How Hindi Fought a Tough Battle to Emerge as an Official Language

On Hindi Diwas, Karthik Venkatesh writes on Hindi being chosen as an official language in colonial India.

4 min read
Variety of bilingual signs on the platform of the Shimla railway station. 

(This article was first published on 14 September 2016. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Hindi Diwas.)

Even as yet another Hindi Diwas is being celebrated on 14 September, numerous debates continue to swirl around the question of Hindi. Among the many misconceptions that surrounds the language is the perception that it is the national language of the country.

That, it is not. Hindi in the Devanagari script is the official language of the union and several special directives are given for the promotion of Hindi — “…to promote the spread of Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as the medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India” as perArticle 351 of the Constitution.

The debates about Hindi, its imposition and resistance from non-Hindi speaking parts of the country are likely to continue in the foreseeable future. But one debate that raged for some time about Hindi has pretty much been settled — that of its script. As is well-known and more importantly, widely accepted, Hindi is almost always written in the Devanagari script.

Threat to the Devanagari Script

But barely a century ago, the issue of the script was still a contentious one. And this is an issue that not too many people are aware of. Many people are of course aware of how Hindi and Urdu locked horns in the late 19th and early 20th century. Of course, the script issue was part of this battle. But the Hindi-Urdu battle was seen in communal terms — ‘Hindu’ Hindi vs. ‘Muslim’ Urdu and the choice was between Devanagari and the Urdu script, both aligned rather simplistically to a religious community. But prior to that and for a time even parallel to it, Devanagari had to contend with another script that threatened to supplant it. In fact, this script had emerged from the ambit of the ‘Hindu’ sphere itself — Kaithi.

The Kaithi script was closely associated with the Kayastha caste of North and East India. Today, Kaithi is almost completely forgotten. But even in the early years of the 20th century, it was alive and kicking and more than able to hold its own againstDevanagari.

Kayastha Community Favoured Urdu Language

The Kayastha was the caste of scribes and record keepers who had served in that role for more than a millennium. This involved their learning Urdu and Persian in medieval times.And in the Hindi-Urdu debate, the Kayasthas, though largely Hindu, had preferredUrdu.

In fact, in indigenous Persian schools of the 19th century, the Kayastha students were second only to Muslim students, underlining the Kayastha preference for Persian, a preference that had kept them in employment for centuries. This statistic also exposes the fallacy of ‘Hindu’ Hindi and ‘Muslim’ Urdu. That a Hindu community was for a time on the Urdu side is unknown to most.

The position of the Kayasthas in theHindu varna system is a matter of great debate. Their high levels of literacy places them in the upper caste bracket. Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the Hindi poet and a notable Kayastha, in his autobiography (published in four volumes in Hindi and condensed and translated into English by Rupert Snell as In the Afternoon of Time), narrates a tale of brahminical origin for his family.

A teacher taking classes in a Hindi medium school. (Photo: iStock)
A teacher taking classes in a Hindi medium school. (Photo: iStock)

Kaithi versus Nagari Script

Kaithi was the script that the Kayasthas employed for Hindi. A more curvaceous form of the Devanagari script, Kaithi’s extensive use was largely on account of the fact that theKayasthas were highly literate. In its battle with Kaithi, the backers of the script, then known as Nagari, employed a cunning stratagem. A stratagem that was guaranteed to stream roller all opposition.

The Nagari script in the course of the later 19th century changed its nomenclature to the ‘godly’ Deva-Nagari, the script of the gods. That Sanskrit was written in Nagari was the clinching factor in its favour. The script of the scriptures had to be the script of Hindi, the hoped-for soon-to-be-language of Hindustan. Thus, on the basis of scripture and the lower caste origins of the rival script, the case for Devanagari was made.

Also working against Kaithi was the close association that the Kayasthas had shared with the Urdu backers, the erstwhile ruling Muslim nobility that Hindi backers had identified as their prime adversaries. Kaithi users attempted to hit back and derisively termed the Nagari script, the script of the Brahmins. But it was a lost cause.

Devanagari marched to victory witheven the British siding with it.

Official Recognition to Devanagari

The Lt. Governor of North WestProvinces & Oudh (United Provinces from 1902 and Uttar Pradesh in independent India) Sir Anthony MacDonnell’s recognition of the Devanagari script for use in courts in the province was the decisive moment in this battle.

It was the year 1900, the cusp of a new century. MacDonnell had doneHindi two kingly favours: he had accorded official recognition to the Nagari script, thereby relegating Kaithi to a marginal status and he had in fact provided the much needed boost to Hindi in its ongoing battle against Urdu.Recognition of the script was taken to mean a de facto recognition of the tongue. Hindi written in the Devanagari script came to be the norm among theHindu community of North India.

Post-independence, the Constituent Assembly considered the option of Hindustani, with a choice of either Devanagari or Urdu script,Gandhi’s proposed solution. But partition had closed the minds of many. The majority voted for Hindi in the Devanagari script. But Hindi did not become the national language that its backers wanted it to be.  It is merely the official language of the country and along with it, English is an associate official language.

(The writer is a Chennai-based Consulting Editor with Westland Books. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also read:

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