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Hindi against India



FORTY years ago this week, the DMK leader C. N. Annadurai wrote a letter to the Prime Minister protesting against the imposition of Hindi over all of India. Back in 1949, the Constituent Assembly had chosen Hindi as the sole national language, or "rashtrabhasha". The Constitution, which ratified this, came into operation on 26 January 1950. However, non-Hindi speaking States were given a 15-year "grace period", when English would be used along with Hindi in communication between the Centre and the States. That period would end on January 26, 1965; hence Annadurai's letter.

In fact, Southern leaders had been exercised about this question for quite some time. Back in 1956, the Academy of Tamil Culture passed a resolution urging that "English should continue to be the official language of the Union and the language for communication between the Union and the State Governments and between one State Government and another'. The signatories included Annadurai, E. V. Ramaswami `Periyar', and C. Rajagopalachari. On Rajaji's part this represented a certain change of mind; for he had once been a vigorous proponent of the `rashtrabhasha' himself. However, the organisation of the campaign was the work of the DMK, which through the 1950s organised many protest meetings against the imposition of Hindi.

Problematic caveat

The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was sensitive to the sentiments of the South; sentiments shared by the North and East as well. In 1963, Nehru piloted the passing of an Official Languages Act, which provided that from 1965 English `may' still be used along with Hindi in official communication. That caveat `may' have proved to be problematic; for while Nehru clarified that it meant `shall', other Congressmen thought it actually meant `may not'.

As January 26, 1965 approached, the opponents of Hindi geared up for action. Nehru they could trust, somewhat; his successors, not at all. For the new Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was himself strongly for Hindi, as were his senior colleagues Morarji Desai and Gulzarilal Nanda. Ten days before January 26, Annadurai wrote to Shastri saying that his party would observe the day of the change over as a `day of mourning'. But he added an interesting rider; in the form of a request to postpone the day of imposition by a week. Then, said Annadurai, the DMK could enthusiastically join the rest of the nation in celebrating Republic Day.

Now the DMK had originally stood by a `secessionist' platform; it wanted a separate State of Dravida Nadu. However, over the years it had softened this demand, seeking only greater autonomy for Tamil Nadu. A party conference in 1963 had formally dropped the secessionist plank. And now here was Annadurai urging Shastri to allow the DMK to celebrate Republic Day, thus to show that they were as patriotic as anybody else.

You can speak Tamil or English and yet be a good Indian, argued Anna. No, answered New Delhi, the only good patriots are those who speak (and write) Hindi. Shastri and his Government stood by the decision to make Hindi official on 26 January. And, in consequence, all hell broke loose.

There are some good books on the `official language' controversy, such as Robert D. King's Nehru and the Language Politics of India and Mohan Ram's Hindi Against India. However, the events of January-February 1965, when the debates came to a head, are best recalled by excerpts from this newspaper itself. Naturally, The Hindu followed these events very closely indeed.

On January 27, there was no issue of The Hindu; but over the following week the paper devoted hundreds of column-inches to the anti-Hindi protests. In towns and cities all over Madras — as the state was still called — students boycotted classes. In numerous villages bonfires were made of effigies of the Hindi demoness. In railway stations and post offices, Hindi signs were removed or blackened over.

The headlines in one day's The Hindu tell part of the story:

Total hartal in Coimbatore

Advocates abstain from work

Students fast in batches

Peaceful strike in Madurai

Lathi-charge in Villupuram

Tear-gas used in Uthamapalyam

The bulk of the protests were collective: strikes, bandhs, processions, boycotts and dharnas. But there was one form of protest that was individual and disturbingly so: the taking of one's life. On Republic Day itself, two men set themselves on fire in Madras. One left a letter saying he wanted to sacrifice himself at the altar of Tamil. Three days later, a 20-year-old man in Tiruchi killed himself by consuming insecticide. He too left a note saying his suicide was in the cause of Tamil. These `martyrdoms', in turn, sparked dozens of more strikes, processions, boycotts and dharnas.

Scale of protests

The scale of the anti-Hindi protests surprised even its motivators. Their intensity, meanwhile, alarmed the Centre. Soon it became clear that the ruling Congress party was split down the middle. On the last day of January, a group of prominent Congressmen met in Bangalore to issue an appeal to `the Hindi-loving people not to try to force Hindi on the people of non-Hindi areas'. The hustling of Hindi in haste, they said, would imperil the unity of the country.

These Congress dissenters included S. Nijalingappa (Chief Minister of Mysore), Atulya Ghosh (the boss of the Bengal Congress), Sanjiva Reddy (a senior Union Minister), K. Kamaraj (the Congress President). But on the same day, they were answered by the top ranking Cabinet Minister Morarji Desai. Speaking to the press in Tirupati, Desai claimed that by learning Hindi the Tamil people would only increase their influence within India as a whole. The Congress leaders in Madras, he said, should `convince the people of their mistake (in opposing Hindi) and get them around'. Desai regretted that Hindi had not been made official in the 1950s itself, before the protests against it had crystallised.

Placed in the hot spot was the Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. His heart was with Hindi zealots like Desai; his head, however, urged him to listen to other voices. On February 11, his hand was forced by the resignation of two Union Ministers from Madras. The same evening the Prime Minister went on All India Radio to convey his `deep sense of distress and shock' at the `tragic events'.


To remove any `misapprehension' and `misunderstanding', he said he would fully honour Nehru's assurance that English would be used as long as the people wanted. Then he made four assurances of his own:

`First, every State will have complete and unfettered freedom to continue to transact its own business in the language of its own choice, which may be the regional language or English.

Second, communications from one State to another will either be in English or will be accompanied by an authentic English translation.

Third, the non-Hindi States will be free to correspond with the Central Government in English and no change will be made in this arrangement without the consent of the non-Hindi States.

Fourth, in the transaction of business at the Central level English will continue to be used'.

Later, Shastri added a crucial fifth assurance — that the All India Civil Services Examination would continue to be conducted in English rather than (as the zealots wished) in the medium of Hindi alone.

The Prime Minister's speech served both to calm down the anti-Hindi movement and to maintain the unity of the nation. But it came too late to save his party's reputation in the Tamil country. For the protests of January-February 1965 helped establish the DMK as the coming party in Madras politics. Two years later, under Annadurai's leadership, it comfortably won the Assembly elections. The Congress was wiped out; ever since, it has remained a feeble force in the state. Not for the first (or indeed last) time, linguistic chauvinism has carried with it a massive political cost.

Ramachandra Guha, is an author and historian based in Bangalore. E-mail him at:

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