New Delhi—India has 1.2 billion people speaking the 15 official languages printed on every currency note. There’s just no room on the Indian rupee for the hundreds of other languages and dialects spoken across the country. For a traveler, India can feel like Babel itself. Yet, most Indians manage to communicate with one another. The country won its independence from British rule in August 1947, and until the mid-1960s, it seemed as though the centrifugal force of linguistic difference, which also flagged cultural difference, would balkanize the new republic. But since the partition of Pakistan over six decades ago, India has hung together. If sometimes it seems precariously close to disintegration—thanks to internal religious or political conflict—then it is no longer because Indians expect their separate languages to count as the bases for distinct nationalities, as they did in the early...

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