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Getting the language count right

The story, “Death of Jagmohan, the Elephant”, by Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, is about the death of an elephant. For a reader, the story may appear to be about a rather “big death”, but what the writer wanted to say was that there are also many “small deaths”. They include the deaths of Dalits and tribals who are trapped by hunger and humiliation. Anonymity surrounds them and our lack of compassion gives them finality.

2021 census data to be stored electronically

The death of a tree or a forest sacrificed at the altar of development is mourned but not spoken about. Similarly, the death of a language is literally shrouded in silence. Because of its nature, a language is not visible and fails to move anyone except its very last speaker who nurtures an unrequited hope of a response. When a language disappears it goes forever, taking with it knowledge gathered over centuries. With it goes a unique world view. This too is a form of violence. Large parts of culture get exterminated through slight shifts in policy instruments than through armed conflicts. Just as nature’s creations do not require a tsunami to destroy them, the destruction of culture can be caused by something as small as a bureaucrat’s benign decision. Even a well-intentioned language census can do much damage.

Over the last many decades, successive governments have carried out a decadal census. The 1931 Census was a landmark as it held up a mirror to the country about the composition of caste and community. War disrupted the exercise in 1941, while it was a rather busy year for the new Indian republic at the time of the 1951 Census It was during the 1961 census that languages in the country were enumerated in full. India learnt that a total of 1,652 mother tongues were being spoken. Using ill-founded logic, this figure was pegged at only 109, in the 1971 Census. The logic was that a language deserving respectability should not have less than 10,000 speakers. This had no scientific basis nor was it a fair decision but it has stuck and the practice continues to be followed.

Hits and misses

The language enumeration takes place in the first year of every decade. The findings are made public about seven years later as the processing of language data is far more time consuming than handling economic or scientific data. Early this month, the Census of India made public the language data based on the 2011 Census, which took into account 120 crore speakers of a very large number of languages. The Language division of the Census office deserves praise but the data presented leaves behind a trail of questions.

During the census, citizens submitted 19,569 names of mother tongues — technically called “raw returns”. Based on previous linguistic and sociological information, the authorities decided that of these, 18,200 did not match “logically” with known information. A total of 1,369 names — technically called “labels” — were picked as “being names of languages”. The “raw returns” left out represent nearly 60 lakh citizens. And because of the classification regime, their linguistic citizenship has been dropped.

In addition to the 1,369 “mother tongue” names shortlisted, there were 1,474 other mother tongue names. These were placed under the generic label “Others”. As far as the Census is concerned, these linguistic “Others” are not seen to be of any concern. But the fact is that they have languages of their own. The classification system has not been able to identify what or which languages these are and so they have been silenced by having an innocuous label slapped on them.

The 1,369 have been grouped further under a total of 121 “group labels”, which have been presented as “Languages”. Of these, 22 are languages included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, called “Scheduled Languages”. The remainder, 99, are “Non-scheduled Languages”. An analysis shows that most of the groupings are forced. For instance, under the heading “Hindi”, there are nearly 50 other languages. Bhojpuri (spoken by more than 5 crore people, and with its own cinema, theatre, literature, vocabulary and style) comes under “Hindi”. Under Hindi too is the nearly 3 crore population from Rajasthan with its own independent languages. The Powari/Pawri of tribals in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh too has been added. Even the Kumauni of Uttarakhand has been yoked to Hindi. While the report shows 52,83,47,193 individuals speaking Hindi as their mother tongue, this is not so. There is a similar and inflated figure for Sanskrit by counting the returns against the question about a person’s “second language”.

English use

As against this, the use of English is not seen through the perspective of a second language. Counting for this is restricted to the “mother tongue” category — in effect bringing down the figure substantially. Given the widespread use of English in education, law, administration, media and health care, a significant number of Indians use English as a utility language. To some extent it is the language of integration in our multilingual country. Therefore, isn’t the Census required to capture this reality? It can, given the data on the language of second preference, but it does not for reasons that need no spelling out. So the Census informs us that a total of 2,59,678 Indians speak English as their “mother tongue” — numerically accurate and semantically disastrous.

The language Census may not attract as much attention as news about fuel prices. But in the community of nations, the Indian census is bound to be discussed. A body such as UNESCO will look at it with interest. From the 1940s, when its General Council decided to establish a Translation Bureau to years later, in 2008, when its Executive Board debated “Multilingualism in the Context of Education for All”, UNESCO has progressively developed its vision and deepened its understanding of global linguistic diversity.

Focus points

From time to time, UNESCO tries to highlight the key role that language plays in widening access to education, protecting livelihoods and preserving culture and knowledge traditions. In 1999/2000, it proclaimed and observed February 21 as International Mother Language Day, while in 2001 the ‘Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity’ accepted the principle of “Safeguarding the linguistic heritage of humanity and giving support to expression, creation and dissemination in the greatest possible number of languages.” In pursuit of these, UNESCO has launched a linguistic diversity network and supported research. It has also brought out an Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which highlights the central place of language in the world’s heritage. Is our language census consistent with these ideas and principles?

One expects that the Census in India should adequately reflect the linguistic composition of the country. It is not good practice when data helps neither educators nor policy makers or the speakers of languages themselves. The Census, a massive exercise that consumes so much time and energy, needs to see how it can help in a greater inclusion of the marginal communities, how our intangible heritage can be preserved, and how India’s linguistic diversity can become an integral part of our national pride.

b) Rocky summit: when Trump met Putin

A summit between the leaders of the world’s strongest nuclear powers, which fought the Cold War for decades, is an opportunity to discuss areas of shared interest, find ways to dial down mutual tensions and work together to address global issues. But well before Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin sat down for their first formal summit meeting, in Helsinki, there were concerns that it would be overshadowed by allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The uproar in Washington over Mr. Trump’s remarks on the Russian meddling scandal — with even accusations of treason — and his subsequent U-turn suggest that such concerns were valid. Mr. Trump could have certainly managed the summit better by addressing genuine concerns in the U.S. over allegations of Russia’s election meddling. Days earlier, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials for hacking and leaking emails of top Democrats. It therefore seemed surreal when the President accepted the Russian version over that of his own intelligence agencies and the Justice Department. Away from the controversy, the closed-door meeting between the leaders can be evaluated only on the progress made on a number of contentious issues before both.

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is set to expire in 2021 and Russia has shown interest in extending it. For a consensus, high-level talks between the U.S. and Russia are needed. From the crisis in Ukraine to the civil war in Syria, Russia-U.S. cooperation is vital to finding lasting solutions. The Iran nuclear deal, for which Mr. Putin and Barack Obama worked together despite differences, is in a shambles. Most of these issues, including the threat posed by nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, were discussed at the summit. But it’s not clear whether the talks will lead to any significant change in policies. Since the Ukraine crisis, the West has tried different methods, including sanctions and pressure tactics, to isolate Russia and change its behaviour. But those methods have proved largely unsuccessful as Russia is now a far more ambitious foreign policy power with an enhanced presence in Eastern Europe and West Asia — even if its sanctions-hit economy is struggling. Instead of continuing a policy that has failed and ratcheted up global tensions, the Western alliance should junk its Cold War mentality and engage with Russia; Russia, in turn, will have to shed its rogue attitude and be more open and stable in its dealings. The stakes are high and the bitterness of the past should not hinder U.S.-Russia relations. That should have been the message from Helsinki.


1) Humiliation

Meaning: The action of humiliating someone or the state of being humiliated.

Example: “They suffered the humiliation of losing in the opening round”

Synonyms: Embarrassment, Mortification  

Antonyms: Honour

2) Anonymity

Meaning: Lack of outstanding, individual, or unusual features; impersonality.

Example: “The anonymity of big city life definitely has its advantages”

3) Compassion

Meaning: Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Example: “The victims should be treated with compassion”

Synonyms: Pity, Sympathy

Antonyms: Indifference, Heartlessness

4) Mourned

Meaning: Feel regret or sadness about (the loss or disappearance of something).

Example: “Publishers mourned declining sales of hardback fiction”

Synonyms: Deplore, Bewail

Antonyms: Rejoice

5) Shrouded

Meaning: Wrap or dress (a body) in a shroud for burial.

Example: “The body was washed and shrouded”

6) Unrequited

Meaning: (Of a feeling, especially love) not returned.

Example: “He’s been pining with unrequited love”

7) Exterminated

Meaning: Destroy completely.

Example: “After exterminating the entire population, the soldiers set fire to the buildings”

Synonyms: Kill, Dispatch

8) Conflicts

Meaning: A serious incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests.

Example: “There was a conflict between his business and domestic life”

Synonyms: Clash, Incongruity

Antonyms: Harmony

9) Benign

Meaning: Gentle and kind.

Example: “His benign but firm manner”

Synonyms: Kindly, Gentle

Antonyms: Unfriendly, Hostile

10) Pegged

Meaning: Fix (a price, rate, or amount) at a particular level.

Example: “The dividend was pegged at 23.59p”

Synonyms: Fix, Control  

11) Enumeration

Meaning: The action of mentioning a number of things one by one.

Example: “The complete enumeration of all possible genetic states”

12) Praise

Meaning: Express warm approval or admiration of.

Example: “We can’t praise Chris enough—he did a brilliant job”

Synonyms: Commend, Applaud

Antonyms: Criticize, Condemn  

13) Linguistic

Meaning: Relating to language or linguistics.

Example: “A child’s linguistic ability”

Synonyms: Semantic, Lingual  

14) Concerned

Meaning: Relate to; be about.

Example: “The story concerns a friend of mine”

Synonyms: Cover, Treat  

15) Innocuous

Meaning: Not harmful or offensive.

Example: “It was an innocuous question”

Synonyms: Harmless, Safe  

Antonyms: Harmful, Obnoxious

16) Yoked

Meaning: Something that connects two things or people, usually in a way that unfairly limits freedom.

Example: “Both countries had thrown off the communist yoke”

17) Inflated

Meaning: Increase (something) by a large or excessive amount.

Example: “Objectives should be clearly set out so as not to duplicate work and inflate costs”

Synonyms: Increase, Raise

Antonyms: Decrease, Depress

18) Perspective

Meaning: A particular attitude towards or way of regarding something; a point of view.

Example: “Most guidebook history is written from the editor’s perspective”

Synonyms: Outlook, View

19) Multilingual

Meaning: In or using several languages.

Example: “A multilingual dictionary”

20) Semantically

Meaning: (Of words and language) connected with meaning.

Example: “Words are semantic units that convey meaning”

21) Disastrous

Meaning: Causing great damage.

Example: “A disastrous fire swept through the museum”

Synonyms: Catastrophic, Calamitous  

Antonyms: Fortunate, Successful

22) Proclaimed

Meaning: Announce officially or publicly.

Example: “The government’s chief scientific adviser proclaimed that the epidemic was under control”

23) Dissemination

Meaning: The act of spreading something, especially information, widely; circulation.

Example: “Dissemination of public information”

Synonyms: Circulation, Distribution  

24) Intangible

Meaning: Difficult or impossible to define or understand; vague and abstract.

Example: “The rose symbolized something intangible about their relationship”

Synonyms: Indefinable, Inexpressible  

Antonyms: Clear

25) Pride

Meaning: The quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.

Example: “The worst sin in a ruler was pride”

Synonyms: Arrogance, Vanity  

Antonyms: Modesty, Humility

26) Allegations

Meaning: A claim or assertion that someone has done something illegal or wrong, typically one made without proof.

Example: “He made allegations of corruption against the administration”

Synonyms: Claim, Assertion  

27) Uproar

Meaning: A loud and impassioned noise or disturbance.

Example: “The room was in an uproar”

Synonyms: Turmoil, Disorder  

Antonyms: Calm

28) Meddling

Meaning: Interfere in something that is not one’s concern.

Example: “I don’t want him meddling in our affairs”

Synonyms: Interfere, Intrude  

29) Scandal

Meaning: An action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.

Example: “A bribery scandal involving one of his key supporters”

Synonyms: Impropriety, Misconduct  

30) Accusations

Meaning: A charge or claim that someone has done something illegal or wrong.

Example: “Accusations of bribery”

Synonyms: Allegation, Charge

31) Treason

Meaning: The crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government.

Example: “They were convicted of treason”

Synonyms: Treachery, Betrayal  

Antonyms: Allegiance, Loyalty

32) Controversy

Meaning: Prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion.

Example: “The design of the building has caused controversy”

Synonyms: Disagreement, Dispute  

Antonyms: Agreement, Accord

33) Evaluated

Meaning: Form an idea of the amount, number, or value of; assess.

Example: “The study will assist in evaluating the impact of recent changes”

Synonyms: Assess, Judge  

34) Contentious

Meaning: Causing or likely to cause an argument; controversial.

Example: “A contentious issue”

Synonyms: Controversial, Disputable

35) Consensus

Meaning: A general agreement.

Example: “There is a growing consensus that the current regime has failed”

Synonyms: Agreement, Harmony

Antonyms: Disagreement

36) Shambles

Meaning: A state of total disorder.

Example: “My career was in a shambles”

Synonyms: Chaos, Mess

37) Tactics

Meaning: An action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.

Example: “The minority attempted to control the Council by a delaying tactic”

Synonyms: Strategy, Scheme

38) Ratcheted

Meaning: Cause something to rise (or fall) as a step in what is perceived as an irreversible process.

Example: “The Bank of Japan ratcheted up interest rates again”

39) Junk

Meaning: Discard or abandon unceremoniously.

Example: “Sort out what could be sold off and junk the rest”

Synonyms: Discard, Scarp

40) Rogue

Meaning: A dishonest or unprincipled man.

Example: “You are a rogue and an embezzler”

Synonyms: Scoundrel, Reprobate

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