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Updated: December 18, 2009 22:10 IST

Language issue again: the need for a clear-headed policy

S. Viswanathan
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S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor.
The Hindu S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor.

Some recent incidents and statements have revived the decades-old language debate. Both the print and the broadcast media have featured discussions on the status of the official language as well as procedural issues relating to the implementation of the relevant law. A reader says these developments have caused some confusion among the people: while Article 343 of the Constitution states that “Hindi [in the Devanagiri script] is the official language…” of the Union, “some people used to say that Hindi is our “national language.” He wants his “confusion” cleared.

Maharashtra Assembly issue

The assault on a newly elected Samajwadi Party member of the Maharashtra Assembly inside the House when he was taking his oath in Hindi, and the rejection of the request of the Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers, M.K. Azhagiri, a first-time MP from Tamil Nadu, to the Lok Sabha Secretariat for speaking in his mother tongue in the House and getting his speech translated into English and Hindi, have brought the language to focus. The reported suggestion of the Union Human Resource Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, to the Council of Boards of School Education in Delhi in August, that Hindi be taught in all schools in the country along with two other languages has also stirred up a minor controversy.

It is unfortunate that an issue that appeared to be settled for good with the 1967 amendment of the Official Languages Act, 1963 is raising its head again. The settlement followed a prolonged agitation and repression, which resulted in the loss of several human lives and the destruction of public property in the 1960s, in some parts of the country, most importantly in Tamil Nadu.

The Act gave legal status to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous 1959 “assurance” in Parliament that English would be used as an alternate language as long as the non-Hindi-knowing people required it. What is clear is that this sensitive issue, which tends to get out of hand when mishandled by the central government, needs caution and soft hands.

Census and the linguistic situation

It is not surprising that a country of 1.17 billion people speaking 1,652 languages (122 of them being spoken by more than 10,000 people each) and dialects has to confront language-related problems frequently. According to the 2001 Census, about 422 million people speaking Hindi in its various dialects accounted for 41.03 per cent of the national population.

The next five toppers were Bengali (83.3 million and 8.11 per cent of the population), Telugu (74 million and 7.37 per cent), Marathi (71.9 million and 6.99 per cent), Tamil (60.7 million and 5.91 per cent), and Urdu (51.53 million and 5.01 per cent). The crucial point is that the people who speak Hindi and its varied dialects do not constitute even a majority of the population. They are also concentrated in five or six States. Hindi could not win the status of a “national language” despite hectic lobbying while the Constitution was being finalised.

In China

The contrast with the linguistic situation of India’s giant neighbour could not be sharper. Although the People’s Republic of China has a remarkably diverse profile like India, with a population of over 1.32 billion made up of 56 ethnic groups, Hans who speak the Chinese language constitute 91.96 per cent of the national population. On the other hand, of the 55 minority ethnic groups who speak various languages, only the Zhuang number more than 15 million.

The language issue in India has a long history. Although several non-Hindi States have made their displeasure known, it is Tamil Nadu (formerly Madras State) that has consistently, over decades, resisted and opposed any attempt at ‘Hindi imposition’ by the central government. The non-Hindi States have been resisting short-sighted attempts, mostly by Hindi-speaking leaders of the Indian National Congress during the freedom struggle, especially from the second half of the 1930s, to promote Hindi as the ‘common language’ of the country. The ‘anti-Hindi’ agitation in Tamil Nadu, before and after Independence, took the form of mass mobilisation – demonstrations, massive conferences, militant protests, rail rokos, and so on.

All-India strategy

Actually, the pre-Independence agitations stood out for resistance to the introduction of Hindi as a compulsory subject in the schools of Madras Presidency. It was part of the Congress’ all-India strategy to replace English, which served as the official language of British India, with Hindi after Independence.

This policy was sought to be passed off as a natural part of the freedom struggle. The agitations during this period were mostly led by the founder and outstanding leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam, E.V. Ramasamy or ‘Periyar’ (the Great Elder). Several prominent Tamil scholars, who feared that the compulsory introduction of Hindi in schools would be a threat to Tamil, participated in the agitation. Violence was used by the State against the agitators and there was a tragic loss of lives. Hundreds courted arrest. The agitation succeeded in preventing the compulsory teaching of Hindi in the schools.

After Independence, the agitations were staged to ensure the continuation of English as an Official Language and to prevent Hindi from being declared the sole Official Language of India. This phase of the agitation was led by C.N. Annadurai, the founder General Secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which broke away from the Dravidar Kazhagam, shortly before Independence.

Congress leaders from South India such as N. G. Ranga, N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar, T.T. Krishnamachary, and P. Subbarayan defeated the attempts by certain sections of the Congress led by Purushottam Das Tandon and Seth Govind Das and also by the founder-leader of the Jana Sangh, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, to make Hindi the ‘National Language.’ The attempt to make Hindi the sole Official Language was also frustrated. However, there was a recipe for trouble — the prescription that English would be there along with Hindi (in the Devanagari script) as the Official Language only “for fifteen years.”

Language agitations

It was to get this shortsighted stipulation removed that the agitation against ‘Hindi imposition’ continued. The most vigorous and militant of the DMK’s language agitations was conducted in 1965. It was part spontaneous, part organised. This phase of the movement succeeded in making the government agree to giving legal status to Jawaharlal Nehru’s assurance on the continuation of English along with Hindi for official purposes.

This victory on the language issue paved the way for the permanent transformation of Tamil Nadu’s polity. Although few pundits recognised it at the time, the DMK’s emphatic victory in the 1967 State Assembly election meant that the Congress would never get a chance of ruling the State for 42 years and counting.

Interestingly, one of the leading lights of the movement against ‘Hindu imposition’ at the decisive moment of socio-political transformation in Tamil Nadu was C. Rajagopalachari, better known as Rajaji, the first Governor-General of independent India. Ironically, it was Rajaji who, as Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, introduced Hindi as a compulsory subject in 1938.

Rajaji’s article

Two decades later, Rajaji wrote in a newspaper article (The Hindustan Times, January 3, 1958): “That 42 per cent of the people of India speak Hindi in one dialect or another and that English is not an Indian language are admitted by us [those who are opposed to making Hindi as union official language], but we have pointed out that the distribution of this Hindi-speaking population in the States of India is such that it would be most unfair to change over from English to Hindi.”

The Census of 2011 should bring us to speed on the remarkable linguistic diversity of India. A broad-minded and inclusive policy of encouraging the development and use of all Indian languages as well as English, which is now being used by growing numbers of Indians, is clearly the way to go.

Giving all the major languages spoken in India equality of status will ensure that there will be no unhealthy sentiment against any language. On the other hand, any heavy-handedness in language policy at the national or State level will have divisive, if not disintegrative, implications. The news media, which have a huge mass reach today, have a social responsibility to strengthen the process of shaping a broad-minded and inclusive language policy.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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