Hindi hegemony: Imposition of language on unwilling people can result in cataclysmic events

All the ghosts of the past are returning. No contentious issue can be taken as “resolved” for good as it gains strength and reopens whenever circumstances are right and the public mood has radically changed. Until Roop Kanwar’s so-called Sati in 1987 and its glorification by some Rajasthan politicians and Hindi daily Jansatta, one never thought that the issue that had been settled more than a century ago could be seriously reopened and debated, and educated people could support the horrible practice in the name of tradition while condemning their opponents as “westernised, English-speaking elite” (these days this phrase has metamorphosed into “Lutyens' Delhi”) without roots in the Indian soil. Around the same time, the issue of secularism too came up for national debate and the public lapped up the Hindutva contention that its proponents were the truly secular people while those who disagreed with its brand of Hindu nationalism were in reality “pseudo-secular”.

Now, an issue that one thought was settled after the anti-Hindi agitation that raged in the mid-1960s in Tamil Nadu is being reopened by Narendra Modi’s government, evoking strong protests not only from Tamil Nadu but also other southern states like Karnataka. In April last, DMK working president MK Stalin warned the Centre that his party would launch agitation to oppose the imposition of Hindi. His Facebook page carried several photographs of milestones on National Highway 77 as well as Chittoor-Vellore Highway to show that names written in English had been replaced by Hindi.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

“It showed the BJP’s disrespect to the sentiments of Tamils. This is bringing Hindi hegemony through the backdoor in Tamil Nadu,” Stalin said in a statement. He accused the Modi government of “thrusting Sanskrit and Hindi” upon states that did not speak either language and cautioned that the Centre must treat all languages with respect.

In Karnataka too, anti-Hindi sentiments are surfacing as signboards at the Bengaluru’s Metro Rail stations use three languages — Kannada, English and Hindi. Last Wednesday, Karnataka Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah announced that his state would lodge a strong protest with the Centre regarding imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states. SG Siddaramaiah, chairman of the Kannada Development Authority (KDA) has written to the managing director of the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation asking him to explain under which rules the signboards have used Hindi. Only the central government entities are required to follow the three-language formula while all other establishments should have Kannada and English. He said an incorrect view was being promoted that Hindi was the “national language” while in reality it was an “official language”. “If they want Hindi on signboards here, they must include our languages on signboards in places where Hindi is the dominant language,” he said.

SG Siddaramaiah's is not wide of the mark because on 24 June, Union minister M Venkaiah Naidu did assert while speaking at a function in Ahmedabad that “Hindi is our national language, our identity and we should be proud of it.” Opposition leaders were quick to point out that the Constitution did not describe any language as “national language” and under its Article 343, Hindi and English were assigned the status of “official languages”.

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah sarcastically asked on Twitter: “When did we get a national language?”

Earlier in April, Naidu supported a proposal mooted by the Parliamentary Committee on Official Language that Hindi should be made mandatory in speech and writing for those members of Parliament and Union ministers who could read and write it. The debates that took place on the language issue in the Constituent Assembly are quite illuminating. There was a group of Hindi-extremists, including Congressmen led by the likes of Purushottam Das Tandon, Seth Govind Das, Ravishankar Shukla and Balkrishna Sharma ‘Naveen’, that was bent on getting Hindi the status of the national language that would immediately replace English.

On 12 September, 1949, the Assembly had discussed the language issue in detail. While President Rajendra Prasad was in favour of deciding the issue on the basis of a widest possible consensus as “the decision of the House should be acceptable to the country as a whole”, the Hindi extremists wanted to settle it by majority vote. Seth Govind Das’ speech is very revealing as, like the present-day Hindutva proponents, he too was unable to differentiate between majority and majoritarianism. Though Congressmen, the Hindi extremists were implacably opposed to Hindustani and Urdu. To bring some sanity into the debate, KM Munshi and NG Ayyengar put together a five-point formula that called for, among other things, continued use of English as an additional official language along with Hindi, and use of international numerals.

The Hindi extremists were opposed to even this formula. Next day, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee supported Prasad’s call for a consensus and said: “If it is claimed by anyone that by passing an article in the Constitution of India one language is going to be accepted by all by a process of coercion, then I say, Sir, that that will not be possible to achieve. Unity in diversity is India’s keynote and must achieved by a process of understanding and consent and for that a proper atmosphere has to be created.”

While Jawaharlal Nehru could discern “the tone of authoritarianism” in the speeches of the Hindi champions, it was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who hit the nail on its head. Replying to Purushottam Das Tandon on 14 September, 1949, he said, “The Union of North and South has been made possible only through the medium of English. If today we give up English, then this linguistic relationship will cease to exist.”

The Munshi-Ayyangar formula was ultimately accepted by the Constituent Assembly but the Hindi extremists did not relent before five amendments proposed by them were not accepted. It was decided that Hindi written in Devanagari script would be the official language of the Union along with English and, after 15 years, Parliament could legislate on the use of Nagari numerals as well as on the continued use of English, that Hindi could be used in the proceedings of a high court with the sanction of the President, that bills, acts, ordinances etc., could be issued in the official language of a state if an official English translation was published, and that Sanskrit be added to the list of languages in the schedule. Granville Austin, the acknowledged constitutional historian, opines that the large majority of the Constituent Assembly believed that “the use of many Indian languages and of English was compatible with national unity and with the evolution of a national spirit”.

RSS and its affiliates like the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, that reinvented itself as Bharatiya Janata Party, have always believed in the slogan of Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan that is roughly translated into English as One Nation-One Language-One Culture. They have never paid any attention to what the BJS founder SP Mookerjee had said on the floor of the Constituent Assembly. They have also not cared to learn from history.

Since the 19th Century, many non-Hindi speaking intellectuals had started feeling that only Hindi could become the link language in India as it was understood in some form or the other across the entire length and breadth of the country. In 1875, Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati, a Gujarati Brahmin, decided to write his most important work 'Satyarth Prakash' in Hindi as he wanted to reached the widest possible audience to propagate Vedic religion. Later, MK Gandhi, also a Gujarati, championed the cause of Hindi although he wanted it to shun the excessive use of Persian as well as Sanskrit words. Two great poets Rabindranath Tagore and Subramania Bharathi, who wrote in Bangla and Tamil respectively, too held the view that Hindi should be the link language in Independent India. During the freedom struggle, Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha made great contribution towards teaching Hindi to South Indians. At that time, Hindi was a uniting factor. However, all this changed once the Congress governments came to power in several states in 1937.

Many would not be able to believe today that it was C Rajagopalachari who was instrumental in stoking the anti-Hindi fires in Tamil Nadu as his government introduced compulsory study of Hindi in the first three forms of high school. He emphasised the “uniqueness of Hindi as the only language suitable to become the common language of the country.” His government allocated an additional sum of Rs 20,000 specially for the salary of Hindi teachers in that year’s budget and published Hindi textbooks. Soon, a powerful anti-Hindi movement arose and the Rajagopalachari government made full use of the state’s coercive powers to suppress it. By June 1938, Swami Shanmugasundaram, Palladam Ponnusamy, CD Nayakam, KM Balasubramanian, CN Annadurai and many others were arrested. In December, the charismatic Dravida Kazhgam leader Periyar EVR was also thrown behind bars. The agitation ended only when the Congress ministry laid down office on 29 October, 1939.

When Lohiaites launched an anti-English and pro-Hindi agitation in the mid-1960s, Tamil Nadu witnessed a repeat of the 1938 agitation that virtually redrew the state’s political map. The Congress lost state Assembly election in 1967 and has not been able to stage a comeback even after half-a-century.

When a language is imposed on unwilling people, it can result in cataclysmic events. The imposition of Urdu on the Bengalis of East Pakistan was one of the major factors behind Pakistan’s breakup and the emergence of Bangladesh. We can ignore this at our own peril.

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2017 07:02 AM

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