India and Canada: Federal Bilingualism Times Two

India on the world map
Figure 1: India highlighted on the world map. Figure 2: States of India.

In Canada, people most often refer to the Canadian Confederation when describing the country's political structure; but for India, the most common term would be Bharat Ganarajyá (in Hindi), Indian Union (in English) or Union indienne (in French). Still, in strictly technical terms, India is a confederation while Canada is a federation. In administrative terms, the Indian Union is a federal republic comprising 29 states ("provinces" in Canada) and seven federal territories.

The table below lists all of the states in question.

Andhra Pradesh,
Arunachal Pradesh,
Himachal Pradesh,
Madhya Pradesh,
Orissa (or Orisha),
Tamil Nadu, 
Uttar Pradesh,
West Bengal

India's seven territories are the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar-Haveli, Daman and Diu, Delhi (national-capital territory), the Lakshadweep Islands (or Laccadive) and Pondicherry.

As in Canada, each of India's 29 states is autonomous and thus has its own parliament and executive branch, as well as a public service. The country's official territories are administered directly by the federal government. Thus, despite its status as a republic, India operates with a political system largely similar to Canada's. In addition, at the federal level, India has two official languages, Hindi and English. But one key distinction applies to English: though certainly a mother tongue in Canada, it is essentially a second language for almost the entire population of India.

Reference website

Federal or Central-Government Services

The federal administration operates in both official languages, but not across the entire Indian Union. In some cases, both languages are used; in others, only Hindi is spoken; and in others still, only English. For inter-state communications, English is often the only language used, especially when the federal government writes to a state in which Hindi is neither an official language nor a co-official language.

In reality, the use of both Hindi and English revolves around the country's three "administrative regions." For example, in Region A(Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and the territories of Delhi and of Andaman and Nicobar Islands), Hindi-language services are available about 50% of the time (all typewriters being in Devanagari script). However, in Region B (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Chandigarh), that figure drops to 35% and, in Region C (other states and territories) to 20%, because only 55% of the typewriters use Devanagari script. Of course, if Hindi isn't used, authorities opt for English.

For their part, regional administrations operate in the state's official languages, except when dealing with the federal government; in this case, Hindi or English becomes compulsory. Postings and signage are also in the state's languages and in the corresponding alphabet or script (India has about 12 alphabets, in fact). Workplace languages are those of the state, but knowledge of Hindi or English is a key asset for those seeking higher positions; not surprisingly, language-policy management becomes more unwieldy if two or three official languages are vying for predominance in one state.

Yet, in India's northern regions, government signs on federal buildings in each state give English a higher profile. In the country's southern regions (states dominated by Dravidian languages and traditionally resistant to Hindi), only English appears.

Currently, of the 22 recognized constitutional languages, the following 15 appear on the Indian Union's bank notes or currency: Hindi, English, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Urdu, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu.

Federal or Central-Government Services

Federal Courts

In federal (or central) courts, only Hindi and English are allowed, but interpretation services are provided for individuals who do not understand the Indian Union's two official languages. In practice, Indian English is the language used most often by the Union's higher courts and by its supreme court.

In other courts, that is, those of each state, the official languages of the state in question can be used, along with English. Rulings are written in English. In lower courts (municipal level) hearings and rulings can be in the local language, but if the case goes to a higher court, the ruling must be translated into English.


In education, India's constitution (article 350A) requires that every state provide children from minority groups with an education in their mother tongue. Specifically, for a state to be forced to provide education in a given language, only 10 out of 40 students need make such a request. Generally speaking, teaching at least one second language is compulsory for junior high school: the second regional language or Hindi. In senior high school, English becomes compulsory.

Not surprisingly, the system can be complex…and extremely costly. In fact, it's not uncommon to come across a school in which teachers and pupils communicate in one language, courses take place in another, textbooks are written in a third, and homework is completed in a fourth.

One way or another, all languages spoken by at least one million people (roughly 40) are deemed "protected languages," as are the country's 18 constitutional languages and the official or administrative languages of each state and territory. What's more, in this one-billion strong nation, languages spoken by more than 10,000 people are usually taught in elementary school. Municipalities can themselves intervene in language matters and declare a certain language as co-official in a given district if the ethnic minority there is large enough. From that point on, public services, schools and official registrations have to be organized accordingly.

A survey in 1990s showed that only 1.3% of primary schools, 3.4% of upper primary schools, 3.9% of middle schools and 13.2% of high schools used English as a language of instruction. As a second language, English is taught for six years in 51% of rural primary schools, in 55% of urban primary schools, in 57% of rural high schools and 51% of urban high schools. English is also taught as a third language in 5% of rural primary schools, in 21% of urban primary schools, in 44% of rural high schools and in 41% of urban high schools. These figures point to Indians' interest in learning English as one of the nation's most popular bridging languages.

Certainly, the complexity of India's language policy dwarfs the challenge of Canada's reality, mostly because Canada operates with only two official languages that share equal status. That's not the case in India: language policy there organizes its many languages into a formal hierarchy while trying to reduce the drawing power or influence of a language that is at once dominant and subordinate: Hindi. The nation's regional languages appear to be well protected by the Indian Union's linguistic federalism, which allows for the territorial separation of languages. In other words, the Union promotes individual rights, while states bank on the territoriality of languages. This helps preserve minor languages, which are shielded by the buffering effect of linguistic borders and the state itself. In short, India appears to have preserved a decent balance between the centripetal force exerted by Hindi and the state-based languages that resist it. That's why the policy favoured by the Union is designed to promote Hindi.

However, Hindi must not only contend with regional sensitivities, but also "tolerate" English, a direct competitor. In the end, Hindi's spread as a national language is hindered, to the benefit of English, a neo-colonial language. Many politicians condemn the situation as abnormal because it bestows considerable privileges on a language that, after all, is a vestige of colonialization.

But most of India's citizens aren't at all ready to make the compromises needed to push English aside in favour of either Hindi (the language of the northern regions) or the Dravidian languages that dominate India's southern areas. Making such a complex nation as India work is no small task. Still, the Indian model holds interest simply because it has succeeded in reconciling the use of two major languages while allowing less prominent regional languages to be given co-official status. The model could indeed serve other countries well, Canada Included.