Should Hindi be the sole official language?

Subramania Bharati, the great Tamil nationalist poet, is presumably known to every educated Indian, even Hindi zealots. Not so his childhood friend Somasundara Bharati, who was V.O. Chidambaram Pillai’s associate in his great anti-British Swadeshi shipping venture. In 1937, to protest against the C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji)-led Madras government’s attempt to make Hindi compulsory in schools, Somasundara Bharati left the Congress to join the anti-Hindi agitation led by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy.

This is how Hindi zealots, ostensibly for the greater good of the nation, actually end up driving them away.

Overenthusiasm that harms

In time, Rajaji himself warned, in 1965, “Let us not make the sixty million people in the south seditious, by one stroke.” But it seems Hindi enthusiasts have simply not learnt the lesson.

The Congress got a drubbing in the 1967 elections in the State, and it has been on a never-ending leather hunt. Surely, for the Bharatiya Janata Party, ramming Hindi into unwilling Tamil throats will take it no nearer to Fort St. George. Sadly, even Lohiaite socialists are cut from the same cloth.

It is over half a century since the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965 and Delhi’s assurance that English would continue to be associate official language until non-Hindi-speaking States so desire. Since the days of Hindi scraping in through a single vote in the Constituent Assembly, no intellectual argument has been made for why the south should accept Hindi. Their case is usually made in Hindi, resulting in a dialogue of the deaf. From Subramania Bharati to Periyar to Rajaji Tamil leaders promoted, in good faith, Hindi language teaching in Tamil Nadu to foster better integration. Only to give it up as counterproductive, the arrogance and insensitivity of Hindi advocates contributing in no small measure to their disillusionment.

What has changed in the fifty years since the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation? If anything, the case for Hindi has weakened. Over the last many decades, south India has made rapid strides in the social, political and economic spheres.

The south’s surge

The social transformation triggered by the Mandal Commission recommendations was modelled on a caste-based reservation system fashioned in Tamil Nadu. The rapid strides in education in the south have underpinned the software revolution and the leap in the service sector.

Any reasonably informed survey of trends in modern India will tell you that most of the major intellectual currents have bypassed the Hindi language. Hindi newspapers are not a patch on their Malayalam counterparts. The vitality of the little and middle magazine tradition in Tamil outstrips anything remotely similar in Hindi. Despite the billions of rupees spent on official language commissions, government largesse, and the appointment of Hindi officers in every Central government office, only sarkari Hindi, which is about as fecund as a mule, has thrived. On the contrary, with little or no government patronage, Tamil and Malayalam constitute a far more vibrant presence in the virtual world.

Such inadequacies apart, Hindi’s trajectory in modern India has been inflected — or rather, infected — by Hindu communalism. Hindi zealots have, on the one hand, been intent on Sanskritising their language, and on the other, erasing its rich dialectal variety, leading to separate movements such as for the protection of Maithili.

In the hands of a majoritarian government, with utter contempt for the cultural plurality and diversity of our great nation, the pipe dream of making Hindi the sole official language takes on nightmarish proportions. Hindi simply doesn’t make the cut.

Recommended for you