Hindi is still a thorn in Tamil Nadu's flesh

But people's animosity towards the language has mellowed over the years

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

Published - December 14, 2014 01:20 am IST - CHENNAI:

The 1965 anti-Hindi agitation.

The 1965 anti-Hindi agitation.

Last week, the political scene in Tamil Nadu saw a churning with the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, led by Vaiko, walking out of the National Democratic Alliance.

Among the reasons Mr. Vaiko gave for his decision was “a consistent effort by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to impose the culture of the North on Tamil Nadu.” In particular was the fear that Tamils would be made to learn Hindi and Sanskrit through official means, something that hd met with violent reactions in the 1960s in the State.

When the Centre wanted government departments to use Hindi in social media, protests erupted immediately in the State. The then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said the decision was against the spirit of the Official Languages Act, 1963.

Perhaps, one of the major reasons the Congress was shunted out of power in the State in 1967 was imposition of Hindi. The State government brought in paramilitary forces and clamped down on the anti-Hindi agitators, and the party never again came to power.

Back in 1937, when the Madras Presidency government led by C. Rajagopalachari insisted on compulsory learning of Hindi in the State, the Dravidian movement, then in the form of the Justice Party, got a major campaign agenda. For three years till the policy was revoked in 1940, the agitations were sustained in almost every part of the Presidency, in the process making its leader, E.V. Ramasamy (Periyar), the tallest leader of the Dravidian movement.

In 1965, when the 15-year timeframe to make Hindi the only official language was about to expire, Tamil Nadu again led the agitations. By this time, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) gaining ground, imposition of Hindi was part of the narrative of the Aryan-Dravidian divide — the northern Aryans attempting to invade the cultural space of the southern Dravidians. It took an assurance from the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, that English would continue as the second official language as long as non-Hindi-speaking people wanted it, to quell the protests.

Political commentators argue that years of agitations against Hindi have clearly had an impact on the psyche of the people of Tamil Nadu. A common view is that while the people of the other southern States learn Hindi along with their native language, those of Tamil Nadu are fanatical about their language choice, which is a consequence of the larger political narrative.

However, while Tamil Nadu political parties have consistently opposed the “imposition” of Hindi, the State’s policy, all through the decades, has been to make learning of Tamil “compulsory” in schools.

In 2006, the DMK government passed the Tamil Nadu Tamil Learning Act, through which school students had to compulsorily learn the language from Class I. The year 2015-16 will be crucial as the first batch which began learning the language in 2006 will face the Class X public examinations, making it a test of efficiency of the policy.

But academics feel that with over two decades of globalisation and the advancement in learning technology, the animosity against Hindi had mellowed on the ground. So much so that social scientists like C. Lakshmanan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies feel there is a growing interest among the people to learn multiple languages.

While he is opposed to the idea of “imposing” a language, Mr. Lakshmanan says the Tamil Nadu’s government’s policies have made it difficult for people to get access to other languages.

“Many government schools do not have Hindi teachers. Learning a language outside the school system is a costly affair. So even if someone is willing to learn, the system discourages them,” he says.

He says that while the political rhetoric on Tamil has been strong, many had preferred English to Tamil in education, thus helping themselves join the mainstream without the need for Hindi. This was sometimes to the detriment of Tamil.

“But Hindi, spoken widely in the country, is a means to power,” he says. In that sense, he feels the BJP will gain if it facilitates learning of the language without imposing it.

Writer A. Marx says politically, the Tamil language issue has ceased to be an electoral issue, though it continues to be an emotive issue.

In 1965, the DMK was the only face of the anti-Hindi agitations, giving it the full benefit of the anti-Congress mood. In 2014, all Tamil parties have a common policy on the language issue, giving no one a clear advantage.

Mr. Marx says the anti-Hindi mood is actually more vigorous in the North than in the South at the moment. “It is people speaking non-Hindi languages in the North who have come down heavily on the BJP this time,” he says.

While the Dravidian parties opposed Hindi, he says, they had a logical language policy nevertheless with the constant emphasis on learning English, ensuring that Tamils were not left behind in the development story.

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