Let’s be clear: Hindi is not the rashtrabhasha or national language of the Indian union. According to the Constitution, Hindi is only the official language of the union, intended to be used by the arms of the central government, in addition to English. The Constitution notes that no state or its government is required to use Hindi within its boundaries. It does not term anything as a “national language,” and tacitly acknowledges that the Indian union is an agglomeration of ethno-linguistic nationalities that have their own languages. Yet, the untruth that Hindi is our national language is peddled by many, including union ministers—in September 2016, the Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that Hindi “has been accepted by us as” a national language; in April 2017, the Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu referred to it as “the national language.”

The debate over the place occupied by Hindi in the Indian union has regained relevance in the face of a recent decision by Pranab Mukherjee, the president of India. On 17 April, the president signed an order approving several recommendations listed in a report of the Committee of Parliament on Official Language. The committee was constituted in 1976 under the Official Languages Act of 1963, to review the progress made in the use of Hindi for the “official purpose of the Union.”

The president’s decision to approve many of the recommendations generated controversy—particularly his acceptance of a suggestion that all ministers and dignitaries who are able to speak Hindi should deliver official speeches in the language. Others include an “in principle” nod to making Hindi compulsory for students up to the tenth standard, and to ensure that Hindi is used on the tickets issued by the government-owned airline Air India. Politicians, observers and many citizens, especially those from non-Hindi-speaking states, condemned Mukherjee’s decision, calling it an imposition of Hindi upon those who didn’t communicate in it, and discrimination against their mother tongues.

When citizens of India who do not speak Hindi say—as they have many times in the past—that they experience discrimination on the basis of their mother tongue, their claim is often contested. As a person who speaks and writes in Bengali, when I say I am treated as a second-class citizen, someone may ask, “Can you show me how?” To answer these questions, I suggest that we consider two people, both of whom do not use English. One’s mother tongue is a language other than Hindi, and can speak and write in only that language—say, a “Hindi non-user.” The other can do the same solely in her mother tongue, Hindi—a “Hindi user.”

First and foremost, the Hindi non-user cannot read an officially approved version of the Constitution of India in the language of her choice—no such version exists. The constitution, meant to be the basic treaty that binds all citizens regardless of the language they speak, is available in the Indian union in only Hindi and English. Parliamentary committees, which deliberate key legislations before parliament, often ask that every citizen send letters, suggestions, responses or queries only in Hindi or English—a tough ask for the Hindi non-user. If a Hindi non-user is a parliamentarian, she can’t expect to be able to speak in parliament in her mother tongue without permission from the speaker of the house.

The Hindi non-user is not provided with in-flight information or air-plane safety announcements in her language—if she is a Tamil or a Kannada speaker, for instance, she can’t expect the same even in flights between Chennai and Bengaluru. The Hindi non-user cannot access the income-tax website or fill the income tax-return form in her mother tongue—perhaps ironic considering that states where Hindi is not the primary language of use, and many of which record high percentages on Hindi non-users, provide a majority of the tax revenue to India. A Hindi non-user cannot be certain that services at public-sector banks, including ATMs, forms, instructions and websites, will be available in her mother tongue—for instance, a user of the Bank of Baroda, or the Punjab National Bank, cannot view the website in any languages except English and Hindi.

Hindi non-users may have more trouble accessing justice than their Hindi-using counterparts, especially in higher courts—for instance, a Bengali-speaker can’t argue or hear their case be argued in the Calcutta High Court in Bengali, nor can a Tamil speaker do so in the Madras High Court. The Hindi user, however, can argue and hear arguments in her mother tongue in the Allahahad High Court.

The Hindi non-user cannot access the government of India’s website in her mother tongue—a service readily available to the Hindi user. The Hindi non-user cannot call the central-government run tourist helpline and expect to speak in her mother tongue. She also cannot expect to hear her mother tongue on “national” channels such as DD National—the lingua franca at the government-owned nationwide channel is English or Hindi—and Rajya Sabha TV.

The government encourages public servants who are Hindi non-users, through cash incentives, to learn Hindi—and Hindi alone. Concurrently, it appears not to have occurred to anyone to offer incentives to learn English, the other official language. Nor does a Hindi user working in a Hindi non-speaking state receive incentives to learn the state’s official language.

If the Hindi non-user were a Bengali, she would not find any Bengali signage in the Delhi Metro or in the Lucknow Metro—Hindi signage, however, is the norm in the Kolkata Metro, in addition to English and Bengali. Hindi non-users have found train tickets issued in states such as West Bengal to have information printed in Hindi, and not Bengali. Even when the journey is restricted to their linguistic homeland, they may not be able to obtain tickets in the language of popular use if the central government deems it non-feasible. The Hindi user can be certain that the National Highway Authority of India’s road signs in every state will be written in her mother tongue—even, at times, in the place of English.

According to the recommendations that the president assented to, the Hindi user can apply for a passport in her mother tongue—a provision not guaranteed to the Hindi non-user. The Hindi non-user can’t expect passport offices to have signs, forms and directions in her mother tongue. Incidentally, US embassies in India—whose business is the issuing of visas and not language imposition—make services such as visa applications and directions available in the languages spoken commonly in the region in which they are situated. For instance, the embassy allows the use of Bengali in Kolkata, and that of Tamil in Chennai.

The Hindi non-user can’t expect currency notes to have text or numerals in her mother tongue, aside from the small-sized text on the back of the note. By contrast, the Hindi user sees the value of the currency note and the text printed all over the note, in a large font. (This particular design had not found favour during the British colonial rule—the numerals were printed in nine languages, in equal-sized font.)

The president’s assent also means that a Hindi user can now expect the union government to mandate that information on various products will be printed in her mother tongue. She, unlike the Hindi non-user, can expect to see safety information and directions on commodities such as LPG cylinders in her mother tongue.

The Hindi non-user can’t expect post-office services and forms to be in her mother tongue; she can’t expect her Aadhaar card, her PAN card,or her passport to have information printed in her mother tongue. She can’t be certain that forms, services and websites of the union-government-run healthcare institutions and medical colleges will include her mother tongue. The Hindi user can expect all of these—in addition, she can expect that the central government will promote her language in foreign countries as well.

When it comes to education, jobs and opportunities, Hindi non-users cannot be certain that they can sit for examinations for the National Defence Academy, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the Combined Defence Services and other services under the Union Public Service Commission in their mother tongues, as these services offer question papers primarily in Hindi and English. A Hindi non-user cannot appear for the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection tests and interviews and the central Public Sector Undertaking Exams (PSU) in her mother tongue. The Hindi user can do so—an unquestionable advantage when the difference of a few marks often decides who fills a job vacancy, or gains admission to an educational institute. Marathi-speakers can’t expect office forms in IIT Bombay to be available in Marathi. Bengalis can’t expect office forms at the Indian Statistical Institute of Kolkata to be available in Bengali. The Hindi user can expect all forms at these educational institutes to be available in Hindi. The IITs also offer special coaching classes to Hindi users who gain admission, to enable them to keep up with the English-medium classes—a service unavailable to a Hindi non-user.

Hindi-users have similar advantages when it comes to recruitment to military and paramilitary forces, such as those of the Central Reserved Police Force and the Border Security Force. For one, the websites of all these forces, which enable applicants to obtain information regarding the requisite qualifications and other relevant details, are available in only English and Hindi. For another, the exams for these are often not conducted in all regional languages. (A corollary to this is that a majority of the personnel posted to a Hindi non-user’s state may not speak her language, and as a result, be unable to understand her.)

All schools which are under the central government, such as those following the Central Board of Secondary Education or under the Kendriya Vidayalaya Sangathan, offer Hindi as an optional language subject, even in states where Hindi is not the primary language. (The president’s nod to the suggestion that Hindi be made mandatory until the tenth standard, when enforced, will expand this to other government-run schools as well.) However, a Hindi non-user cannot expect that her mother tongue will be available as a language subject, even in her own state. The Hindi non-user can’t expect the union government to promote higher education in her mother tongue—according to the recommendations that the president agreed to, the Ministry of Human Resources Development will promote the use of Hindi in all states, encouraging educational institutes that don’t already have a Hindi department to found one. The Hindi user, in addition to the above, can expect the Union government to sponsor celebrations of her mother tongue every year.

The Hindi non-user can’t expect information about tenders, schemes, fellowships, grants and various other union-government projects from which she could economically benefit to be available in her mother tongue. She will not be able to view the websites of government programs such as Skill India and Startup India in her mother tongue, nor will she be able to apply for these programs in any language except Hindi and English. She cannot expect the government of India’s employment newsletter to be available in the language of her choice.

The list of services, information, schemes and myriad other government communication that is easier for Hindi users to access is long. A majority of the citizens of the Indian union do not consider Hindi their mother tongue. In many linguistic regions, languages other than that of the land may be deemed “foreign”—a word that the Gujarat High Court once used to describe Hindi. It follows, then, that when the central government communicates with the people, the language it uses may differ from that used by many of its people. This results in a gap between the government and its people. One way to bridge this gap is policy—the government can decide, for the ease of its people, to make its communication available in all the languages used in the nation. It would be a democracy where people are considered more important than their rulers. The other way to close this gap is to expect the people to change to suit the government. That is tyranny where rulers are considered more important than people. In an age where live-translation is not only technologically feasible but is easy and widely used, imposing Hindi and excluding other mother tongues can no longer be considered a logistical issue. It is hard to believe that the government of India can send a mission to Mars but not make all its websites available in at least the 21 other languages listed in the Constitution—unless it does not wish to grant equal rights to the speakers of these languages.

A person’s mother tongue is often the basis of her most fundamental identity, the basis of her knowledge and culture. To force her to abandon it in favour of another is to deny her equality and dignity. Unity cannot exist without the guarantee of these two concepts—without dignity, it is slavery; without equality, it is imperialism.