The story so far: On April 8, Union Home Minister Amit Shah sparked outrage when he said that people from different states communicating with each other should do so in Hindi as opposed to English. Hindi should take the place of English, he clarified, and not that of the local language.
Mr. Shah’s remarks were addressed to members at the 37th Parliamentary Official Language Committee meeting. During the meeting, he highlighted that 70% of the Union Cabinet agenda was written in Hindi and that Prime Minister Modi decided that the government would be run through the medium of Hindi.
There was backlash to these remarks in many places. On April 12, Tamil Nadu state BJP president K. Annamalai denounced the Home Minister’s remarks, saying that there was no need to “learn a language under compulsion to prove one’s Indianness.” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK president M.K. Stalin tweeted: “A single language will not be of use for unity. A single identity will not create unity.”
Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP Su. Venkatesan, at a press conference on April 19, said that Tamil Nadu being the first State to oppose Hindi imposition was not surprising “because we have a language that is independent of Sanskrit for over 2,000 years.”
The anti-Hindi protests in Tamil Nadu
The battle between Hindi and other languages has raged since pre-Independence days. The most vociferous and widespread of these have been in Tamil Nadu.
In 1937, C. Rajagopalachari, Chief Minister of what was then the Madras State, issued a government order making Hindu compulsory in 125 schools across Tamil Nadu.
Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) founder Periyar E.V. Ramasamy opposed this, spearheading protests which saw the death of one and the arrest of 1,200 individuals. The move was scrapped, and Hindi learning was made optional in the State. Rajagopalachari himself was, later, to protest Hindi imposition, coining the slogan “English Ever, Hindi Never.”
On January 26, 1965, the Official Languages Act came into force and Hindi became the national language. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) founder C.N Annadurai declared this a day of mourning. A circular from the government which gave Hindi precedence in official communications further stoked the fire. Large-scale protests erupted in the State, with five youth setting themselves on fire.
The protests abated once Congress leaders K. Kamaraj, N. Sanjiva Reddy, and Nijalingappa met with the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who said documents would continue to be bilingual indefinitely.
These protests also resulted in an amendment of the Language Act by Indira Gandhi, which ensured that English would continue to be used as an official language, till the stage where resolutions for the “discontinuance of the use of English language…have been passed by the legislatures of all the states, which have not adopted Hindi as their official language.”
Since the 1960s time, Tamil Nadu has stuck by its two-language formula — English and Tamil, and nothing else. The Hindi imposition issue was so central to TN politics that DMK came to power defeating the Congress party in 1967.
Anti-Hindi protests resurfaced In 1986, when then Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched a failed bid to introduce Navodaya schools across India. DMK leader Karunanidhi opposed the move, as did 20,000 party workers . After riots in which twenty-one people self-immolated or consumed poison, the move was retracted. Till date, no Navodaya school has been established in Tamil Nadu.
Other, smaller, protests have also taken place in the State following attempts to introduce Hindi into the state machinery or the education system. In 2019, a Draft National Education Policy proposed that Hindi be taught as a third language in schools in non-Hindi-speaking States. Protests followed, and the policy was withdrawn. The amended policy, however, left the choice of the third language open-ended. This was still a hard pill to swallow for Tamil Nadu leaders, since the State has always maintained that a three-language policy is against regional policy.
In other southern States
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have historically had multiple languages in circulation, including Telugu and Urdu, particularly in Hyderabad. Hindi imposition protests here have not been as strong as those in Tamil Nadu.
A couple of events have, however, ruffled feathers in the past. In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru’s proposal to turn Osmania University into a central university with Hindi as the language of instruction met with stiff opposition. Students were upset because they did not want Hindi to replace English as the medium of instruction.
After Amit Shah’s recent remarks, TRS politician and Telangana Minister K.T. Rama Rao tweeted that he was “an Indian first, a proud Telugu and Telanganaite next. Can speak in my mother tongue Telugu, English, Hindi, and a little bit of Urdu too. To impose Hindi and diss English will be a great disservice to the youngsters of this nation.”
In Karnataka, too, the intensity of anti-Hindi protests has never risen to the levels seen in Tamil Nadu. Last year, however, the celebration of Hindi Diwas on September 14 drew flak from Opposition Janata Dal-Seculal politicians and Kannada groups such as the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (KRV.) The hashtag #StopHindiImposition trended on Twitter as well. KRV also said it picketed several banks across the State demanding that services be provided in Kannada.
Kerala has had some pushback against Hindi imposition as well. At 0.6 per cent, the State has the lowest number of primarily Hindi speakers, according to the 2011 language census.
Last year, in June, a language training programme for MPs organised by the Parliament Research and Training Institute for Democracies (PRIDE) drew some flak when it only included six Indian languages, excluding both Kannada and Malayalam from its list. The 30-hour virtual session aimed to improve language diversity in the country, and covered MPs, other officials, and their family members.
Malayalam writers, including Jnanpith laureate M.T. Vasudevan Nair, protested the lack of Malayalam on the list. Meanwhile, the Kannada Development Authority (KDA) also protested the lack of Kannada. PRIDE organisers later specified that trainings would be given in all languages which are part of the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
In the northeast and east
Most northeastern States also see lower levels of Hindi usage. Arunachal Pradesh is currently the only State where Hindi is a required subject till class 10. In other States, it is taught till class 8, while Hindi is not compulsory in Tripura at all.
On April 8, Home Minister Mr. Shah also announced that Hindi would be made compulsory in northeastern States up to class 10. He added that 2,200 Hindi teachers had been recruited in the northeastern States.
The Asom Sahitya Sabha, Assam’s top literary body, opposed the move, saying in a statement that the Home Minister should have instead “taken steps to develop Assamese and other indigenous languages. Such steps spell a bleak future for Assamese and all indigenous languages in the Northeast.” It demanded that the decision be revoked. Opposition parties in the State called the move “a step towards cultural imperialism.” Under the Assam Accord, which was signed after the Assam Agitation of 1979-95, Assamese is granted some constitutional safeguards, as is the culture of the State.
In Manipur, the Congress party and Meitei Erol Eyek Loinashillon Apunba Lup (MEELAL), a group formed to protect the Manipuri language and script, also reportedly opposed the move.
The region of Bengal has seen its fair share of intensive language-related struggles in the past. This includes the fierce Bengali language protests in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which were sparked by Urdu being declared the sole national language.
The Amra Bangali movement launched in the 1980s wanted a special socio-economic zone called Bangalistan specifically for people speaking Bengali and donning Bengali garments. Led by the Ananda Marg, the movement resurfaced again in 2008 in North Bengal when the Gorkhaland movement reared its head.
In West Bengal, groups such as Bangla Pokkho have also been active in trying to protect Bengali from Hindi imposition. Protests by members, supported in their mission by Rajya Sabha MP Ritabrata Banerjee, led to the Kolkata Metro Railways introducing Bengali in smartcards in 2018. That same year, their campaigning led to IISER Kolkata withdrawing a notification that made Hindi a mandatory qualification to apply for both teaching and non-teaching posts.
Many States don’t speak much Hindi
According to the 2011 language census, the least percentage of general Hindi speakers was in Tamil Nadu. But overall, only 12 of 35 States (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were still undivided) picked Hindi as their first language. Most of these were in north and central India. Southern states, most of the northeastern States, West Bengal, and Gujarat do not speak much Hindi; and some these States had adopted English as their second language instead.
Although none have protested with the same vigour as Tamil Nadu, States such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Odisha have also voiced distinct language identities. In fact, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena was among the many political parties which spoke out against the proposal to introduce Hindi as a compulsory third subject in non-Hindi States.