When advocate Govinder Singh rose to make an argument in the Delhi High Court this month, he did what no lawyer had ever done before him and addressed the judge in Hindi.
Singh's action was generally applauded for striking an overdue blow against a decades-old rule that insists on English -- the enduring legacy of British colonial rule -- as the working language of the Indian capital's top judicial bench.
AdvertisementA similar linguistic challenge was thrown down last November by Abu Azmi, a newly-elected legislator in the Maharashtra state assembly, when he opted to take his oath of office in Hindi, rather than the state language of Marathi.
Azmi's reward was to be slapped and roughed up on the floor of the assembly by four state MPs from a right-wing party that campaigns aggressively for the rights of the state's Marathi-speaking majority.
Language has always been a battleground both within and between nation states, but only in a country as astonishingly diverse as India has it been fought with such frequency and on so many different fronts.
While confrontations in courtrooms or state legislatures grab the media spotlight, smaller skirmishes occur on a daily basis -- not least in the homes of the growing number of mixed-language families.
India's 1961 census recognised 1,652 languages and dialects, while the 2001 version broke it down into a slightly more manageable roster of 29 that are spoken by a million or more people, and 122 that have more than 10,000 native speakers.
At the time of independence, the constitution recognised 14 official languages, but the growth of regional politics soon resulted in a flood of demands for further additions.
Sindhi was added in 1967, three others in 1992 and four more in 2004 to make up the current total of 22, and the Home Ministry is currently considering 38 new requests for inclusion.
The expanding list is something of a nightmare for the central Reserve Bank of India (RBI) which is obliged to see that all official languages are represented on each banknote.
"At the moment we have 17, so yes, it's true that we are slightly behind," said RBI spokeswoman Alpana Killawala.
-- "And what language do your children speak?" --
The numbers reflect the importance different communities in India attach to their linguistic and cultural identities and with so many competing for recognition, institutional and personal clashes are inevitable.
Among the booming middle classes, mixed marriages and increased job mobility can leave some couples struggling with a heady linguistic cocktail.
"When we had our son, we made a decision to speak to him in Hindi, which was anyway the common language between my wife and I," says business journalist Jay Shankar.
Shankar is from the southern state of Kerala and his wife from the western state of Gujarat. Their mother tongues -- Malayalam and Gujarati respectively -- are mutually unintelligible and they have always communicated in a mixture of Hindi and English.
When their son was four, they moved to Bangalore, where the dominant language is Kannada, and enrolled their son in an English-speaking kindergarten.
Now, 13, he speaks fluent Hindi and English, but neither of his parents' native tongues.
"For my mother and father this is big, big problem," Shankar said. "There is a huge communication gap. They can't relate to what he says at all and they blame me for not speaking Malayalam with him when he was young.
"It really bothers me that their relationship with their grandson is not what it should be," he said. "We don't regret the decisions we made, but it's been tough."
Hindi and English are the heavyweights in India's crowded linguistic arena, and both have been treated with suspicion and even violence since independence in 1947.
According to the 2001 census, around 422 million Indians, or 41 percent of the billion-plus population, speak Hindi, with Bengali a distant second at 8.1 percent.
Anti-Hindi sentiments have a long history and regional language activists opposed to its prevalence exist all over India, especially in southern states like Tamil Nadu where efforts to impose Hindi triggered bloody riots in the mid-1960s.
"We are against forcing a language on the state," said Tamil Nadu state legislator, M.K. Kanimozhi. "I can't speak Hindi but I am no less an Indian or patriotic than anybody else."
Historically, English was the language of domination, status and privilege, but that has changed as India's middle classes have made the transition from subjects under British colonial rule to citizens negotiating globalisation.
"People want to learn English because it means opportunity and access to jobs," said historian Ramachandra Guha, who advocates compromise in the heated debate over whether local languages are losing out to the demand for English in schools.
"What we as Indians should aim for is not a worship of English or a demonisation of English, but an ability to learn it along with other languages. Schools should be bilingual from the beginning," Guha said.
The number of children enrolled in recognised English-medium schools in India doubled between 2003 and 2008 to more than 15 million, but in a recent ruling the Supreme Court warned that the country risked falling behind.
A large English-speaking population has been one of the key factors behind the boom in outsourcing to India which has seen Western companies set up IT back-up or call centres in cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad.
"In another 10 years, China will become the world's largest English-speaking nation," the two judge bench said. "Today, if you go to China, all little children speak English. In 10 years they will overtake us."
India's claim to the title of largest English speaking nation is based on a much quoted survey that found one third of Indians -- around 350 million people -- could hold a conversation in English, but experts point out that proficiency levels vary dramatically.
The Supreme Court warning was echoed by a recent British Council report that highlighted a "huge shortage" of English teachers and quality institutions in India that meant the rate of improvement in English language skills was "too slow".
"This could threaten India's English advantage in the global market," the report said.
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