Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:6 October 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


M.S.Thirumalai, Ph.D.


In the second part of this essay (for the first part, click here), we dealt with the language policies of some Indian dynasties and showed that some of the early Indian dynasties used a language not native to their subjects as language of administration, but slowly they adopted the language of their subjects as their own. The Mughal rulers shifted from the Persian language to the Urdu language, but the British introduced their language as the language of administration and overall communication, with the tacit approval of their subjects. We argued that, from the point of view of the subjects, introduction of a language for administrative purposes becomes a domestic policy, but, if the rulers are from another nation, it becomes a foreign policy for the rulers.

We discussed how the concept of "foreign" is expressed in some Indian languages. The use of the concept "foreign" is more or less restricted to geographical territory and attendant consequences. In the contrast between the "domestic" and "foreign," the self and the other, the interior and the exterior, and the movement from within as opposed to the movement from without, seems to be the main focus. Although anything other than my own being is foreign to me, I need that foreign element to survive, and this seems to be the focus of the words in Indian languages. Connectedness appears to be an important element or characteristic of the concept "foreign" in Tamil, we argued.

We showed that there is a deliberate ambiguity in any foreign policy statement and the use of guarded ambiguity shows that a policy statement is well formulated. We concluded that a foreign policy statement is a product of conflicting demands made on the language skills of production and reception. A foreign policy statement is formulated via language, but it is to be judged or assessed via the consequences in the nonverbal mode.

We shall see several other dimensions of the use of language as a tool of foreign policy in this part.


The formulation of a foreign policy should have a proper co-ordination with its interpretation. The use of guarded ambiguity helps the foreign policy to have a proper tie-up between the two. In addition, the process of implementing the foreign policies also needs a careful use of the language in which the policy has been articulated. The implementation of the foreign policy requires the help of a language or languages mutually comprehensible to the source (the nation that formulates the policy) and the target (for whom the policy is intended). Implementation becomes defective if there is no proper understanding of the intended implications of the policy.


A former colonial power has a much greater access to itself in its former colonies and possessions via its own language. The very same power will have limited access of such understanding in countries that were formerly the colonies and possessions of another colonial power whose language of public life is different from its own. Neo-colonialism and the fast expanding economic dependence through globalization may not overtly affect the independence of a modern developing nation, but these elements force on the modern nation a language of the neocolonial power in some way or another.

When a nation wishing to propagate its foreign policy abroad finds its own language to be a barrier in the target nation, it either adopts a language of the target country or a language ordinarily accepted as a respectable medium for such transactions. A pragmatic nation often attempts to use a combination of languages to disseminate information about its foreign policy.


While all nations wish to display their cultures as part of their foreign policy, the economically well off nations try to include the learning and teaching of their own languages abroad as a part of their foreign policy. They may help develop suitable language learning materials to be used in the courses conducted in the target nation. They may encourage developing the studies that compare the literatures of the nation with those of the target nation. They may also encourage developing the contrastive studies that contrast the linguistic structures of various languages. In order to promote friendly audiences, admirers, and appreciation for its foreign policy in another nation, a nation may seek to display its cultural variety and nuances in the target nation through various forms of culture festivals and exhibitions. Often such studies attempt to show how in spirit, if not in letter, the cultures of these nations have great similarities between them. Where there is a difference, the difference would be shown as something worth experiencing. Variety is shown to be the spice of life. India has adopted all these methods in the past.

Britain has made English language teaching an integral part of its foreign policy. Enterprising British scholars and publishing houses have converted English language teaching and the production of materials for English language teaching a mammoth and profitable industry. The British have benefited a lot through this process, even as the world has embraced English as the international language everywhere. The British influence is further strengthened in many directions through this process. For one thing, spread of English directly benefits the day-to-day conduct of foreign affairs without much stress. The former Soviet Union has tried to emulate some of the strategies adopted by the British. They started publishing textbooks in the languages of the developing nations or the third world and this brought them a lot of goodwill from these nations. In direct opposition to the British efforts in strengthening and modernizing, and propagating the teaching and learning of English in India, the former Soviet Union wanted to capitalize on the emerging political trends in India that encouraged the use of Indian languages as media of instruction at various levels. Even as they started establishing Russian language teaching centers in various metropolitan cities, they started publishing science and social sciences textbooks in Indian languages in great numbers. The People's Republic of China is trying to adopt some of the propaganda techniques of the former Soviet Union. Language becomes a tool in the hands of these nations to reach out to the other nations with their ideology.


Language is a significant content of the foreign policies of many nations. The developed nations and those nations greatly interested in the propagation of their own ideologies often try to use the teaching of their own languages as a window to spread their influence. They publish materials in their languages as well as the languages of the other nations they seek to develop friendship with, and they encourage the learning of the languages of other nations in order to carry out their foreign policy goals. Every nation wants its policies, culture, and history to be appreciated and understood as they understand these.

In the past, a physically expanding empire was always characterized by a growth of population that, willingly or unwillingly, began to use the language of the empire. The citizens of an empire always showed an interest in the study of the languages and cultures of their subjects. This helped add to the knowledge about the subjects. In other words, interest in and actual study of the languages and cultures of other lands was a distinguishing mark of a flourishing empire. Since geographical expansion has been generally avoided in recent times, the nations who were once colonial powers now adopt the ways of persuasion, rather than coercion. The continuing British concern to improve the quality of English education throughout its former colonies (including those in South Asia) is a good example of language being a significant content of foreign policy. On the other hand, the radio broadcast in forty or more languages of the world by the BBC, Voice of America, or Radio Beijing, etc., is a good example of language being a tool of foreign policy. The encouragement given for the study of languages (their own as well as those of other nations) by the nations interested in the propagation of their ideologies comes under this category.


The labor-exporting nations, such as those of South Asia, may make some efforts to retain their languages and culture among their own populations abroad. This they may do either on their own initiative or on the demands of the repatriates or both. The Indian experience comes under this category. This is the culture policy followed by India for several decades now. A language such as Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, or Tamil may be taught with the help of India in stations abroad for the benefit of the above ethnic groups. Hindi will be treated as a national language not necessarily linked to a particular ethnic group, and opportunities for the teaching of it may be created without reference to any one particular ethnic community's demand. Help with the teaching of English helps retain its primacy role in India, and this certainly is in the interest of the British as well as Indians, but help with the teaching of Indian languages abroad for the benefit of the ethnic groups in order to retain their identity is something that certainly benefits India. The ethnic groups, however, may not necessarily be greatly interested in retaining the language component of their ethnic identities. In fact, many Indian language departments in the universities in the USA struggle to find students of Indian origin for the study of Indian languages. English seems to be the most preferred language for all their use among Indians. The students of Indian origin do not seem to be greatly interested in the speaking, reading, and writing skills in their native languages. They seem to be satisfied if they can listen and understand their mother tongue when spoken to.

India has established several programs to teach Indian languages in nations such as Mauritius, the Fiji Islands, Malaysia, and Indonesia since there are substantial populations of Indian Diaspora in Mauritius, the Fiji Islands, and Malaysia. The focus of this policy is to help the people of Indian origin to learn Indian languages and retain their linguistic identity along with their ethnic identities. The leadership among the people of Indian origin wanted these languages to be taught in their nations so that the younger generations would continue to have some language affinity to India. On the other hand, programs in places such as Indonesia aimed at re-establishing the culture and linguistic ties that were established between India and these nations a long time ago. These nations have received the influence of Indian culture and languages and have adopted these as part of their own cultural religious traditions. These nations want to re-create camaraderie between them through this process. Both the nations were interested in studying the past relationships in order to help understand each other's role, and to establish new relationships based on mutual appreciation.


It is important to note that the foreign policy of a nation is an extension of its domestic policy. There needs to be good co-ordination between the two. If there is no proper co-ordination between the two, the integrity, unity, and strength of a nation can be easily weakened. If a nation assumes that its foreign policy is simply meant for the other nations and not for its domestic constituents, that kind of nation is in for great shock. Unfortunately, when it comes to the role of language in the foreign policy of a nation, there seem to be always problems of choice, prioritizing, and implementation in multilingual countries. What is the role of language in the foreign policy of a multilingual nation? Should it faithfully act as the microcosm of the real and objective conditions of a country, should it work towards a goal, a practical goal determined by the pragmatic and objective conditions, or should it try to implement an ideal that may be achieved in the future, an ideal that is now presented as the reality of the present in the foreign policy? In projecting the foreign policy of a multilingual nation such as India, the question of what constitutes a nation, what constitutes the concept of nationhood for the various sub-nationalities that constitute a "nation," becomes crucial. Generally speaking, the language content of a multilingual nation will be different from the language content of the foreign policy of a monolingual nation if the foreign policy is viewed as an extension of the real objective conditions of the multilingual nation. Often, however, nations behave and formulate their language content of their foreign policy as if they were monolingual. A correct and perceptibly agreeable foreign policy, in so far as language content is concerned, will help towards nation building in a multilingual country.


Often the foreign policy of a nation may be used to distract the attention of its people from the pressing domestic issues. It may be used to build up an image for itself, often without substance in reality. Most people in India believe that their country is highly valued and respected all over the world and that their country occupies a pre-eminent position among the nations of the world. This feeling was continuously created in the minds of the people through reports of success achieved by the Prime Ministers during their international travels. The language and culture component of Indian foreign policy helped foster this notion further. An India-centric worldview was assiduously cultivated in the arena of foreign affairs. As a result, whenever the voice of India is not heard or its position not appreciated, people get upset. Successive governments in India helped foster the notion that India is playing a very crucial role in world affairs and that its position is highly appreciated among the nations. The patriotic newspapers carried this message too far. Self-analysis and self-criticism were not seen much in these publications.


The language component of the foreign policy of India focused on the propagation of some selected languages, and on running the programs and festivities that introduced Indian culture. Some languages were focused upon because there were already some substantial populations of Indian origin in these countries. Introduction to Indian culture became an important element of the foreign policy because, in the estimate of the successive governments in India, there was a great interest in Indian culture among various categories of people in these nations. Over the years, "culture" was re-defined to include the folk arts. (This in itself was a product of changing equations within the country.) It appears that both these activities have not yielded the desired result. These government-sponsored programs provided opportunities to selected classes of people to travel abroad and provided jobs for a few people in foreign countries. The image of the country has not been improved by these efforts.


On the other hand, the role of language, ethnicity, and culture became very critical in certain political aspects of Indian foreign policy. The extent of sympathy shown through concrete acts of diplomacy and communiqués in support of the Indian Diaspora became a heated subject among the various ethnic groups in India. Until the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, Indian foreign policy statements relating to Pakistan focused more upon the sentiments of the "Bengali" population. Religion played somewhat a lesser role when it came to the problem of East Bengal. The geo-political conditions in India made the Bengali issue look more important than the solution to the problems faced overseas by the other Indian ethnic communities such as the Tamils. The issue of Burma Tamils was totally mishandled by the central government, according to the perception of Indian Tamils. Tamils in India and abroad started feeling that the problem of Tamil populations in Sri Lanka, both native and immigrant tea-estate labor, did not attract adequate attention of the foreign policy framers in New Delhi. The political parties in Tamilnadu argued that the solutions to these problems suggested by the foreign policy of India were either slow in coming or inappropriate. They wanted a hard line to be followed, which the Center was seen to be unwilling to take. Punjabis, Tamils, Bengalis, and people of some other ethnic communities began to feel that the central government foreign policy did not adequately reflect their concerns. In the meanwhile, the central government was doing its best to establish Hindi-teaching facilities throughout the world. This further added to the perception that non-Hindi ethnic demands or aspirations may not find a proper and important place in the foreign policy of India.


The likely benefits that the language content of the foreign policy will extend to the target population abroad shall be measured against the likely harm that the same policy would cause to the domestic constituents of the nation. While the economic interests damaged by a wrong foreign policy could be corrected and the equilibrium restored, the damage to mental constructs, such as ethnic identity with or without language, wrought on the domestic constituents of a nation, cannot be so easily mended. Also such damages assume more of a cancerous function.


It was the Regulating Act of 1773 of the British Parliament that made a beginning to unite the territories of the East India Company under a single Governor-General. Before this Act, the three Presidencies of Bombay, Madras, and Bengal were independent of one another. By the Regulating Act of 1773, the Governor or President in Council of Bengal assumed superintending powers over the other two Provinces as well. By the Charter of 1833, the sole legislative power was vested in the Governor-General in Council of Bengal to the supersession of the powers enjoyed by Bombay and Madras, thus establishing not only legislative centralization, the beginning of the Indian legislature, but also the framework of Modern India. It was by the Charter Act of 1833 that the Governor-General or the Viceroy was given the direct personal charge of the relations of India with the foreign countries and of British India with the Indian states ruled by the native rulers. In course of time, certain subjects such as finance, public works, commerce, army, home, law, and education separated members in the Governor-General's Council, and there were no separate members in the Council to look after the foreign affairs. Progressive changes in the devolution of powers, although not up to the demands of Indian pioneering statesmen, were made, but no change was ever introduced that took away the conduct of the foreign affairs from the personal charge of the Governor-General in Council. Moreover, the responsibility of handling the foreign states by the Government of India was equated with the responsibility of handling the native Indian Princely States. In Britain too, there was a separate Secretary of State for India in the British government, but the ministers handling the foreign affairs of the United Kingdom did not cover his functions. In due course, the Education member in the Council of the Governor-General of India was asked to deal with the questions concerning the position of the Indian populations in other parts of the Empire, but the Viceroy himself held the portfolio of the Foreign and Political departments.

The Constitution under the Government of India Act of 1935, in my opinion, was an attempt on the part of the British to separate the parts that they put together through the Regulating Act of 1773. The 1935 Act gave a semblance of provincial autonomy, raising the hopes of some who sought after some independence for the provinces for various reasons. But the major goal of the Act, it appears to me, was to balkanize the country. This could not be achieved because of the stiff opposition the British India government faced. Even when autonomy to provinces was offered (even the phrase "independence to the provinces" was uttered), the Government of India Act of 1935 allowed the Council of Ministers to advise the Viceroy only on federal subjects other than defense, external affairs, ecclesiastical affairs, the administration of the tribal areas, and matters left by the Act to the Governor-General's discretion. This tradition of combining the sensitive domestic issues and areas with the handling of foreign affairs, a necessity for a foreign ruler, continued even after India attained its independence from Britain.


In its origin, the British Indian foreign policy, though inevitably serving the British interests, had an ethnic aura to it. The needs of the Indian emigrants had been continuously focused upon from the beginning. Even the founding session of the Indian National Congress held in Bombay in December 1885 had a resolution touching upon a matter that could be considered belonging to the foreign affairs. Of the nine resolutions passed in the founding session of the Indian National Congress, the seventh protested against the annexation of Upper Burma and the proposal to incorporate it with British India. However, in its session after fifty years, Indian National Congress protested against the separation of Upper Burma from British India! It only showed that foreign policies of a nation are always dynamic, and that these could take opposing and contradictory positions depending upon the context of the situation.


The origin of the foreign policy of the Indian National Congress may be found in its deliberations centering on the affairs, living conditions, and emigrant status of the Indian settlers abroad. Mahatma Gandhi attended several annual sessions of the Indian National Congress as a visitor or representative of the people of Indian origin in South Africa and championed their cause through proposing resolutions in support of the struggle of the people of Indian origin for civil liberties, etc. So, from the very beginning, the foreign policy of the Congress was more concerned with the culture, ethnic, and national identities of the Indian population. Soon in the hands of Ram Manohar Lohia, who was in charge of the foreign relations department of the Indian National Congress, and primarily through the dynamic thinking of Jawaharlal Nehru, the culture and ethnic basis of the original foreign policy orientation was replaced by the models of foreign policy of western nations, which are mostly concerned with economic interests and ideology. For a time, there was less emphasis on language and culture as a tool and content of the foreign policy of India.


The transfer from the culture-ethnic basis of the foreign policy to an emphasis on economic interests mirrored the gigantic effort of the leadership of the Indian National Congress to avoid as much as possible the linguistic re-organization of the Indian provinces. When it was no more possible to avoid the growing demands for the re-organization of the provinces based on language, the Congress began to implement its original promises on the linguistic re-organization of the provinces. Congress leadership emphasized the cultural cohesiveness of the nation, while recognizing the multilingual nature of the Indian nation. Often it looked as if the leadership thought that this multilingual nature is detrimental to the unity and integrity of the country. Even today such thoughts are not uncommon among the leaders of some political parties. Faced with the threat of the lack of unity among the Indians professing different faiths from its very inception as a modern nation, it was but natural that the leadership of the Indian National Congress was quite reluctant to open newer fronts for disunity. The country was poor, and it was the duty of the government to focus on economic issues for the betterment of the toiling masses. However, the masses were more emotionally concerned about the issues dealing with their language identity.


There was an excellent chance to bring religious loyalty under control through an emphasis on language loyalties, as seen mostly in the non-Hindi states of the Union, but unfortunately, the focus on making Hindi the sole official language of the Union would not allow it. The mere fact of the multiplicity of the languages used in the country was seen contributing to the disunity of the country. So, the Indian National Congress adopted a mono-language model for the Union very early in its life and this belief continues to rule the thinking even today within and without the Indian National Congress among various all-India political parties. In the meanwhile, the emergence of the BJP as the most dominant political organization in the country has brought the religion factor to the front once again in the history of modern India.

A single language does not necessarily lead to a single culture accepted and practiced by all. The multiplicity of languages should not be viewed as a detriment to the progress of the nation. The belief that the cultural identity will be preferred in place of the linguistic identity, both within and without the Indian nation, needs to be critically examined. The Indian Diaspora carried their regional cultures and faith traditions to their respective nations. Neither they nor the people of India see the relationship between language and culture as placing one against the other. There are tiers of preferences, one leading to another, with enough flexibility to skip one level to go to another level. However, there have always been attempts to support the model of cultural cohesiveness and avoid the focus on the multiplicity of languages in the foreign policy approaches of the successive governments in India.

The focus of Indian foreign policy in the last part of the nineteenth century, formulated by the pioneering leaders of the Indian National Congress, was on the examination of the British policy towards Indians settled abroad. The British reluctance to protect the interests of Indians was given as one of the reasons for the demand of Swaraj. Again, the British policy towards Indians abroad came to be focused upon during the First and Second World Wars, especially during the Second World War. Indians noted the favorable treatment meted out to European ethnic groups both in Europe and Africa, and also the prejudicial treatment meted out to Indians. They noted that while South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand could be given self-rule, India was denied on "ethnic" considerations. This was widely publicized by the Indian National Congress, and even the closest allies of the British, including Chiang Kai-Sheik, wanted that Indians to be given due self-rule. A foreign policy based on ethnic discrimination was not acceptable, even though the foreign policies of the nations were influenced by economic considerations. Since then, ethnic issues have become an important part of the foreign policy calculations of nations around the world. Since economic interests also involved racial discrimination, there was (and there is) no escape from considering ethnic issues.

The success of the foreign policy of India needs to be assessed not only by how it works abroad, but also by how it works within, and what it does to the mental constructs such as language and culture loyalties.

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