Making Hindi Official at the UN

Over half a billion people speak Hindi

The Indian government is prepared to spend up to four billion rupees ($63 million) to make Hindi one of the official languages of the UN, according to the country’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj.
Speaking in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of parliament) last month, Swaraj said that the only hindrance to making Hindi an official UN language was procedural, not financial. Hindi is India’s most widely spoken language, with an estimated total of over half a billion speakers (400 million mother-tongue speakers plus 130 million Indians who have learned it), or 53% of the country’s population, but India has 29 languages with over a million speakers (including 125 million English speakers) when second and third languages are taken into account.
Less than 15% of speakers of southern languages know Hindi. With such a variety of languages, the promotion of Hindi as a national language is controversial and often meets with protest.
Shashi Tharoor, member of parliament for Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in India’s south, criticized the government’s efforts: “If tomorrow someone from Tamil Nadu or from West Bengal becomes the prime minister, why should we force him to speak in Hindi at the UN?” Adding that India is the only country where Hindi has official status, he said, “Seeking to promote Hindi raises an important question. 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. I understand the pride of Hindi-speaking people, but people of this country who do not speak in Hindi also take pride in being Indian.”
His criticisms were dismissed by Swaraj, who told the Times of India, “Saying Hindi is spoken only in India shows your ignorance.”
According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, there are over 30 million members of the Indian diaspora living overseas, of which it is estimated about 50% speak Hindi. It is also an official language in Fiji, and versions of Hindi are also used in Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname.
India first campaigned for recognition of Hindi at the UN in 2007, and in 2015, Parmanand Jha, the vice president of India’s neighboring country Nepal, confirmed his country’s support for the move.
According to UN regulations, two-thirds of the 193 member countries must vote in favor to approve a new official language. Swaraj said that the main obstacle among members, especially smaller nations, was the additional expense of adding a new official language.

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