India: Constitutional Confrontation over Language (Hindi Highway/Road Signs)

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, September 2014 (ID. 2014-09-01)
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1. Introduction
2. What is Wrong with Hindi-Tamil Road Signs
3. Why English Highway Signs are Preferred over Hindi Signs?
4. It is Unlawful and Unconstitutional
5. Should we have English Signs in Hindi States?
6. What Shall We Do?
7. Punish the Lawbreakers
8. Refusal to Correct or Repeat Offense

1. Introduction

National Highways had signs in English and the state language. Then Hindi was added to it although there was opposition to it in some non-Hindi states. Recently, in some parts of the Tamil Nadu State, signs are posted in Hindi and the state language Tamil only. The photo shows a Tamil-Hindi sign board on the side of the National Highway in Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu in 2014. Notice that there is no English. This may be the situation in other states also or would soon be, unless this ILLEGAL action is stopped now.

2. What is Wrong with Hindi-Tamil Road Signs

Tamil travelers within Tamil Nadu would have no problem if Indian National Highway road signs are in Tamil and Hindi. They can read Tamil. What about travelers from Karnataka (Kannada speakers) or from West Bengal (Bengali speakers) or from other non-Hindi states? They would be at a loss if they do not know Tamil or Hindi. If they also have to travel through Andhra Predesh, they would have to know either Telugu (the state language) or Hindi. So travelers from non-Hindi states must know all the state languages they pass through or Hindi. Thus knowledge of Hindi becomes essential if you ever have to travel outside of your own state. This is Hindi imposition. This is ILLEGAL under the various laws enacted by parliament over the years (discussed in some detail in Section 4 of this article).

The signboard in the photo has some important information such as phone number to local hospital, ambulance and police station. Not being able to read the information could be life-or-death in an emergency situation.

If the national highway signs are only in the state language, how will out-of-state travelers understand them. There should be English language road signs. Does it not require knowledge of English? All you are doing is requiring a knowledge of English instead of Hindi. True. Most people from non-Hindi states, especially in southern and eastern India, prefer English over Hindi. Why?

3. Why English Highway Signs are Preferred over Hindi Signs?

Why do most people from non-Hindi states, especially in southern and eastern India, prefer English over Hindi? Reasons are two fold. 

(1) Most non-Hindi people in south and east know English better than Hindi. I am not saying every non-Hindi person from these regions knows English. Absolutely not. More people in south and east know English than Hindi. I may be correct to say that anyone who knows Hindi in the south or east also know English. That is why we want English signs on national highways throughout India.

(2) With knowledge of English, you can not only travel to all states in India, you can also travel to any major city in the world, whether it is New York in America, or Tokyo in Japan, or Berlin in Germany or Moscow in Russia. So, what is the need for Hindi? None. Hindi is an unnecessary burden on non-Hindi peoples of India.

Not only English road signs makes sense, it is also the law. Posting signs in Hindi and the state language only (without English) is UNLAWFUL.

4. It is Unlawful and Unconstitutional

Indian constitution and several Official Language Acts (laws) passed by Indian parliament guarantees the right of non-Hindi peoples to communicate with the Indian government in English. This includes the right to have national highway signs in English anywhere in India. State governments can put their signs in any language they choose but Indian government institutions must have English signs. This includes signs, boards and instructions in all Indian government institutions including central government offices, banks, insurance companies, post offices, railway stations, airports and national highways. English signs should be posted not only in non-Hindi states but also in Hindi states for the benefit of non-Hindi travelers to those states. 

This right of English signs in guaranteed under the Indian constitution and laws and the Indian government cannot remove English in National Highways or other Indian government institutions. That is unlawful and illegal. 

If the government wants to change the Hindi-English two-language policy to Hindi only one-language policy, it has to pass new laws in the parliament or amend the Indian constitution, as appropriate. Until that time, English signs must stay.

5. Should we have English Signs in Hindi States?

English signs should be posted not only in non-Hindi states but also in Hindi states for the benefit of non-Hindi travelers to those states. If Hindi states are so averse to English signs, they may secede from India and form their own country and have a one-language (Hindi) policy. As long as they are part of India, they should obey the constitution and laws or pass a new Hindi-only law in the parliament.

6. What Shall We Do?

What can we do to put back English signs in National Highways? It seems that English signs are removed in only a few places. It is extremely important that we stop it right now. Otherwise English signs will be removed throughout India. Once Highways are done, English signs would be removed one by one from post offices, railway stations, airports, banks, insurance companies, etc. This may take 10 or 20 years but will be done. So it is important that we stop it and reverse it NOW.

What can we do? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Not many people know that English signs are removed from some National Highways. It is not reported in major newspapers. Write to your favourite politicians and ask them to complain to the Prime Minister and President of India. Letters from popular regional politicians could change the situation. Remember that when, in May 2014, the Indian Government issued a memorandum that government postings in social media, like Facebook, Twitter, may be doe in English and Hindi, or Hindi only, there was an outcry from Tamil Nadu political leaders including the former and present chief ministers. Kashmir chief minister also came out against it. Responding to the outcry, Prime Minister's office issued a statement that the memorandum was misunderstood and that both English and Hindi would be used.
  2. Write to Members of Parliament (MPs) to raise the issue in parliament.
  3. If #1 and #2 do not happen, arrange public demonstrations. 50 people demonstrating in just one city will not help because newspapers will not report it. Coordinate demonstrations in at least a dozen cities each with at least a few hundred people. If possible arrange demonstrations in several non-Hindi states. This would catch the attention of newspapers and  politicians. It is important that demonstrations are peaceful and does not inconvenience people by marching through streets blocking traffic, etc. Such demonstrations will turn the people against such demonstrations and be counter-productive.
  4. After #1, 2 and 3, or simultaneously, petition the high court or supreme court to ask the Indian government to obey the law and put back the English signs and also restrain the Indian government from removing English signs from Indian government institutions in the future. I am not a lawyer but I think the such lawsuits may be filed by any citizen or state government. Of course state governments have more resources and do it better but private petitions may be filed.

7. Punish the Lawbreakers

It is not enough to put back the English signs along National Highways. The government official who ordered the removal should be punished. If the order came from a minister, the minister should be asked to resign or dismissed. If the order came from an official, he/she should be dismissed and the information given to news organizations so that we know that the culprit is punished. This would be a warning to other officials not to issue illegal orders. This punishment phase is important to prevent future illegal Hindi imposition.

What if the order came from the Prime Minister? Should he/she resign? It would be a good example if he/she resigns but asking the highest elected official to resign over highway signs may be a little too much. We will make a one-time exception. He/she may issue a public apology and promise that he/she would never issue an unlawful order.

8. Refusal to Correct or Repeat Offense

REFUSAL: TO CORRECT: Suppose the government refuses to put back the English signs even if the Supreme Court finds it illegal to remove the signs? Then there are constitutional grounds for the President of India to dismiss the government. The President may then ask someone else to show majority support in parliament and become the Prime Minister, or call for a new parliamentary election.

REPEAT OFFENSE: Suppose the government puts back the sign along Highways under supreme court order, but, after a few months, removes English signs in railway stations or in some other ways violate the official languages acts, what then? I believe that the President of India has sufficient grounds to dismiss the government. Will the President do it?

The function of the government (administration) is to act according to the Constitution of India and laws passed by the parliament. It cannot amend the constitution or make new laws. Only the parliament can do that.

Post your comments and/or Read other comments (Subject: September 2014)


1. India: Illegal Hindi Imposition Beyond the Constitution (by Thanjai Nalankilli), TAMIL TRIBUNE, October 2014 (9 KB) (h, i)
Examples of the Indian government imposing Hindi illegally beyond constitutional provisions and laws.

2. Links to Articles on Hindian Imposition by Indian Government

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