A fresh round of anti-Hindi protests in Tamil Nadu, trouble over Hindi signboards in Bengaluru Metro, and protests surrounding the use of Hindi on milestones in Tamil Nadu, which were earlier written in Tamil or English have raked up the ugly language, or rashtra bhasha, debate in the country all over again. It is bound to give a new lease of life to the dipping fortunes of the DMK, a party which had used an anti-Hindi plank to rise in the 1950s and 1960s. The imposition of Hindi has long been a contentious issue in the country, a form of Hindi imperialism some would argue. Its troubled legacy continues to pose a challenge to the development of the language even today. Essentially, failure is the guaranteed outcome of an ill-fated desire to enforce linguistic unity in this extremely diverse country. It is certainly not the first time that an exercise to promote Hindi on a national level has been started. Following partition, the clamour for a national language to promote unity at the national level was felt necessary to avoid a repeat of the events that led to the division of the country along religious lines.
Religion and language were considered important markers of identity and linguistic unity had to be enforced if India was to remain one, according to the Hindi-wallahs of the North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Central Provinces now (Madhya Pradesh). For the uninitiated, a serious attempt was made in the 1950s by the Hindi-wallahs from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to foist Hindi as the rashtra bhasha or national language. The argument at the time was that Hindi alone had nationalist credentials and hence deserved to be called the rashtra bhasha or national language, instead of official language. The rank and file of Congressmen, including sitting Chief Ministers of the provinces at the time, namely G.B. Pant of UP, P.D. Tandon and Seth Govind Das of the Central Provinces were at the forefront of the campaign to impose Hindi, a very Sanskritised version of language devoid of Hindustani words. With the country struggling to grapple with what nationalism means and who a nationalist is, the issue of national language has assumed importance once again. But the question is whether Hindi can claim to be the national language.
The decision to aggressively force Hindi on non-Hindi speaking people failed, with a compromise reached in the form of the Munshi-Ayyangar formula, also known as the three-language formula. This was primarily due to the aggression exhibited by the Hindi-wallahs in the Constituent Assembly from 1947 onwards. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, a member of the Constituent Assembly from West Bengal, a key figure of the emerging Hindu right and founder of the Jan Sangh, stated, “If the protagonists would pardon me for saying, had they not been perhaps aggressive in their demand for the enforcement of Hindi, they would have got whatever they wanted perhaps more than they expected.” Nehru too warned against authoritarian attitudes rooted in the Hindi belt that had arrogated to itself the idea it was the “centre” of the new India: “I have listened here and elsewhere there is very much a tone of authoritarianism, very much a tone of Hindi speaking people being in the centre of things, the centre of gravity and others being in the fringes of India.” However, language wars continued well into the 1960s and 1970s in states such as Tamil Nadu, where the anti-Hindi and anti-Sanskrit agitation was at its peak, a campaign entwined with the caste politics of the states. Once again, the effort to impose Hindi on signboards on National Highways has not gone down well in many states of southern India. It is clearly offensive as it is seen as a backdoor means of imposing Hindi on non-Hindi speaking peoples.
The question here is whether Hindi has developed enough to claim to represent the country in one voice. Languages and dialects have been an extension of society in the country and the cultural ethos of diverse communities inhabiting this nation. Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu and Tamil have been an expression of a way of life and people’s choices: to deny that would be a fundamental mistake, as it means erasing thousands years of the history of communities who have lived and felt the language. Tamil has had a history of language devotion, something that is little understood in many parts of the country. Nationalism is an ill-fated project as it is bound to divide the country on linguistic, cultural and social lines. States such as Andhra and Telengana are yet to recover from the ill-timed and ill-prepared decision of the Congress led-UPA to divide the state of Andhra Pradesh, while others like Tamil Nadu have been experiencing political instability since the death of J. Jayalalithaa. Farmer distress, lack of potable water and extreme rural indebtedness are an indicator of tougher road ahead for any government. Problems around language are bound to create insecurity and further instability. Linguistic nationalism is bound to lead to aggression and death, as states such as Andhra have been privy to its violent legacy in 1952, with the fast unto death of Potti Sriramulu for the creation of a state for Telugu speakers. It is bound to affect the employment opportunities and confidence of non-Hindi speaking peoples at a time when we cannot afford it. The demand for linguistic freedom is bound to open the Pandora’s Box of demands for a separate state flag, like in the case of Karnataka and a separate emblem in the case of Tamil Nadu. It is bound to create precisely the problem that the government seems keen to avoid—aggressive federalism.
Nehru had a clear sense of history and issues that confronted this increasingly volatile nation. His policies reflected his outlook on key political issues—language was one of them. After pushing for the adoption of Urdu as a secondary language in UP till the mid-1950s, Nehru abandoned the project altogether, sensing the unease among state Congress leaders and witnessing the steady rise of the Jana Sangh. Urdu was never able to reclaim its place in UP nor did Hindi claim its status as rashtra bhasha. Practical problems associated with the implementation of a Hindi-policy, coupled with the stiff opposition from states outside the cow-belt forced the Congress to abandon this highly ambitious project. 2017 is very different from the 1950s and yet similar in many ways. Extreme rural distress and unemployment are the grim reality of states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka as it was in the 1950s. Language problems and protests associated with it would only add to the political and economic crises in these states. It is a dangerous trend, something the government should avoid.