Thalamuthu-Natarajan. This duo may sound too rustic to be the name of a major modern public building here, housing the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA).
But the then Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, in 1989 chose to christen that building after those names to keep alive the memory of the two ‘martyrs’ of the first anti-Hindi agitation in the erstwhile Madras Presidency in 1937-38.
The DMK, riding on a wave triggered by the subsequent phase of the anti-Hindi agitation in 1965, dethroned the Congress and captured power in 1967. Ironically, the DMK also found a new friend in Rajaji, the former Premier of the Madras Presidency, who strongly advocated Hindustani (He preferred the name to Hindi) in 1937-38, heading the first elected Congress government.
But Rajaji, in a new political ‘avatar,’ turned against the Official Languages Act, enacted in 1963, making Hindi the sole official language, saying imposition of Hindi was “unwise, unjust and discriminatory tyranny.”
If Thalamuthu and Natarajan laid down their lives against the imposition of Hindi in 1937-38, the later phase of the anti-Hindi agitation in the mid-1960s saw Tamil Nadu on the boil. At its general council meeting held on June 8-10, 1963, the DMK called for direct action against Hindi and named M. Karunanidhi to lead the agitation. Students in large numbers swelled the army of protesters.
R. Kannan, biographer of Anna, in his book said the agitation gained momentum with the arrest of DMK founder C.N. Annadurai on November 16 that year. It was a day before his party decided to burn the copies of chapter 17 of the Constitution, which awarded Hindi the status of official language.
Mr. Kannan, in his book, recalled President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as asking Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, “Do you want to lose Tamil Nadu from India.”
When the death toll mounted to 60, Mr. Shastri, through a broadcast, promised the nation that English would be the alternative language.
“The Congress learnt the lesson. But the BJP does not seem to have learnt any lesson from the Congress on the language issue,” said A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
He said “Hindi zealotry is making a comeback” and accused the BJP of indulging in Hindi and north Indian culture-oriented politics.
Mr. Venkatachalapathy, however, hastened to add that there was no need for Tamils to worry about the Centre’s decision as it would be a failed cause. “In this information age, no one could impose a language on someone else.”
The graphic accompanying this article has been corrected for a factual error.