Hindi, Hindustani, English: A History of India’s Language Politics

How did Hindi & English become India’s official languages? What lessons can history teach us on Hindi imposition?

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How did Hindi and English become India’s official languages? On Hindi imposition, what lessons can history teach us?
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“We need also a common language not in suppression of the vernaculars, but in addition to them. It is generally agreed that that medium should be Hindustani – a resultant of Hindi and Urdu, neither highly Sanskritized, nor highly Persianized or Arabianized.” (Young India, 1925)

That’s what Gandhi said in August 1925, as he grappled with one question: What will be India’s national language? Since then, India’s ‘language question’ has been debated in the Constituent Assembly, through legislation, in the streets with protests and on social media. On 14 September, Union Home Minister Amit Shah sparked the “one-nation-one-language” debate again when he said that “there should be one language in India, which could be representative at the world stage.” He also said that Hindi is a language which could “unite the country.”

But what’s the history of this debate? How did Hindi and English become India’s official languages? What did leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and C Rajagopalachari think of the idea of Hindi as India’s national language? When it comes to Hindi imposition, what lessons can history teach us? We break it down for you.

Hindi, Hindustani, English: A History of India’s Language Politics

  1. 1. Hindi, Hindustani or English? The Constituent Assembly Debates

    With over twenty regional languages, each with its own culture and history, language was always going to be a tricky issue for India. At the time, most countries defined their nationhood through a common language and so during the Constituent Assembly debates, the question of a national language was tied closely with a desire for national unity. Initially, Hindustani, with its hybrid of Hindi and Urdu, was a viable option. Writing in an essay in 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru termed Hindustani a “golden mean.”

    However, after Partition, the debate changed. Instead of Hindustani, Hindi (bereft of its Urdu influence) was being put forward as a potential national language.

    Speaking in the Constituent Assembly, on 13 September 1949, RV Dhulekar, an advocate for Hindi, said,

    “I say it (Hindi) is the official language and it is the national language. You may demur to it. You may belong to another nation but I belong to Indian nation, the Hindi Nation, the Hindu Nation, the Hindustani Nation. I do not know why you say it is not the National Language.”

    But the opposition to Hindi as a national language from representatives from southern states was fierce too. TA Ramalingam Chettiar representing Madras in the Constituent Assembly in September 1949, said,

    “We have got languages which are better cultivated and which have greater literature than Hindi in our areas. If we are going to accept Hindi, it is not on account of the excellence of the language. It is merely on account of the existence of a large number of people speaking Hindi.”

    Finally, the Constituent Assembly adopted what was known as “Munshi-Ayyangar formula.” According to this, Hindi in the Devnagari script would be the official language of the Union. Official, not national. English would continue to be used for all official purposes for the next 15 years, to enable a smooth transition for non-Hindi speaking states. The deadline was 26 January 1965.

    Expand
  2. 2. Protests in South, and a Reassurance from the PM

    When 1965 came around, the debate on national language had transformed into a movement against Hindi imposition. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was gaining popularity in Tamil Nadu, and it seemed that India would have to face the language question again.

    Earlier, in the Official Languages Act, 1963, under the then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it was said that English may be used along with Hindi in official communication. But the “may” was open to interpretation.

    26 January 1965 was observed as a “day of mourning” by DMK leader CN Annadurai and protests erupted in Tamil Nadu, including strikes, hartals and self-immolations. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted the transition to Hindi, but he had a rebellion on his hands. Union Ministers C Subramaniam, and OV Alagesan resigned in protest against the Hindi imposition and wanted English to continue as the official language.

    Again, a compromise was arrived at. Historian Ramchandra Guha writes in India After Gandhi that Lal Bahadur Shastri reassured Indian people on the following issues:

    i. States could continue using English or a language of their own choice
    ii. Inter-state communications could be held in English or in regional languages translated into English
    iii. Non-Hindi states could correspond with the Centre in English
    iv. English could be used by the Centre
    v. The civil service examination would be continued in English, rather than only in Hindi.

    Basically, English retained its status as an official language, with Hindi. States could adopt one or more languages, usually the regional language common in the state, as the official language of the state. These languages would be the ones mentioned in the Schedule of the Constitution as their official language.

    This is the status quo, till now. No national language, two official languages – Hindi and English.

    Expand
  3. 3. How Has the Language Debate Evolved Over the Years?

    There have been some developments in the language debate since 1965. In 1968, a National Policy on Education was adopted. It presented a three-language formula, according to which, in non-Hindi-speaking states, Hindi should be studied optionally along with English and the regional language. The 1968 NPE was ostensibly updated in the Draft New Education Policy 2019, where Hindi was proposed to be taught mandatorily in schools in non-Hindi-speaking states. The proposal sparked outrage, especially in southern states like Tamil Nadu.

    The courts have also made observations since on the national language/official language debate. In observations made in passing remarks, the High Courts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madhya Pradesh have commented that Hindi is the national language of India. However, High Courts of Gujarat, Karnataka and Patna have reaffirmed the constitutional stand on the issue, which is that Hindi is an official language.

    Expand
  4. 4. But Wait, Why Has Hindi Imposition Caused a Backlash?

    Ever since Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s comment, #StopHindiImposition has been trending on Twitter. The backlash isn’t just restricted to Tamil Nadu, but also West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. As seen by India’s history, every time the question of “one-nation-one-language” has come up, emotions have run high. The imposition of Hindi has led to violent protests in states like Tamil Nadu, where Tamil language is a political issue. In 1960s, it was the agitation against Hindi imposition which had given birth to the DMK, and it’s impossible for political parties in the state to accept Hindi as a language which could “unite the country.” Even in BJP-ruled Karnataka, after Amit Shah’s comments, Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa said, “We will never compromise Kannada’s importance...”

    The backlash against Hindi being made compulsory in non-Hindi-speaking states under the Draft New Education Policy 2019 was so strong that the Centre had to tweak its policy. A strong identification with one’s regional language and an underlying fear of homogenisation is at the heart of the national language question in India. Now, with Union Minister Amit Shah’s comment, the debate has been revived. Will Hindi emerge as the lingua franca? Or will those arguing for India’s linguistic diversity continue doing so?

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    Expand

Hindi, Hindustani or English? The Constituent Assembly Debates

With over twenty regional languages, each with its own culture and history, language was always going to be a tricky issue for India. At the time, most countries defined their nationhood through a common language and so during the Constituent Assembly debates, the question of a national language was tied closely with a desire for national unity. Initially, Hindustani, with its hybrid of Hindi and Urdu, was a viable option. Writing in an essay in 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru termed Hindustani a “golden mean.”

However, after Partition, the debate changed. Instead of Hindustani, Hindi (bereft of its Urdu influence) was being put forward as a potential national language.

Speaking in the Constituent Assembly, on 13 September 1949, RV Dhulekar, an advocate for Hindi, said,

“I say it (Hindi) is the official language and it is the national language. You may demur to it. You may belong to another nation but I belong to Indian nation, the Hindi Nation, the Hindu Nation, the Hindustani Nation. I do not know why you say it is not the National Language.”

But the opposition to Hindi as a national language from representatives from southern states was fierce too. TA Ramalingam Chettiar representing Madras in the Constituent Assembly in September 1949, said,

“We have got languages which are better cultivated and which have greater literature than Hindi in our areas. If we are going to accept Hindi, it is not on account of the excellence of the language. It is merely on account of the existence of a large number of people speaking Hindi.”

Finally, the Constituent Assembly adopted what was known as “Munshi-Ayyangar formula.” According to this, Hindi in the Devnagari script would be the official language of the Union. Official, not national. English would continue to be used for all official purposes for the next 15 years, to enable a smooth transition for non-Hindi speaking states. The deadline was 26 January 1965.

Protests in South, and a Reassurance from the PM

When 1965 came around, the debate on national language had transformed into a movement against Hindi imposition. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was gaining popularity in Tamil Nadu, and it seemed that India would have to face the language question again.

Earlier, in the Official Languages Act, 1963, under the then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it was said that English may be used along with Hindi in official communication. But the “may” was open to interpretation.

26 January 1965 was observed as a “day of mourning” by DMK leader CN Annadurai and protests erupted in Tamil Nadu, including strikes, hartals and self-immolations. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted the transition to Hindi, but he had a rebellion on his hands. Union Ministers C Subramaniam, and OV Alagesan resigned in protest against the Hindi imposition and wanted English to continue as the official language.

Again, a compromise was arrived at. Historian Ramchandra Guha writes in India After Gandhi that Lal Bahadur Shastri reassured Indian people on the following issues:

i. States could continue using English or a language of their own choice
ii. Inter-state communications could be held in English or in regional languages translated into English
iii. Non-Hindi states could correspond with the Centre in English
iv. English could be used by the Centre
v. The civil service examination would be continued in English, rather than only in Hindi.

Basically, English retained its status as an official language, with Hindi. States could adopt one or more languages, usually the regional language common in the state, as the official language of the state. These languages would be the ones mentioned in the Schedule of the Constitution as their official language.

This is the status quo, till now. No national language, two official languages – Hindi and English.

How Has the Language Debate Evolved Over the Years?

There have been some developments in the language debate since 1965. In 1968, a National Policy on Education was adopted. It presented a three-language formula, according to which, in non-Hindi-speaking states, Hindi should be studied optionally along with English and the regional language. The 1968 NPE was ostensibly updated in the Draft New Education Policy 2019, where Hindi was proposed to be taught mandatorily in schools in non-Hindi-speaking states. The proposal sparked outrage, especially in southern states like Tamil Nadu.

The courts have also made observations since on the national language/official language debate. In observations made in passing remarks, the High Courts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madhya Pradesh have commented that Hindi is the national language of India. However, High Courts of Gujarat, Karnataka and Patna have reaffirmed the constitutional stand on the issue, which is that Hindi is an official language.

But Wait, Why Has Hindi Imposition Caused a Backlash?

Ever since Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s comment, #StopHindiImposition has been trending on Twitter. The backlash isn’t just restricted to Tamil Nadu, but also West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. As seen by India’s history, every time the question of “one-nation-one-language” has come up, emotions have run high. The imposition of Hindi has led to violent protests in states like Tamil Nadu, where Tamil language is a political issue. In 1960s, it was the agitation against Hindi imposition which had given birth to the DMK, and it’s impossible for political parties in the state to accept Hindi as a language which could “unite the country.” Even in BJP-ruled Karnataka, after Amit Shah’s comments, Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa said, “We will never compromise Kannada’s importance...”

The backlash against Hindi being made compulsory in non-Hindi-speaking states under the Draft New Education Policy 2019 was so strong that the Centre had to tweak its policy. A strong identification with one’s regional language and an underlying fear of homogenisation is at the heart of the national language question in India. Now, with Union Minister Amit Shah’s comment, the debate has been revived. Will Hindi emerge as the lingua franca? Or will those arguing for India’s linguistic diversity continue doing so?

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The Quint is available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, click to join.

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