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The question of linguistic provinces


FIFTY years ago this month, Jawaharlal Nehru made a statement in Parliament announcing the formation of an Andhra province. The new State would consist of the 11 Telugu speaking districts of what was then a unified province of Madras. The decision as to its capital, said the Prime Minister, would be taken by the Andhra members of the Madras Legislative Assembly.

The creation of Andhra was a decision Nehru would not have taken had it been his alone, or had India been a dictatorship rather than a democracy. Nonetheless, the establishment of States based on language was in line with a long established policy of Nehru's party. By the end of the First World War, the Congress had committed itself to the creation of linguistic provinces. A separate Andhra circle was formed in the Congress in 1917, a separate Sindh circle the next year. After the Nagpur Congress of 1920, the principle was extended and formalised, with the creation of provincial Congress committees by linguistic zones: the Karnataka P.C.C., the Orissa P.C.C., the Maharashtra P.C.C., etc.

A consistent advocate of States based on language was Mahatma Gandhi. In 1918, when a proposal for the linguistic re-distribution of India was defeated in the Imperial Legislative, Gandhi wrote consolingly to the man who moved the proposal: "Your idea is excellent but there is no possibility of its being carried out in the present atmosphere". Three years later he told the Home Rule League that "to ensure speedy attention to people's needs and development of every component part of the nation", they should "strive to bring about a linguistic division of India".

The creation of Congress committees based on the mother tongue was to give a tremendous fillip to the national movement. Writers and thinkers associated with the Congress began periodicals in their respective languages.

It was in these journals that the call for swaraj and swadeshi was carried to all corners of the land. By these means the Oriya and the Tamil were made to feel part of a wider, countrywide, struggle. To read about the Mahatma and his satyagrahas in one's own language was to encourage a feeling, of kinship and belonging, that was inconceivable had the message been conveyed only in English or Hindusthani.

When independence finally came, in August 1947, Gandhi thought it time to redeem his party's old promise. On October 10, 1947, he wrote to Kala Kalelkar: "I do believe that we should hurry up with the reorganisation of linguistic provinces ... . There may be an illusion for the time being that different languages stand for different cultures, but there is also the possibility (that with the creation) of linguistic provinces it may disappear. I shall write something (about it) if I get the time ... . I am not unaware that a class of people have been saying that linguistic provinces are wrong. In my opinion, this class delights in creating obstacles .... "

Among the class of people who were saying that linguistic provinces were wrong was the Prime Minister of India, Gandhi's own chosen political heir, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru pointed out that the country had just been divided on the basis of religion: would not dividing it further on the basis of language merely encourage the break-up of the Union? Why not keep intact the existing administrative units, such as Madras, which had within it communities of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Konkani speakers, and Bombay, whose peoples spoke Marathi, Gujarati, Urdu, Sindhi, Gondi and other tongues? Would not such multi-lingual and multi-cultural states provide an exemplary training in harmonious living? And, in any case, should not the new nation unite on the secular ideals of peace, stability, and economic development, rather than revive primordial identities of caste and language?

Nehru seems to have conveyed to Gandhi that these reservations were real and valid, rather than eccentrically imposed "obstacles". Against the bloody background of Partition, the context had changed. Thus when Gandhi next spoke on the subject, in late November 1947, his previously strong support for linguistic provinces was now somewhat qualified. In an article in his own journal, Harijan, he conceded that "the reluctance to enforce linguistic redistribution is perhaps justifiable in the present depressing atmosphere. The exclusive spirit is ever uppermost. No one thinks of the whole of India". Moreover, "the Congress does not command the prestige and authority it found itself in possession of in 1920" (when it had promoted linguistic states). Gandhi now thought that the reorganisation of provinces should be postponed until a calmer time, when communal strife had died out and been replaced by "a healthy atmosphere, promoting concord in the place of discord, peace in the place of strife, progress in the place of retrogression and life in the place of death". "Even zealous reformers," said Gandhi, "would postpone controversial issues to a more hopeful time when, in the interest of the country, the virtue of `give and take' would be freely recognised .... "

As ever, Gandhi extolled the "beauty of compromise" and the need to take "one step at a time". But the principle itself he would not surrender. In a prayer meeting held on the January 25, 1948, Gandhi returned to the subject of linguistic states. "The Congress had decided some 20 years ago," he recalled, "that there should be as many provinces in the country as there are major languages". Now it was in power, and in a position to execute that promise. Gandhi thought that if new provinces were formed on the basis of language, and if "they are all placed under the authority of Delhi there is no harm at all. But it will be very bad if they all want to be free and refuse to accept central authority. It should not be that Bombay then will have nothing to do with Maharashtra and Maharashtra with Karnataka and Karnataka with Andhra. Let all live as brothers. Moreover, if linguistic provinces are formed it will also give a fillip to the regional languages. It would be absurd to make Hindusthani the medium of instruction in all the regions and it is still more absurd to use English for this purpose".

Within a week, Gandhi was dead. The buck had now firmly passed to the men in power. But they had other, and more urgent matters to attend to. Millions of refugees from East and West Pakistan had to be found homes and jobs. An undeclared war was on in Kashmir.

A new Constitution had to be decided upon. Elections had to be scheduled, economic policies framed and executed. Beyond the country's borders, the Cold War was getting Hot: India had to decide which side to take, or whether to take sides at all.

These then were some of the questions exercising the Government of India in the first months and years of independence. The question of linguistic provinces would have to wait. But for how long?

Had Jawaharlal Nehru his way, it could have waited for ever. In my next column I will examine when and in what manner the movement for linguistic autonomy gathered momentum, and how the questions it raised were finally resolved.

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilised and Environmentalism: A Global History.

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