How did Hindi and English become India’s official languages? On Hindi imposition, what lessons can history teach us?
How did Hindi and English become India’s official languages? On Hindi imposition, what lessons can history teach us?(Photo: Erum Gour/The Quint)
  • 1. Hindi, Hindustani or English? The Constituent Assembly...
  • 2. Protests in South, and a Reassurance from the PM
  • 3. How Has the Language Debate Evolved Over the Years?
  • 4. But Wait, Why Has Hindi Imposition Caused a Backlash?
Hindi, Hindustani, English: A History of India’s Language Politics

“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.

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  • 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.”

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    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.

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