January 10, 2024


Should signboards display local languages prominently?

One of the marvels of India is a myriad of languages seemingly co-existing in harmony with one another. If you traverse the length and breadth of the country, you’ll be exposed to different languages. That’s not just in speech but also in signages on shops and commercial establishments. In some places, there’ll be multiple languages on signboards to ensure people know they’re at the right place.

However, a controversial debate has been happening for a while now – should signages and signboards be mandated in local languages? Can the state government force commercial entities to change their signages? Doesn’t this pit languages against each other?


We’re discussing this now because of a recent notification by the Karnataka government that 60% of signboards of all commercial establishments in the state should be in Kannada by the end of February 2024.

It’s best to start with this since it’s the most recent. In any city that attracts people from across the country, there’s always some tension in people’s language preferences. Last month, Bengaluru saw mobs vandalise retailers with non-Kannada signboards. While the civic body announced the 60% rule, the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (KRV) decided to take to the streets to “enforce” it.

The issue of languages on signage goes back to the 1980s. The Karnataka government passed a law in 1984 asking all commercial signages in the state to be in Kannada. Other languages should be below that. The law had supporters like Kannada writers P Lankesh and KP Purnachandra Tejasvi.

In 2008, under the Karnataka Shops and Commercial Establishments (Amendment) Act, Rule 24-A stated that Kannada should have prominence in the signages of commercial establishments. The following year, the Supreme Court dismissed a plea from the Karnataka government that mandated Kannada on signboards. Despite this, shops continued to get notices.

Nearly a decade later, in 2018, Mayor R Sampath Raj directed all shops to have display boards predominantly in Kannada. The direction was specific – two-thirds of the space on the board should be in Kannada, and the remaining for other languages. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) even threatened to revoke trade licences if companies didn’t comply.

This debate, as you can imagine, wasn’t and isn’t confined to Karnataka and Kannada. Let’s go to Maharashtra. In early 2022, the state government amended its Shops and Establishment Act to make Marathi language signboards in Devanagari script mandatory for all commercial establishments. Also, the part in Marathi should be displayed prominently at the top. In Punjab, the state approved amendments to the Punjab Shops and Establishment Rules, 1958, to make Punjab name boards compulsory. Similar laws were passed in Telangana and Tamil Nadu.

While some state governments and activist groups have not let go of this issue, do they have a point? Or, do they risk increasing tensions and fissures that come with a multicultural and multilingual society?

VIEW: Unnecessary mandates

In Karnataka’s case, it seems the government gave in to the vandals. It’s not a good look for the government or the state that wants to attract investment. The acts of vandalism happened despite traders reluctantly accepting the rule on Kannada signboards. Also, the proposed 60-40 rule (60% Kannada & 40% other languages) could’ve waited till the legislature met. The rule has little to do with the broader public interest.

Trade bodies representing commercial establishments are on the frontlines of this language imposition tussle. When the Maharashtra government issued its order, shop owners were hamstrung. The official communication was vague, and the threats of hefty fines didn’t make things easier. Trade bodies from different states have repeatedly gone to the courts arguing against such orders. In most cases, the court agreed. That has been their main line of defence.

A few years ago, the Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association (FRTWA) went to the Supreme Court after its plea in the Bombay High Court was rejected. They stated that Marathi was for official purposes and its mandatory usage can’t be forced on people and companies. For a city as diverse as Mumbai, there’s a danger of something else. City historian Simin Patel stated that such thoughtless imposition had led to the loss of historic signboards.

COUNTERVIEW: Respecting the local language

In some cases, the court has taken the government’s side against trade bodies on the issue of including local languages. Last September, the Supreme Court said shops in Mumbai can’t be exempted from putting up signboards in Marathi just because it’s a cosmopolitan city. The bench questioned the trade body on what could be the downside of having a board in Marathi.

From the state’s point of view, they had and have the right to introduce amendments to state laws that stand up to legal scrutiny. This is important since trade bodies have made the rule’s legality their main line of defence. In 2022, a division bench in Maharashtra said there’s no violation of Article 14 (right to equality) and all entities are covered under state law. It seems shopowners and trade bodies are actually worried about the expenses involved in changing signages and potentially losing out on business.

Given how cities are increasingly becoming a mix of local and migrant populations, corporate bodies and commercial establishments should be sensitised to language. When we speak of migrants, that includes people from across a state who may only be well-versed in the local language. Catering to their needs in the local language would only help businesses and commercial establishments. Whatever extra investment is necessary for a new signboard would be worth it.

Reference Links:

  • Pro-Kannada group demands shop owners in Bengaluru to print signboards in Kannada – India Today
  • The language of public signs – Bangalore Mirror
  • Mind Your Language: Kannada signboard row – what’s the law in other states? – Moneycontrol
  • Reading Between the Signs – Design Journal
  • If Kannada is the tongue of locals, speak on – New Indian Express
  • Mind your language: Karnataka government sets a bad example via signboards – Times of India

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Signboards should display local languages prominently.

b) Signboards need not display local languages prominently.


For the Right:

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For the Left:

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