Op-Ed: Nothing Official About The ‘Official Language’

“We got classical status for Odia language.” “We formed Odia Bhasha Pratisthan.” “We set up the Sarala Das Chair in JNU.” “We are now setting up an Odia University.” “We have even made it mandatory to use Odia in all official communication.” “We have done more than any previous government to preserve and promote the Odia language.” Ask about the implementation of the Official Language Act, passed by the Odisha Assembly way back in 1954, and apologists of the state government and the ruling party would rattle off a long list of measures the government has taken to prove its Odia credentials. But two years after the Odia was made ‘mandatory’, almost all official communication in the state continues to take place in the Queen’s language.

At the specially convened cabinet meeting at the Puri circuit house on the sidelines of the 20-year bash of the ruling party on December 26 last year, a decision was taken to impose fines for violation of the Official Language Act, a key demand of the Bhasha Andolan that has been holding a 700-day long silent black flag protest that is unique in the annals of protest movements in the country – and may be even the world. But three months down the line, things haven’t moved an inch! All that the cabinet meeting on Wednesday did was just reiterate its promise of ‘appropriate action’ against those who violate the Act made at the cabinet meeting.

Interestingly, the same cabinet meeting had no problems in deciding on the quantum of punishment to be imposed on commercial establishments that don’t put up signboards in Odia through an appropriate amendment to the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act passed two years after the Official Language Act. As per the decision taken at the cabinet meeting yesterday, relevant entities found violating the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1956 would have to pay fines ranging from Rs 1, 000-5, 000 for the first offence and beyween Rs 2, 000-25, 000 in case of a repeat offence from now on. But when it came to deciding on the quantum of punishment for violation of Official Language Act, it developed cold feet and postponed the decision till after the Act is amended to provide for punishment for violation is passed by the Assembly during the forthcoming budget session. How convenient! While briefing reporters after the cabinet meeting yesterday, chief secretary Aditya Prasad Padhi did not bother explaining why the quantum of fines could not be built into the proposed amendment as in the case of the Shops and Commercial Establishment Act.

One doesn’t have to be an expert in law making or governance to understand the reason behind the state government dragging its feet when it comes to imposing fines for violation of the Official Language Act even as it was quick to decide on the quantum of punishment for violation of the Shops and Commercial Establishments Act. The latter would affect businessmen while the former would put the babus bent on carrying on with English in the firing line. And a Chief Minister, who can’t speak, read or write the native language, has precious little moral right to ask his officers to use Odia in all their official communication.

One may ask why, in that case, did the government have to decide on making the use of Odia mandatory in official communication and even imposing a penalty for its violation in the first place? The answer is pretty simple actually: to fool the people about its ‘determination’ to push for making Odia the ‘official’ language! If the government had any intention to carry it to its logical conclusion, it would have accepted the perfectly legitimate demand made by Bhasha Andolan for imposition of fines for violation of the Act while grandiosely announcing on Independence Day, 2016 that Odia would become the ‘official’ language from the next day. The announcement, as we have seen, has made little material difference to the way our babus at the secretariat conduct their official business. English rules the roost. This columnist would stick his neck out and predict that it will continue to rule the roost in the foreseeable future as the government keeps procrastinating on deciding on the quantum of punishment for violation of the Language Act. For all you know, there is no guarantee that even the proposed amendment to Sec (2), Sub Section (2) of the 1954 Act would be passed in the coming session, if it is adjourned sine die prematurely on account of a stand-off in the House as all recent sessions have. At the end of the session, the ruling party can claim in all innocence that it was keen to pass the amendment, but the Opposition did not allow it to do so by holding up the proceedings. In any case, language has hardly been a priority issue with the Opposition.

With talk of an early election already doing the rounds, political parties would soon have more ‘important’ things than official language to bother about. And the state that was the first in the country to be formed on linguistic basis would continue to be ruled in the language that is spoken, read, written or understood by a minuscule minority in the state!



(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)