language on non-Hindi speaking states.
Tamil Nadu was at the forefront of the charge against Mr. Shah’s appeal with the Leader of opposition and DMK chief MK Stalin stressing, “This is India, not Hindia.” Actor turned politician Kamal Haasan also warned the center not to start a language war that “India or Tamil Nadu doesn’t need or deserve.” The Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, a senior BJP leader was also not left behind as he sounded warning notes.
While India has two official languages at the national level and 22 scheduled languages recognized at the state level, the country does not have any national language. The national language is meant to have a patriotic and nationalistic identity with the official language and scheduled languages designated for the purpose of communication at the official level. Amit Shah’s tweet on Hindi Diwas hints at having Hindi as a national language.