Publication

“Language” in S. Choudhry, M. Khosla & P.B. Mehta, eds., Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2016) 180-195.

Abstract

Disputes over official language policy have been at the center of Indian political life. The Constituent Assembly debated whether Hindi should be the sole official language of the Union government, or whether Hindi and English should enjoy equal status. A closely related issue was the question of whether the boundaries of India’s states should be redrawn to ensure their linguistic homogeneity. The centrality of controversies over official language status during the Constituent Assembly debates gave rise to a broad array of constitutional provisions, which have become sites of ongoing constitutional contestation in the post-Independence period. Studying the constitutional politics of official language status is necessary to come to grips with the Indian constitutional experience. In addition, the constitutional politics of official language status provides insights into the broader forces shaping Indian political development. The Indian Constitution’s provisions on language also offer important lessons for constitutional design and interpretation. As the Indian Constitution shows, the choice of official language can be disaggregated functionally and spatially into a number of distinct institutional decisions, in which the scope for linguistic choice and the consequences of these choices are rather different. Disaggregation can become a tool of constitutional compromise, by eliminating the zero-sum nature of the choice of official language into a multiplicity of separate choices that can be traded off against each other and other constitutional issues. The Indian Constitution deploys a multiplicity of other devices to broker constitutional compromise, including delays, deferrals, defaults that can be displaced through ordinary legislation, and low thresholds to constitutional change.