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Mr. Alagiri Goes to New Delhi

(Language Discrimination in Parliament)

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, October 2010 (ID. 2010-10-01); Updated: September 2014.
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ABBREVIATIONS

CBSE - Central Board of Secondary Education

DMK - Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (a political party in Tamil Nadu)


1. What Happened?

M. K. Alagiri from Tamilnadu became India's Chemicals and Fertilizers minister in mid-2009. He does not know Hindi and his English proficiency is limited. He avoided attending parliament because he could not speak in the parliament or fully understand what was going on. Some opposition parliamentarians and his critics ridiculed him saying that he was not doing his job and not competent to be a minister. 

It was reported in September 2009 that he asked the speaker of parliament Meira Kumar permission to speak in Tamil [which could be translated to English and Hindi] [The Hindu newspaper: September 15, 2009]. The speaker delayed and delayed making a decision. Alagiri mostly stayed out of parliament during this period. Finally after ten months, in July 2010, Meira Kumar made her decision. Alagiri's request to speak in Tamil was denied because the Indian constitution says that ministers reply to questions in English or Hindi. She said that Alagiri could answer the primary question by reading out the reply in English and the supplementary questions could be answered by his deputy minister Srikant Jena  [The Hindu newspaper: July 18, 2010]. In essence, Alagiri would play the part of a "dummy" reading a reply in English [obviously written by someone else] and secondary questions would be answered by his deputy in English or Hindi [Alagiri may not understand what his deputy was saying]. Why go about this roundabout route which essentially makes Alagiri no more than a showroom doll in parliament. He could as well stay out of parliament because he is not contributing anything in the parliament--just reading an already written reply in English and sitting there the rest of the time not fully understanding what was going on.

A Hindi region minister who knows only his/her mother tongue Hindi could fully participate in parliamentary affairs but a non-Hindi minister who knows only the mother tongue is reduced to a dummy or a showroom doll in parliament. [The foregoing sentence is not meant to insult minister Alagiri. We are merely pointing out the discriminatory nature of the rules of the parliament.] Speaker Meira Kumar could have handled the situation in a way that would not hurt anyone but allow Alagiri to carryout his ministerial responsibilities. Translate minister Alagiri's Tamil reply to English which in turn is translated to Hindi. After all non-Hindi MPs' questions in their mother tongue are translated to Hindi and English. Do the same for non-Hindi ministers' answers also. Speaker refused to do so citing that the Indian constitution does not say that ministers can speak in any language other than Hindi or English.

2. Commentary

Constitution could have been amended to allow non-Hindi ministers to speak in their mother tongue, if they cannot speak in Hindi or English. Indian constitution has been amended over a hundred times in the past 60 years. Why not amend it once more? Because Hindi politicians do not want other languages getting equal status to Hindi. There is no other reason.

We are not saying violate the constitution; we are saying, "Amend the constitution to allow non-Hindi ministers to speak in their mother tongue". Some politicians say that there are too many languages to let ministers to talk in their own mother tongues. Members can talk in about 20 languages in the European parliament. Number of languages listed in the Indian constitution is also about the same. So what is the problem? The technology is there. But Hindi politicians do not want to give up their privileged status. 

If a Hindi minister can speak in his/her mother tongue in parliament, then a Tamil minister should also be able to speak in his/her mother tongue. The technology is available as evidenced by European Parliament proceedings.

"If Hindi were to become the official language of India, Hindi-speaking people will govern us. We will be treated like third-rate citizens". - C. N. Annadurai, Founder of DMK and former Tamil Nadu State Chief Minister (Speech at a Public Meeting on April 29, 1963)

Update

It was reported on August 8, 2014, that Minister of State for Commerce Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman was allowed to answer a Tamil question in Tamil in parliament [the Economic Times: August 8, 2014]. This is a one-time deal to assuage the mounting criticism in Tamil Nadu against some Hindi imposition actions of the new Indian government [Reference 1]. We have seen the bait and switch tactic before. There was mounting pressure in Tamil Nadu that Tamil be allowed in Madras High Court. One judge allowed Tamil in one case. Months later when another lawyer used Tamil, another judge refused it quoting rules and regulations. What we want are laws or parliamentary rules enacted guaranteeing that ministers can speak in the mother tongue without seeking permission from anybody; the same right Hindi ministers have. We are not begging for favours, we are demanding our right.

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Alternate spellings of Tamil names: Alagiri - Azagiri, Azhagiri; Thanjai Nalankilli - Thanjai Nalangkilli

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