NEW DELHI — Lokpati Tripathi, a thin, 23-year-old Hindi literature graduate, has dreamed of joining India’s elite bureaucratic service for the past eight years. He has studied nonstop for the intensely competitive civil-service tests for the past 18 months.
But now, Tripathi and thousands like him who studied in Hindi are protesting across northern India against a new screening test that they say is tilted in favor of those who are fluent in English.
“Can only those who are from the English-speaking class of elite Indians become top bureaucrats?” Tripathi asked, his voice rising above the din of fiery speeches around him on his fourth day of a hunger strike in New Delhi. “Is there no place for local languages in India today?”
The question of which language gets primacy is deeply divisive for a country that inherited English from its British colonial rulers but has 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects of its own. Many observers assumed that India had settled its language divide decades ago when it allowed each state to have its own official language and made Hindi the official language of the national government. English is also allowed to be used for official business.
But in recent weeks, Indians’ deep anxieties over language have resurfaced, ironically at a time when the newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, 63, has unambiguously declared his preference to use Hindi instead of English.
About 550 million Indians speak Hindi, and more than 125 million speak English in addition to their mother tongues, according to the 2001 census.
India’s image as a hub of information technology has grown in the past two decades, fueled by hundreds of thousands of English-speaking software engineers. English was widely acknowledged as the language of opportunity and growth, driving millions of Indians to enroll in private English classes that mushroomed in almost every urban neighborhood. In India, a great deal of social weight is attached to the ability to speak English fluently.
But now, Hindi appears to have become the latest power accessory under Modi, who is a charismatic orator in Hindi and Gujarati but is not entirely comfortable in English.
Modi’s government directed officials, publicly owned companies and banks to use Hindi on social media and official correspondence, in addition to English. Some non-Hindi-speaking southern states protested, forcing his government to clarify that the directive was meant only for Hindi states.
The news sent many of New Delhi’s bureaucrats with clipped English accents running off to look up words in Hindi dictionaries, according to reports.
Modi then declared that he would speak only in Hindi with international leaders.
“Modi is telling many in small towns of India that ‘you don’t need to speak English to grow. Do what comes naturally to you. Anything is possible,’ ” said Sugata Srinivasaraju, author of the book “Pickles From Home: The Worlds of a Bilingual.” “Modi is offering them a new kind of modernity. . . . If he delivers economic growth, people will forgive his language politics. If he doesn’t, then the English-speaking middle class will portray Modi as a politician from a faraway past.”
Modi’s message was not lost on Tripathi at the protest site.
“Our prime minister did not need English to rise,” Tripathi said.
Hindi advocates say the share of Hindi-speaking aspirants making it to the top bureaucracy has steadily fallen since the screening test was introduced in 2011.
“We have kept down more than half the population of Indians who function in Hindi,” said Ashok Chakradhar, a renowned Hindi poet and former vice chair of Hindi Academy. “In a multilingual country like ours, Hindi ties us together and creates a robust cultural identity.”
Yet Hindi is not the only language stirring controversy.
The Modi government also instructed public schools across India to observe a week celebrating Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language that many sacred Hindu hymns were written in 3,500 years ago.
Some critics accused the government of promoting Hinduism in public schools. Others said Sanskrit represented the exclusive privileges appropriated by the upper-caste Hindus in the past.
“It would have been more appropriate to have organised a Classical Language Week in each state based on the linguistic heritage of that state,” Jayaram Jayalalitha, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, wrote to Modi. “This would be in keeping with the cultural and linguistic sensitivities in a diverse country like ours.”
Analysts say language is a key part of the cultural politics of Hindu nationalist groups such as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, of which Modi is a member.
“The BJP can’t turn our officially secular India into a Hindu nation, but through symbolic promotion of Sanskrit they often signal that they are running a Hindu-friendly government,” said Girija Shankar, a political analyst in Madhya Pradesh state, where the BJP has ruled since 2003.
For all the political push, it may be difficult to turn the clock back on English.
“Students think English is the only way to survive in a big city and get a job,” said Sandeep Sinha, director of the Oxford Software Institute, which teaches an English course. “You should see their confidence soar when they are able to stitch a couple of sentences in English. This hunger for English isn’t going to disappear easily.”