The language debate: Speaking in many tongues (15 June 2019)

(My column in Mint Lounge, June 15 2019)

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In 1948, when the Linguistic Provinces Commission presented its report to the constituent assembly, it was packed with ominous words against organizing states on the rationale of a common language. It was true, certainly, that the Congress constituted its regional units on a linguistic basis and had as recently as 1946 endorsed this principle. But with independence achieved, the impact of Partition suffered, and the nation in precarious infancy, it was wiser, the commission felt, to promote stability over regional aspirations. India’s tryst with destiny was a moment of hope, but there was still, beneath everything, that “centuries-old India of narrow loyalties, petty jealousies and ignorant prejudices”, so much so that they were “horrified to see how thin was the ice” upon which the new nation was skating.

“Some of the ablest men in the country came before us,” the report further noted, “and confidently… stated that language in this country stood for and represented culture, tradition, race, history, individuality, and finally, a sub-nation”. If sub-nations were given political expression, would that not jeopardize the vision for a united India? Was this not a recipe for disintegration? The “formation of provinces on exclusively or even mainly linguistic considerations,” the commission concluded, “is not in the larger interests of the Indian nation”. The need of the hour was to find a way to invest in unity, and to create a framework that would bring together the Nagas of the North-East with the Gujarati ex-subjects of Baroda’s maharaja; the Malabar Muslim with the Kashmiri Pandit.

One of the recommendations of the commission to achieve this was the adoption of a national language. It was a proposition vociferously debated in the constituent assembly. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, agreed that “English had done us a lot of good” and helped bring together nationalists from across divides. But “no nation can become great on the basis of a foreign language”. Allowing English to dominate, he felt, would create an elite class and separate them from “a large mass of our people not knowing English”. It was a point well received: As another member argued, preserving English would only please “the ghost” of Lord Macaulay. And as Mahatma Gandhi himself stated in 1946, “only the language which the people of a country will themselves adopt can become national”. This language was Hindi.

Like many others, B.R. Ambedkar too favoured Hindi. “Since Indians wish to unite and develop a common culture,” he would write, “it is the bounden duty of all Indians to own up Hindi as their language.” Without this, we would be left “a 100 per cent Maharashtrian, a 100 per cent Tamil or a 100 per cent Gujarati” but never truly Indian. But then compromises would have to be made by everyone: The Hindi-heartland states were intimidating behemoths, which would have to consent to being divided into smaller units (something that did eventually, and reluctantly, happen decades later). And while linguistic states could be formed, their official language should not be the state’s dominant language. The price of linguistic self-expression was accepting the union’s common language.

All this, of course, was easier said than done. Opposition, especially from the south, was sharp, with the result that Hindi was made India’s official, but not national, language. English was to linger for 15 years, during which time a complete transition to Hindi was envisioned—which, of course, did not happen. Indeed, contrary to the Linguistic Provinces Commission’s recommendations, language-based states did take form within a decade, reinforcing (entirely legitimate) regional identities. And where Hindi was concerned, resistance to giving up English was so determined that a mere list of books on the topic published in 1965 is revealing: Our Language Problem, Problem Of Hindi, India’s Language Crisis: A Study and (the sparklingly original) Language Problem.

Debates, of course, continued. K.M. Munshi, for instance, argued that “only Hindi is capable of becoming the single national language of India, because it…bears close similarity with Sanskrit”. Others, like T.A. Ramalingam Chettiar, disagreed: “You cannot use the word national language,” he said in Parliament, “because Hindi is no more national to us than English…. We have got our own languages which are national languages.” Another interesting factor that motivated the anti-Hindi argument was the seeming lack of prestige in the language. While in the last century, Hindi literature had grown, it was nowhere as ancient as Tamil, or as rich as Telugu, for example. As C. Rajagopalachari, who in the 1930s famously promoted Hindi in Madras Presidency schools, now remarked cuttingly, “The new Hindi…is not a language but a burlesque.”

In the end, given that the country had no shortage of challenges to confront, common sense prevailed, and things were left alone. After all, even the Union cabinet was split: The prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was in favour of the transition from English to Hindi, as was his home minister G.L. Nanda, while others, like Sanjeeva Reddy, C. Subramaniam, and O.V. Alagesan, were staunchly against it—the last two even put in their resignations, withdrawing them only when assured that English would not be jettisoned or Hindi imposed. And so, the status quo continued, and the three-language policy we know today was introduced, officially giving regional languages their space, while not compromising on either English or Hindi’s positions. How sincerely it was implemented, of course, is another matter.

All elite languages face periods of rise and decline, and, like Persian declined, English will too one day perhaps. Whether it will be replaced by Hindi will need to be seen, but Hindi’s inroads have been strong even without rabble-rousing or official acceleration: Bollywood and migration have achieved much more than state policy. But for the stability of India, with all its diverse languages and identities, Nehru’s warning to the constituent assembly may well be recalled even today. In “some speeches I have listened (to) here,” he said, “there is very much a tone of the Hindi speaking area being the centre of things in India, the centre of gravity, and others being just the fringes of India.” This was what India had to guard against, he warned, and, over 70 years later, it is precisely this tendency that we must again protest.

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