DMK vs Hindi imposition: Neither Stalin's opportunism nor BJP’s actions are good for Centre-state relationships

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) last week issued orders to its district secretaries to instruct youth in their respective areas about the myriad ways in which the Centre was “imposing” Hindi upon the state. In itself, the order might seem reductive, especially at a time when Tamil Nadu is facing a series of crises that its Opposition could focus on instead.

The order, however, is just the latest in a series of moves by the oldest Dravidian party to stake its claim as being a defender of the rights of Tamils in the midst of a renewed controversy about the imposition of Hindi on the state by the Centre in recent months.

“Since they have assumed power, the government led by the BJP and Narendra Modi has been attempting to decimate the unity of this nation,” said DMK working president MK Stalin in a video message on 22 April. Referring to the increased emphasis on the use of Hindi as “a betrayal of all non-Hindi speaking residents of the country,” Stalin also mentioned that the Dravidian movement has a long history of agitating against Hindi, in an apparent warning.

While the DMK has issued stern warnings following the removal of English signage in favour of Devanagari on the highways in Vellore, critics believe the party’s actions veer more to the side of opportunism than ideological.

“Stalin is playing a game, expressing a sense of ‘Tamilness’ via an opposition to Hindi and Sanskrit, in a bid to stay relevant,” says historian and activist V Geetha. “What the Jallikattu protests showed was that the youth are angry and they believe they are being imposed upon by the BJP in a number of ways — and the DMK is just trying to capitalise on that anger.”

The language and the law

There has been a swell of anger on social media, with the hashtag “#StopHindiImposition” trending with so-called examples of Hindi being forced upon non-Hindi speakers ever since the Vellore highway signs were replaced.

But there has also been an equal amount of confusion on both those who are for Hindi being spoken universally and those who are opposed to it.

There is, legally speaking, no such thing as a “national” language: a 2010 ruling by the Gujarat High Court specifically said that Hindi was not the “national language” of the country, and could not be treated as such.

Instead, there are three key pieces of legislation that grant official and bureaucratic statuses to languages in the Union. One is the Constitution. The others are the 1963 Official Languages Act and the 1976 Official Languages Rules.

According to the first two, both English and Hindi are to be used as the official languages of the Centre and the various organisations under its ambit.

DMK working president MK Stalin. PTI

File image of DMK working president MK Stalin. PTI

The Constitution originally mandated that English was to be used as an additional official language for a period of 15 years from the time that the Constitution was adopted, following which Hindi would be the sole language used by the Union government.

This proved to be unacceptable to the non-Hindi speaking states in the south, which led to the 1963 Act being passed by Prime Minister Nehru in an attempt to assuage their doubts. The Act failed to appease the DMK, however, due to its wording that “English may continue to be used in addition to Hindi,” as opposed to the “shall” that the Dravidian party wanted.

Nehru’s successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was a strong proponent of Hindi being the sole official language, and his insistence that 26 January 1965 would mark the day all of India adopted it as such led to state-wide riots and agitations by the DMK.

The anti-Hindi riots led to the Act being amended in 1967 by Indira Gandhi, and guaranteed the “virtual indefinite policy of bilingualism” that is a hallmark of present day India. The amendment stipulated that the use of English would not end until a resolution adopting Hindi as the sole official language was passed by the legislature of every non-Hindi speaking state as well as both houses of Parliament.

The riots did not just signal changes at the Centre, however: Buoyed by their success, the fledgeling DMK swept to power in 1967, thus beginning the era of political dominance by the Dravidian parties.

However, it is the third piece of legislation, the Official Languages Rules, which causes an issue, as it requires the Union government by law to increase the use of Hindi across the country by “persuasion, incentive and goodwill.”

“What that means is promoting the use of Hindi through special days like Hindi Divas or presenting awards for adopting Hindi,” explains Vikram Hegde, a lawyer at the Supreme Court.

“The changing of the highway signs in Vellore is not covered by the Official Languages Rules, but at the same time it isn’t an ‘offence’ perse,” he adds. “The 1976 law is not prohibitory in nature. Changes in organisations that fall under the ambit of the Centre, like the National Highways Authority of India or the CBSE, are not regulated by what is essentially an administrative order to help its bureaucracy function.”

Central government offices in Tamil Nadu are exempt from the aforementioned directive, effectively allowing their employees to communicate in Tamil and English. But the Narendra Modi government changed that in 2016 when they announced plans to increase the use of Hindi for official purposes in the North-East and in the South.

Staying relevant

The last major movement against the imposition of Hindi was also the main reason the fledgling DMK, under the leadership of CN Annadurai, managed to gain political power. So it’s unsurprising that Stalin may be trying to use the current anger to prove his party is still relevant in a post-Jayalalithaa era according to experts.

“The revolt in the 1960s was originally a student-led one before the DMK managed to take advantage of it one must remember,” says V Geetha. “But the party then was ideologically much more different to what it is now,” she adds, referring to the recent leadership changes and how the DMK’s decisions are not as firmly rooted in Dravidian ideology as they once were.

Others, however, defend the DMK and its efforts to promote Tamil. “It is because of them that you have Tamil departments and Tamil being used as a medium of instruction across the state,” says Professor V Arasu, former head of the Tamil department at the University of Madras. “We can perhaps criticise them for implementation and funding for some schemes, but the DMK has been far better than its counterparts in promoting the use of Tamil in this state.”

Pointing out how that none of the parties criticising the Centre are prepared for a serious debate on the language and how to promote Tamil, Geetha adds that Stalin is ensuring his party will be in a good place if another protest occurs. “The BJP’s actions do not bode well for Centre-State relationships,” she says, “and neither does Stalin’s opportunism.”

Updated Date: May 16, 2017 08:50 AM

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