By Harshmeet Singh
Language has always been a contentious issue in India. Ever since India attained Independence, several protests have taken place on the issue of language and linguistic identity. These language protests have often taken a violent turn with people losing lives for their cause.
The battle of Hindi against other regional languages has always been at the center of most of these protests. While the Indian constitution mentions that “Hindi [in the Devanagiri script] is the official language of the Union”, it fell short of naming it the national language.
In 1959, the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru assured the Parliament that the English language would be freely used whenever people of non-Hindi background needed. This assurance got the backing of the law in the form of Official Languages Act, 1963.
Considering that India is home to over 1600 languages, linguistic rivalry is bound to be an unpleasant reality. The 2001 census revealed that close to 41% of the national population spoke Hindi. The other languages that made up the top five were Bengali (8.11%), Telugu (7.37%), Marathi (6.99%) and Tamil (5.91%). Though the statistics may show an overwhelming majority of Hindi speakers, in reality, most of the Hindi speakers are concentrated in only a handful of states.
Language struggle in India is relatively old. The opposition to imposition of Hindi by the central government has been historically led by Tamil Nadu. The state of Tamil Nadu has witnessed several anti-Hindi protests before and after independence. Most of these struggles saw mass participation and violent demonstrations.
The roots of pre-Independence struggle lay in Congress’ attempts at making Hindi a compulsory subject in the then Madras Presidency. It was congress’ way of replacing English and preparing for a British-free India. This led to widespread agitations led by EV Ramasamy or Periyar. Though it stopped the Congress from imposing Hindi in Madras schools, it came at the cost of several lives.
Similar agitation took place post independence. This time, it was to ensure that Hindi doesn’t become the sole official language of the Union of India. The Congress leaders hailing from the South Indian states also took part in the agitation and ensured that leaders like Purushottam Das Tandon and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee don’t have their way. The solution was a clause that English would accompany Hindi as the official Language of the Union for a period of 15 years. Since then, the Congress has never managed to come into power in Tamil Nadu.
Ironically, the agitation against Hindi also saw the support of C. Rajagopalachari, the person who introduced Hindi as the compulsory subject when he was the CM of Madras Presidency in 1938.
Though such violent agitations aren’t seen today, the language protests are still a common idea in the country. Such unhealthy rivalries can be out to rest by providing equal status to all the major languages spoken in the country. An inclusive language policy will go a long way in ensuring that the country doesn’t fall victim to disintegrative politics.