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One language to rule them all?

  • Published at 04:49 pm August 17th, 2018
Hindi isn’t India’s only language
Hindi isn’t India’s only language Photo: BIGSTOCK

The fight against Hindi supremacy in India


A few days have passed since the demise of the Tamil national hero Muthuvel Karunanidhi, and the plethora of reactions, solidarities, and posturings are out there for all of us to see in the Indian Union. 

In English media, I have seen various obituaries of the Kalaignar, mostly copy pasted from Wikipedia, and then synonym replaced for “originality.” In Hindi media across the political spectrum, especially in television media, there was hardly any mention of the fact that this giant of a man who rests on the Marina now was a life-long fighter against Hindi imperialism and Hindi imposition. No amount of silence and side-stepping from Hindi media can take away that burning truth. 

And I, a Brahmin Bengali, whose first language in school was Bangla and medium of instruction in school was English, owe my career and worldview largely to the import and legacy of what CN Annadurai and his crucial lieutenant M Karunanidhi did for years, peaking in 1965. 

They protested Hindi imposition on non-Hindi people. They saved all non-Hindi people, especially non-Hindi people of the upwardly mobile class from complete oblivion. The Indian Union service industry economy of the present, with its backbone being English articulation and comprehension, and lifeblood being a large information technology literate youthful class, is a product of that great generation of Tamil leaders, Muthuvel Karunanidhi being among the foremost. Let me explain.

The Indian Union was not formed on the basis of any single language. India had always been conceived of as the peerless giant of Bengali nationalism and Indian unity Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das stated, as a federation of nations, an example for the world community. 

However, from the very start, and if I may say, even before the start, chauvinist and imperialist tendencies arose from what is the Hindi belt or Hindustan region that demanded Hindi, their language of ease, become the language of communication of all citizens. 

So much so that even in the Constituent Assembly of India that was discussing the future constitution of India, member of that assembly from the United Provinces, RS Dhulekar actually said aloud that those in India who do not know Hindustani have no right to be in the assembly that was making the Constitution of India (Hindi and Urdu were widely referred to by the common term Hindustani before Hindi and Urdu became contentious and ideologically opposite concepts). 

This was a sentiment that was voiced and expressed by various members of the constituent assembly from the Hindustan region or Hindi belt. They ranged in ideology from being progressives to secular democrats to Hindu communalists -- a wide range that Congress could hold at that point of time. 

But they were united on the point of Hindi supremacy. 

A compromise formula was reached. This retained English for the time being as an official language of the Union while Hindi was the other official language of the Union.

English was to lapse after a certain period, when Hindi was to become the sole official language of the Indian Union. This compromise was a ticking time bomb because of the lapse clause. 

This arrangement was really a deal between non-Hindi elites (where only English literate class would have access to officialdom in the form of jobs and opportunities) and the whole of the Hindi national polity (where all the people would have access to officialdom). 

The big losers were the great masses of non-Hindi citizens of the Indian Union, who were then, and still now are, the majority of the citizens of the Indian Union. This wasn’t surprising as the Constituent Assembly itself was not elected on the basis of universal adult franchise with about 12% of the people based on education, tax-paying, and property status getting the right to vote. 

This ensured that the 1946 Tamil Brahmin equivalents of Cho Ramaswamy and Subramaniam Swamy got to represent the Tamils. And even they were miffed by the Hindi supremacist attitude. 

The rise of the DMK under CN Annadurai’s leadership, with M Karunanidhi being among his brightest lieutenants, ensured that Hindi imposition would be resisted in the land of the Tamils. 

When English was to lapse and Hindi was to become the sole official language due to Delhi’s imperial whim, Tamils resisted. Kannadigas, Telugus, and Bangalis resisted too, but in the Tamil land it became a national resistance. Tamils could see how all opportunities would be closed to their youths. 

This would be true for all non-Hindi youths, but Tamils with a history and tradition of sophisticated understanding of political dynamics in a multi-national, multi-lingual polity reacted both with reason and passion. So intense was the resistance that the plan of making Hindi as the sole official language was postponed to a time when non-Hindi people would agree to it. In short, never. 

Because English was retained, at least the elites among the non-Hindi citizens of the Indian Union, could eke out a path of upward mobility. I count myself among those fortunate ones. 

It is because of the generation of Tamil leaders that counted M Karunanidhi among its leading lights that I am able to write this article today. 

It is because of the politics Karunanidhi that English TV channels, English language textbooks, a whole employment ecology with English as currency exists in the Indian Union. 

Under Karunanidhi and MGR, Tamil Nadu took the lead for mass production of engineering graduates that created a technology literate workforce who changed the face of Tamil Nadu, in ways that should be understood as a test case of the success of linguistic identity politics. 

Other Dravidian states also followed suit. English is the most sought after language commodity in the Hindi belt, and this is in spite of the advantage that Hindi citizens receive in all Union government jobs, tenders, information and service access, etc compared to non-Hindi citizens. 

The majority of non-Hindi people are still excluded from the sphere where all Hindi people and English-educated non-Hindi people compete. 83% of Bangalis do not know any other language other than Bangla, according to the 2001 Linguistic Census of India. 

That is the reality Muthuvel Karunanidhi was very well aware of. He was a fighter for the people, of inalienable rights of a linguistic nation. He remained a life-long warrior against usurpation of power from the people by Delhi. 

Karunanidhi’s dream was of an Indian Union based on equality. Thus, he called for giving equal constitutional rights and status to all 8th schedule languages. He called for equality. Who opposed equality but imperialists? 

Pakistan’s Urdu imposition on Bangalis cost it very dearly. All over the world, the imposition of someone’s language over someone else is a way to create various classes of citizens. When there are first, second, and third class citizens, it is a method of breakage. In a multi-lingual polity, one can either have unity or have uniformity. One cannot have both.

Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac.