NEW DELHI, June 20, 2014 (AFP) - Regional parties on Friday criticised moves by India's new nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi to promote Hindi as the government's official language on social media, demanding English be used instead.
The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which swept to power in May, instructed all ministries and public offices to use Hindi in its official communication on social media last month.
But Jayalalithaa Jayaram, chief minister of southern Tamil Nadu state and whose party is the third largest in parliament, wrote to Modi on Friday asking him to make English the official language.
"(Push for Hindi) is a highly sensitive issue and causes disquiet to the people of Tamil Nadu," wrote Jayalalithaa, a day after her local rival M. Karunanidhi called the directive an "imposition".
Omar Abdullah, chief minister of the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, also criticised the move.
He said that he regarded English and Urdu as the main languages in what is India's only Muslim-majority state.
"We will continue to use these two languages and whoever wants to use Hindi can. Our country is so huge that you can't impose one particular language on everyone," he told reporters, speaking in Urdu.
BJP spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain defended the government's decision saying, "it is not criminal to work in Hindi" which he described as the "national language".
"We will work in Hindi but we are not imposing Hindi on non-Hindi states," Hussain told reporters in New Delhi on Friday.
India's constitution lists 22 official languages, with Hindi as the main official language and English - the preferred language for business and academics - given associate status.
But according to the last official data, just over 40 percent of India's 1.2 billion population speak Hindi.
Anti-Hindi sentiment has a long history, especially in southern states such as Tamil Nadu where efforts to impose Hindi triggered bloody riots in the mid-1960s.
Tamil Nadu, born in 1956 of a secessionist movement along linguistic boundaries, uses Tamil and English as its official languages.
A federal minister in the previous Congress party-led government, who hails from Tamil Nadu, warned of a "backlash" in his home state against the government's decision.
"There will be a backlash in non-Hindi states, especially Tamil Nadu," P. Chidambaram told reporters in New Delhi on Friday.
A letter from the home ministry, leaked to the media, states that barely days after coming to power the minister's office instructed the staff that, "prominence should be given to Hindi" on government social media sites.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who last year said the use of English undermined Indian culture, tried to defuse anger saying the government was "committed to promote all languages of the country".
Modi, the 63-year-old son of a low-caste tea seller, speaks mostly in Hindi, shunning the English language of the traditional Delhi elite.
However his posts on Facebook and Twitter are always in English.