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Does India Really Need A Unifying Language?

It is not uncommon any longer in Chennai to hear tea shop owners telling customers – “Saath rupya de do” (Give me seven rupees) with a wonderfully Tamil accent. Or for Tamil customers at a restaurant to tell the waiter – “Garam paani chahiye” (I want hot water).

A decade and a half ago, even this much Hindi would have been unthinkable in the south Indian city, the citadel of the anti-Hindi protests and a proud flag bearer of the Tamil language.

And these changes have come about due to two factors – the large scale migration of the poor from the north and north eastern states in search of work as manual labourers and the migration of the middle and upper middle classes for education, healthcare and work in the IT and automobile industries in the state.

Hubs of industry like Coimbatore and Tirupur too are awash with Hindi-speaking migrants who have taught the language to the locals. In turn, migrants have picked up Tamil and those in the service industries, such as beauty parlours and restaurants, speak fluent Tamil.

But it is not just Tamil Nadu that has seen linguistic transformations.

In Kerala, the state’s literacy authority has found it fit to conduct a program called ‘Hamari Malayalam’ targeted at much-needed migrant workers from the north eastern states.

As part of this program, migrants are integrated into the Kerala culture and they are taught Malayalam as well as Hindi. With a large population of migrants – around 40 lakh – the state has learnt to ease migrants and residents in harmoniously.

Karnataka’s businessmen and women, salaried employees all have had to find a way to learn Hindi, thanks to the need to do business with north Indian counterparts.

The Centre though, appears intent, on prodding an historic beast. The BJP it seems, is keen on making the same mistake that the Congress governments of yore did.

Home Minister Amit Shah on the occasion of ‘Hindi Diwas’ said – “The diversity of languages and dialects is the strength of our nation. But there is a need for our nation to have one language, so that foreign languages don’t find a place. This is why our freedom fighters envisioned Hindi as ‘Raj Bhasha’.”

It was left to DMK president MK Stalin to remind the Home Minister of how others many decades before him had bitten the dust on the Hindi issue and that the DMK would not hesitate to launch massive agitations if the Centre attempted to impose Hindi.

Leaders of other regional parties of non-Hindi speaking states too raised the flag of rebellion against the imposition of Hindi.

So is there really a need for a national unifying language as per Minister Shah? Or can the demands of economy bridge the language barriers that India has struggled with in the past 70 years?

Not entirely, says Narendra Pani, Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

“While migration has led to exchange of languages, it has increased conflict as well. There is competition for local jobs. There is an awareness of Hindi but there is no acceptance of Hindi dominance. The willingness to challenge Hindi dominance has increased. Karnataka which was not at the forefront of anti-Hindi agitations, is now increasingly against the imposition of Hindi,” he said.

“I think India is a multi-cultural state, the moment you try to impose any single language, you are asking for trouble. No one is going to accept the dominance of Hindi over Kannada. It is going to be resisted. There is a greater assertion of Telugu locally. Taking on language is a disaster,” he said.

A History Of Opposition To Imposition

The stage was set well before Independence, in 1937, when then Madras Presidency’s Chief Minister, veteran Congressman C Rajagopalachari decided to make learning of Hindi compulsory in the Tamil speaking state’s schools. He was asking for trouble. And he got it.

The Justice Party and the firebrand Periyar staunchly opposed the imposition of a north Indian language on a south Indian populace. The first large protest against Hindi imposition was held in Chennai’s Saidapet on 03 June 1938 and was led by Maraimalai Adigal.

Anti-Hindi protests spread across the state like wildfire and for three years, protests, rousing speeches, demonstrations marked the rule of Rajaji. In 1939, the Congress government was forced to resign and a few months later, in February 1940, then Governor of Madras, Lord Erskine withdrew the controversial rule.

The second attempt to impose Hindi on the Tamil populace came over a decade later, in May 1950, when Congress minister Madhava Menon announced that learning Hindi would be made compulsory in all schools from standard one to standard six in all schools. Menon got a lot more trouble than Rajaji did.

By then the Justice Party and Periyar had formed the Dravidar Kazhagam, a political wing of the DK called the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was formed with CN Annadurai at its helm and largescale protests were unleashed across the state.

Such was the force and scale of agitations that Menon hastened to withdraw the rule within two months.

In 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government was keen on making Hindi the only official language of the country. Faced with opposition from non-Hindi speaking states, he gave his word that both Hindi and English would be in use as official languages across the country.

The Official Languages Act was passed in 1963, appearing to honour Nehru’s words. But the DMK was not satisfied – they felt that the wording of the Act allowed a switch to Hindi as the official language in 1965.

Riots in Madurai sparked off statewide protests in 1965, demanding that English remain as an official language. Students poured out onto the streets, blackening Hindi signs in railway stations and in central government buildings.

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri finally intervened and promised the people of Tamil Nadu that both Hindi and English would remain official languages for as long as non-Hindi states wanted. The protests subsided.

It was in 1967 that the Indira Gandhi government finally amended the Official Languages Act of 1963 to firmly entrench both languages as official languages.

Language Formulae

In 1968, the National Policy on Education brought in a three-language policy. States would have to teach three languages in schools – Hindi, English and another language.

“At the secondary stage, State governments should adopt and vigorously implement the three-language formula, which includes the study of a modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages, apart from Hindi and English in the Hindi-speaking States,” said the policy.

For the non-Hindi speaking states, Hindi and English would have to be taught in schools.

Most non-Hindi speaking states agreed to what is now called the three language formula. Tamil Nadu alone, decided they wanted no truck with Hindi.

CN Annadurai, as Chief Minister of the first DMK government in the state, brought in a two-language formula instead – students in government schools of the state would learn only Tamil and English.

In The 2000s

Come the 21st century and Kannadigas too began to oppose the imposition of Hindi. In 2014 the names of their cities were changed back to their Kannada names – like Bengaluru instead of Bangalore and Mysuru instead of Mysore.

In 2017 protests broke out against imposition of Hindi, with protesters blacking out the Hindi names of stations on metro rail signboards. Farmers protesting against the Cauvery verdict in Supreme Court saw it fit to blacken the Hindi words on milestones on highways.

Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been opposed to imposition of Hindi but have not had a history of anti-Hindi protests. Yerran Naidu, MP of the Telugu Desam Party, was the first to demand in Parliament that the staff selection exams held to recruit staff for Central government jobs should be held in the local language and not just in English and Hindi.

Kerala has not had a rough history with language imposition, easing into the use of Hindi as well as Malayalam. The state follows the three-language formula as well.

Dravidian leaders have long argued that they did not have a problem with Hindi being taught in Tamil Nadu – indeed it is in many private and in central government run schools. The problem they have is with the imposition of an alien language Hindi on the Tamil masses.

Perhaps it was only fitting that Stalin referred to his party’s extraordinary history by quoting its founder CN Annadurai – “If the majority of people in the country speak Hindi and therefore it is the national language, then the national bird of the country should be the crow since its numbers are the highest.”

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