In reviewing the language types of South Asia one is at once struck by the diversity and complexity of the pattern. In 1927 The Linguistic Survey of India, listed 179 languages and 544 dialects that are spoken within the subcontinent. It excluded Sri Lanka, where linguistic pluralism is also the rule. Of the six-language families identified on the map for South Asia the two most widely-spread are Indo-European and Dravidian.
The Tibeto-Burman family is distributed along the northern and northeastern borders of India, Munda and Mon-Khmer languages are scattered in less accessible and tribal parts of northeastern India, and the Ural- Altaic family covers a part of northern Afghanistan.
In the Indo-European family, Hindi (and the closely-related Urdu, Hindustani, and Rajasthani tongues) claims the largest number of speakers (nearly 430 million) and is spread over a wide territory in North and Central India. Urdu grammatically akin to Hindi but uses Persio-Arabic script and vocabulary, is the official language of Pakistan, though it is the mother tongue of relatively few Pakistanis.
Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Oriya, Assamese and Kashmiri each claim large number of speakers, ranging from 5 million for Kashmiri to over 150 million for Bengali including over 170 million of Bangladeshis. Each is located in a compact territorial block. In India this enabled state boundaries to be drawn mainly on linguistic grounds, the greatest changes being made in 1956.
Bengali’s territory is divided between India (in the state of West Bengal) and Bangladesh, a consequence of the partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947. The Dravidian language family is located in mainly southern India. It includes four major languages: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, each claiming between 20 and 70 million speakers.
Following independence, India gave recognition to 15 (currently the constitution recognizes 18) of the major languages belonging to the two language families, and soon undertook a sweeping reform to reorganize its state boundaries. By 1956, most state boundaries coincided with the language regions.
In addition, the Constitution invested Hindi with the status of a national language by making it the sole administrative language of the central government. To allay the fears of the non- Hindi speaking states, the central government decided to keep English, along with Hindi as a medium of transaction of government business and as a “link” between the states for a period of 15 years, but extended several times later.
Pakistan after independence declared Urdu as the official language for the entire nation. Though it was not the principal mother tongue of any section of the country, it is widely understood, and is acceptable to the educated elite. Among all South Asian countries, Bangladesh is linguistically the most homogeneous.
Even before 1971, when it was a part of Pakistan, few of its people understood Urdu, and fewer still were willing to accept it. Bengali had to be declared a second language. After independence Bengali took its rightful place as the national language of Bangladesh.
In Sri Lanka language has been a powerful divisive force. Tensions have long existed between the Sinhalese-speaking, mainly Buddhist majority, and a Tamil- speaking, largely Hindu minority, the latter concentrated mainly in the northern and eastern part of the country. Many other Tamils emigrated from India in recent times to work on tea plantations and have not yet gained citizenship rights. The long-established Tamils have been seeking a political “homeland” within the country and agitating for greater recognition for their language. This has led to violent confrontation with the central administration.
Elsewhere, in Nepal, the Nepali-speaking majority of the Indo-European family has to deal with large numbers of mountain people speaking various languages of the Tibeto-Burman family. In Bhutan, dialects of Tibetan are predominant. The language of the Maldives Islands is Divehi and is akin to Sinhalese with an infusion of Arabic words.
Religion has been a powerful force molding the destinies of the people in South Asia. In recent times the separation of Pakistan from India stemmed principally from the political loyalties arising out of the religious and socioeconomic differences between Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
The current demands for a “homeland” by Sikhs in the northwestern part of India and for independence for the Tamil-speaking Hindu-dominated areas in Sri Lanka are two of the several instances of loyalties-based largely on religious and linguistic preferences.
In each South Asian country, significant religious minorities exist. Not only are these minorities widespread, but in some areas of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, they constitute local majorities. In India, Muslims form nearly 12 percent of the population giving it, after Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the fourth largest Muslim community in the world. Nearly eleven percent of Bangladesh’s population professes Hindu faith, almost all the remainder is Muslim.
During the war with Pakistan in 1971, an estimated 9-10 million of the Hindu population left the country to take refuge in the neighboring states of India, especially in West Bengal. Nearly 8 percent of the predominantly Hindu kingdom of Nepal are Buddhists, while as much as one-fourth of Bhutan’s population may be composed of Hindus of Nepali origin, (the majority of Bhutanese are Buddhists).
In Sri Lanka nearly 70 percent of the population is Buddhist the remaining is divided between Hindus, Christians and Muslims in that order of importance. Pakistan and the Maldives Islands are nearly homogeneous m religion, claiming no more than two percent of their populations of non-Muslim faith.
While most South Asian countries face the vexing problems of integrating their minorities into the dominant national stream, nowhere else is this internal problem more difficult than in India, where the population is divided among several religious groups. An overwhelming majority of the population (80 percent) professes the Hindu faith. With the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab, Hindus form majorities in all the remaining states of India.
Christians and Sikhs predominate at local levels. Other minorities Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis are dispersed among Hindu populations. Many practices, characteristic of the Hindu society, have been retained among them, as most of whom, are descendants of converts from Hinduism.
Of the minority groups, Muslims remained more distinct from the majority group of Hindus, and presented the biggest obstacle to national unity during British rule, culminating in the partitioning of the subcontinent into two countries in 1947. The Hindu-Muslim rift is deep- rooted, going back to the period from the 13th to the 17th centuries, when Muslim rule was established by conquest.
Here, the Islamic civilization clashed with Hindu civilization as it had clashed in Spain and the Balkans with Christianity. Islam presented a socio-economic structure based strictly on social freedom and equality, a concept entirely antithetical to the prevailing social rigidity of the Hindu caste system. Lured by the prospect of social freedom, as well the desire to escape the threat of extinction by the sword, many lower castes and some tribal people were attracted to Islam. Among the higher castes, political advantages occasionally proved irresistible, and paved the way to conversions.
Among other religious groups of India, Sikhs warrant particular attention. Nearly 90 percent of the Sikh population of 18 million lives in a critical area bordering Pakistan, in metropolitan Delhi, and adjacent areas of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. An offshoot of Hinduism, the Sikh religion retains many Hindu practices, and many Sikhs intermarry with Hindus.
An eclectic, monotheistic faith, and initially a pacifistic religion, Sikhism began as a reform movement in the 15th century against the Hindu practices of caste and rituals. In the 17th century, when Sikhs were persecuted by Muslim rulers, they assumed a militant posture. The partition of the Indian subcontinent cut directly through their territory, and about 1.5 million Sikhs, who found themselves in Pakistan, moved to India mainly to the state of Punjab.
This influx of Sikhs into the northwestern part of India pushed them to a majority status in areas bordering Pakistan. Within India, Sikhs have been politically the most active among religious minorities. They successfully agitated for the creation of a Sikh-dominated Punjabi-speaking state in 1966. Highly cohesive, enterprising and proud of their traditions, many Sikhs have recently been vocal and often violent in their demand for Khalistan, an independent “homeland,” thus posing a serious problem for India’s internal security.
Although the regional aspirations of most major linguistic groups in India had been met by 1970, regionally important cultural or religious groups continued to agitate occasionally for the creation of new states or even for independence. In the northwest, Sikhs demanded and succeeded in the break-up of the original state of Punjab into two parts: a truncated Sikh- dominated Punjab in the north, and a Hindu state of Haryana in the south (both created in 1966).
The Sikh problem was, however, defused only temporarily, for a group of extremists continued to agitate for a separate Sikh homeland—a new Punjab state to be called Khalistan (literally “land of the pure”) in which they would be totally independent of India. Other Sikhs would settle for enhanced autonomy.
Violent confrontations between Sikh extremists entrenched in their holy temple in the city of Amritsar, and government forces led to tragic loss of lives and destruction to the holy shrine in 1984, and to increased Hindu-Sikh polarization. India has since then been able to defuse this explosive problem.
In early 1994, much of the tension had subsided and Punjab had become peaceful. Pressures for regional autonomy among several others have also existed since independence. Most of the groups were pacified by creating several states in eastern India bordering Myanmar. It is remarkable that the Indian federation has been able to survive the “dangerous decades” since independence.
Other South Asian nations did not follow the Indian pattern of linguistic states despite their apparent ethnic complexity (only Bangladesh is linguistically homogeneous).
In addition to the linguistic and religious diversity in South Asia, there was a considerable political fragmentation within its territory, and danger of eternal threats since their inception. At the end of British rule in India the subcontinent was subdivided into a fragmented patchwork of large and small political units. In addition to the territories directly ruled by the British, known as provinces, there were 572 dependent native or “princely” states (562 in India and 10 in Pakistan).
After attaining independence the two new nations faced with the difficult task of national integration, could ill-afford the continued existence of such states scattered throughout their territories which could pose a serious threat to their political stability and economic development. With the exception of Kashmir state, that became a bone of contention between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of partition, all the princely states had been totally absorbed into one of the two countries by 1950.
The South Asian nations have never been entirely free from the specter of internal and external conflicts after gaining independence from the British in the late 1940s. India’s frontiers with Pakistan and China have been the scene of warfare in 1947-48, 1962, 1965 and 1971. A dispute between India and Pakistan over the state of Jammu and Kashmir remains unresolved despite the state’s de facto partitioning between them. China also claims a large territory in India’s northeastern borderlands and in eastern Kashmir, and engaged in a limited war with India over these areas in 1962.