TRIPURAINFO

THE LANGUAGE CONTROVERSY IN INDIA:

Shilajit Kar Bhowmik

The draft National Education Policy of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has hogged limelight. Among many other decisions within the ambit of this draft policy, the decision to implement Hindi as a compulsory language in every school till the Eighth Standard has drawn quiet a controversy especially in South Indian states. However, the Union Government has made it clear that it is merely a 'draft policy'. Notwithstanding, the raging debate over the imposition of Hindi excites curiosity through a retrospective lens. Debates over the imposition of Hindi have been raised in India since the days of yore.

It would excite interest over the fact that one of Nehru's most trusted lieutenants Krishna Menon told legendary journalist of yesteryears Durga Das that it was he who first put forward the three-language formula to consolidate national unity. Under the formula, every student is expected to learn his/her regional mother tongue, Hindi and English. Menon further argued that if a student learns Hindi, he/she learns another modern Indian language in addition. This was an off the record interview disclosed by Das in his autobiography.

The vexed language issue consumed Home Minister Gobind Ballabh Pant as he had to preside over a Joint Parliamentary Committee set up in 1957 to review the recommendations of the Language Commission set up in 1955. To be precise, as mandated by India's Constituent Assembly in 1946, a Language Commission should be constituted five years after independent India adopts its Constitution. The purpose of this very commission would be to assess the acceptance of Hindi among India’s masses.

In the long run, the commission reiterated the constitutional obligation of a switchover from English to Hindi on 26 Jan, 1965. However, it was cautious to leave the decision of implementation to the Government and recommended 'necessity' of Hindi till middle level in schools throughout the country.

The commission also attempted to make it mandatory that Supreme Court and High Court judgements should be pronounced 'in the language of the country'. However, it added that a translation in regional languages should be added in proceedings, records and orders of the Apex Court and High Courts.

However, two dissenting notes by learned academicians Dr. P Subbarayan and Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee suggested the establishment of a parliamentary committee to revaluate the Constituent Assembly's language policy on Hindi. Their contention was founded upon the fact that Parliament is the body of representatives elected by the people. The people should have a say on the language issue. Therefore, elected representatives should review the Constituent Assembly’s language policy.

The Joint Parliamentary Committee was set up to abide by constitutional obligations and G B Pant was appointed its chairman. Its maiden meeting was held in 1957 and there was a regular kerfuffle between Hindi and non-Hindi advocates.

The advocates of Hindi were led by Congress heavyweight Purushottam Das Tandon who vociferously and vehemently wanted to do away with English. The non-Hindi advocates were led by a Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar, a leader from Madras who agreed upon usage of Hindi as the official language but wanted the switchover date to be postponed for an indefinite period of time. Mudaliar argued that bilingualism would mitigate the fears of non-Hindi speakers who instinctively felt that Hindi was being forced down their throat. He was supported by Frank Anthony, an Anglo-Indian member and Pramath Nath Banerjee representing the undivided Communist Party in West Bengal at that point of time.
The pro-Hindi members were naturally incensed.

Arguments and counter-arguments reached a crescendo when the committee discussed a recommendation of making it compulsory for government servants to learn Hindi and qualify in an examination within a reasonable period of time. Mudaliar anguished over the fact that such a recommendation, if implemented would create hindrances for non-Hindi speakers.

On the contrary, the Hindi advocates were strongly favouring a transition from English to Hindi to such an extent that they agreed to a quota system for Hindi and non-Hindi speakers in the all-India services. The chairman, Pant expressed fears that such a move would polarize India on the lines of separate electorates in pre-independent India.

P T Thanu Pillai, a member from Kerala watered down the quota system by arguing that the quota system would be applied in all fields once it is accepted and demolish the unity of the country. Posterity would never forgive them for such a step. Pillai’s reasonable argument earned a huge applause and knocked down even dyed-in-the wool Hindi advocates.
Ultimately, the committee unanimously accepted the recommendation with the exception of Frank Anthony that Hindi should be the principal language with effect from 26 Jan, 1965 and English would be used as a subsidiary language.

Deceased legendary journalist Kuldip Nayar argues that Hindi could have been implemented as a principal official language on 26 Jan, 1965 and English as a subsidiary language if Prime Minister Nehru had not objected. He was adamant against the Parliamentary Committee’s final decision and on 6 Aug, 1959 assured in the Lok Sabha there would be no time limit and the non-Hindi areas could decide for themselves the switchover period from English to Hindi. There was nothing more Pant could do.

People in non-Hindi speaking areas spontaneously heaved a sigh of relief.

It would not be inapposite to describe Nehru's move as a volte-face as in 1949, he told Durga Das in an off-the-record interview, "Of course, Hindi will be the national language. It cannot be English. How many people understand English? In any case, we cannot communicate with the masses in English."
Few years passed henceforth. Nehru took his last breath and was gradually replaced by a rather consensual Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Notably, Shastri was more at ease with Hindi than Nehru who was brought up in England for a considerable period of his academic life.

In 1965, a Home Ministry official with approval from Minister Gulzarilal Nanda issued a circular stating Hindi would come into effect as a principal official language and English an additional language on 26 Jan that very year.

Apart from the circular, a directive was issued that certain files in the central government would begin to be written in Hindi. A translation in English would be appended for those individuals who are unfamiliar to Hindi. A letter received in Hindi would be replied in Hindi. Official circulars and communiqués would be issued in Hindi and English.

These steps to establish the predominance of Hindi raised the hackles of South India especially Tamil Nadu. On 17 Jan, 1965 C N Annadurai’s Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) organized the Madras State Anti-Hindi conference which gave a call to observe 26 Jan as a day of mourning. The state teetered on the edge of a violent maelstrom. And so, ferocious riots broke out all over the state. There was not even an iota of tendency to attempt reconciliation. Students who were apprehensive of relegation by Hindi speakers in the all-India services were the vanguards of the agitation. They raised the slogan, "Hindi never, English ever." The slogan rapidly made common cause with the masses of Tamil Nadu. The state was in flames. Railways and other Union property were destroyed. Several youths immolated themselves. For two months, the agitation reached the nook and corner of the state and sixty lives were claimed over police firing.

Ultimately, Shastri gave an 'official assurance' that the introduction of Hindi for 'the official purposes of the Union' would be regulated in a way which would not be inconvenient for non-Hindi speakers. Shastri lived up to his promise. Following his unceremonious expiry, Indira Gandhi took over and amended the Official Language Act of 1963 in 1967. The amended Official Language Act legally endorsed Nehru’s assurances in 1959.

However, the 1965 riots was a watershed moment in the political history of Tamil Nadu. Congress lost to DMK in the 1967 Legislative Assembly elections. Henceforth, Tamil Nadu has invariably witnessed bipolar contests between the DMK and AIADMK founded by Annadurai’s disciple M G Ramachandran. Curious! Isn’t it?
                                                                                                                               Shilajit Kar Bhowmik

References:
India from Nehru to Curzon and after by Durga Das
Beyond the Lines: An Autobiography by Kuldip Nayar
India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee


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