Hindi at United Nations: Debating the Concerns Being Raised in India

The FirstPost story ‘Sushma Swaraj, Shashi Tharoor trade barbs in Lok Sabha over making Hindi an official language at UN’, published Jan 4, 2018, talks about External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s reply to a question in the Lok Sabha last Wednesday over attempts to make Hindi an official language at the United Nations. It was met with resistance by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor who said that since Hindi was not India’s national language but only an official language, there is no need for Hindi being made an official language at the UN. He brought in the question of non-Hindi-speaking diplomats and representatives of state having a problem with it.

Another story in The Wire ‘The Modi Govt’s Attempt to Gain Official Status for Hindi in the UN Is Futile and Divisive’, published January 6, 2018, makes the same arguments as Mr Tharoor. It further alleges that the decision is futile and divisive.

Let us take the broader arguments that have and address them.

Shashi Tharoor’s Argument #1:

“Hindi is not the national language, it is an official language. Seeking to promote Hindi raises an important question. Why do we need an official language in the UN? Arabic does not have more speakers than Hindi, but Arabic is spoken by 22 countries, whereas Hindi is only used as an official language by one country — us”


India hasn’t accorded any language the status of national language as of now, respecting the linguistic diversity of the country. So, India has several official languages as per the dominant/ most-spoken language in a state. If English is an official language at the UN as well as for the Union government in India, so can Hindi be the official language.

Coming to the question of the need for an official language from India at the UN, Mr Tharoor falls into his own trap by citing the example of Arabic being spoken in many countries. If we have to go by numbers, Hindi has the fourth highest number of native speakers in the world, far greater than French, Russian and Arabic, all three of which are official languages at UN. Moreover, Chinese (Mandarin) is an official language at the UN, although it is hardly the official language of more than a handful of countries.

In fact, Mandarin is the official language in the PRC; in Singapore, it is one of four official languages; in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, Mandarin is only a co-official language. Also, outside the PRC, the broader term of “Chinese” is used and to mean various versions/ types of Chinese, such as Cantonese, Hakka, etc. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation uses Chinese as one of its official languages. Clearly then, we are not looking at how many states here but number of speakers that gives Mandarin its status (i.e. the PRC’s large population)?

But then, Hindi, too, is spoken in several countries by the Indian diaspora.

In India itself, Census 2001 had pegged the total number of Hindi speakers at 53.6% and first-language Hindi speakers at 41%, which is far greater than any other language in India. Therefore, it is only practical to have Hindi as an official language in India and, given the number of its speakers in the world, perhaps at the UN too.

Shashi Tharoor’s Argument #2:

“The question is what purpose is being served by this. If indeed we have a prime minister or foreign minister who prefers to speak Hindi, they can do so and we can pay to get that speech to be translated. Why should we put our future foreign ministers and prime ministers who may be from Tamil Nadu in (such) a position”?


The Wire raises similar concerns by calling the decision a divisive and a futile exercise. But how can adding Hindi as an official language at the UN hinder a speaker from any other Indian state? English is an official language at the UN. Thus, any future representative/ office-holder, such as a foreign minister, from a state like Tamil Nadu, or any non-Hindi speaking state, can speak in English — or any of the other UN official languages for that matter.

A Question of Indian Pride, Not of Hindi

The Wire story is scathing in trying to paint Hindi as being the domain of only Hindi-speaking people. English may be the language of bread and butter, but it cannot take away from the fact that it is not an Indian language, Indianisation of English notwithstanding.

The question of Hindi at the UN, therefore, is not one of pride for a few states. It is a question of Indian pride and respect for its historical civilizational, as perhaps even for its current economic and geopolitical, status. It may, in fact, be called unfair that a country of more than a billion people does not have an official language at the UN. Thus, it is a question of Indian pride and not merely for first-language Hindi speakers. So, instead of appearing to play divisive politics on the issue, everyone would perhaps do better by joining in the effort.