[lg policy] India: Language issue again: the need for a clear-headed policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jul 9 14:07:28 UTC 2010

Language issue again: the need for a clear-headed policy
S. Viswanathan

Some recent incidents and statements have revived the decades-old
language debate. Both the print and the broadcast media have featured
discussions on the status of the official language as well as
procedural issues relating to the implementation of the relevant law.
A reader says these developments have caused some confusion among the
people: while Article 343 of the Constitution states that “Hindi [in
the Devanagiri script] is the official language…” of the Union, “some
people used to say that Hindi is our “national language.” He wants his
“confusion” cleared.

Maharashtra Assembly issue

The assault on a newly elected Samajwadi Party member of the
Maharashtra Assembly inside the House when he was taking his oath in
Hindi, and the rejection of the request of the Union Minister of
Chemicals and Fertilizers, M.K. Azhagiri, a first-time MP from Tamil
Nadu, to the Lok Sabha Secretariat for speaking in his mother tongue
in the House and getting his speech translated into English and Hindi,
have brought the language to focus. The reported suggestion of the
Union Human Resource Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, to the Council
of Boards of School Education in Delhi in August, that Hindi be taught
in all schools in the country along with two other languages has also
stirred up a minor controversy.

It is unfortunate that an issue that appeared to be settled for good
with the 1967 amendment of the Official Languages Act, 1963 is raising
its head again. The settlement followed a prolonged agitation and
repression, which resulted in the loss of several human lives and the
destruction of public property in the 1960s, in some parts of the
country, most importantly in Tamil Nadu.

The Act gave legal status to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous
1959 “assurance” in Parliament that English would be used as an
alternate language as long as the non-Hindi-knowing people required
it. What is clear is that this sensitive issue, which tends to get out
of hand when mishandled by the central government, needs caution and
soft hands.

Census and the linguistic situation

It is not surprising that a country of 1.17 billion people speaking
1,652 languages (122 of them being spoken by more than 10,000 people
each) and dialects has to confront language-related problems
frequently. According to the 2001 Census, about 422 million people
speaking Hindi in its various dialects accounted for 41.03 per cent of
the national population.

The next five toppers were Bengali (83.3 million and 8.11 per cent of
the population), Telugu (74 million and 7.37 per cent), Marathi (71.9
million and 6.99 per cent), Tamil (60.7 million and 5.91 per cent),
and Urdu (51.53 million and 5.01 per cent). The crucial point is that
the people who speak Hindi and its varied dialects do not constitute
even a majority of the population. They are also concentrated in five
or six States. Hindi could not win the status of a “national language”
despite hectic lobbying while the Constitution was being finalised.

In China

The contrast with the linguistic situation of India’s giant neighbour
could not be sharper. Although the People’s Republic of China has a
remarkably diverse profile like India, with a population of over 1.32
billion made up of 56 ethnic groups, Hans who speak the Chinese
language constitute 91.96 per cent of the national population. On the
other hand, of the 55 minority ethnic groups who speak various
languages, only the Zhuang number more than 15 million.

The language issue in India has a long history. Although several
non-Hindi States have made their displeasure known, it is Tamil Nadu
(formerly Madras State) that has consistently, over decades, resisted
and opposed any attempt at ‘Hindi imposition’ by the central
government. The non-Hindi States have been resisting short-sighted
attempts, mostly by Hindi-speaking leaders of the Indian National
Congress during the freedom struggle, especially from the second half
of the 1930s, to promote Hindi as the ‘common language’ of the
country. The ‘anti-Hindi’ agitation in Tamil Nadu, before and after
Independence, took the form of mass mobilisation – demonstrations,
massive conferences, militant protests, rail rokos, and so on.

All-India strategy

Actually, the pre-Independence agitations stood out for resistance to
the introduction of Hindi as a compulsory subject in the schools of
Madras Presidency. It was part of the Congress’ all-India strategy to
replace English, which served as the official language of British
India, with Hindi after Independence.

This policy was sought to be passed off as a natural part of the
freedom struggle. The agitations during this period were mostly led by
the founder and outstanding leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam, E.V.
Ramasamy or ‘Periyar’ (the Great Elder). Several prominent Tamil
scholars, who feared that the compulsory introduction of Hindi in
schools would be a threat to Tamil, participated in the agitation.
Violence was used by the State against the agitators and there was a
tragic loss of lives. Hundreds courted arrest. The agitation succeeded
in preventing the compulsory teaching of Hindi in the schools.

After Independence, the agitations were staged to ensure the
continuation of English as an Official Language and to prevent Hindi
from being declared the sole Official Language of India. This phase of
the agitation was led by C.N. Annadurai, the founder General Secretary
of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which broke away from the Dravidar
Kazhagam, shortly before Independence.

Congress leaders from South India such as N. G. Ranga, N. Gopalaswamy
Ayyangar, T.T. Krishnamachary, and P. Subbarayan defeated the attempts
by certain sections of the Congress led by Purushottam Das Tandon and
Seth Govind Das and also by the founder-leader of the Jana Sangh,
Syama Prasad Mookerjee, to make Hindi the ‘National Language.’ The
attempt to make Hindi the sole Official Language was also frustrated.
However, there was a recipe for trouble — the prescription that
English would be there along with Hindi (in the Devanagari script) as
the Official Language only “for fifteen years.”

Language agitations

It was to get this shortsighted stipulation removed that the agitation
against ‘Hindi imposition’ continued. The most vigorous and militant
of the DMK’s language agitations was conducted in 1965. It was part
spontaneous, part organised. This phase of the movement succeeded in
making the government agree to giving legal status to Jawaharlal
Nehru’s assurance on the continuation of English along with Hindi for
official purposes.

This victory on the language issue paved the way for the permanent
transformation of Tamil Nadu’s polity. Although few pundits recognised
it at the time, the DMK’s emphatic victory in the 1967 State Assembly
election meant that the Congress would never get a chance of ruling
the State for 42 years and counting.

Interestingly, one of the leading lights of the movement against
‘Hindu imposition’ at the decisive moment of socio-political
transformation in Tamil Nadu was C. Rajagopalachari, better known as
Rajaji, the first Governor-General of independent India. Ironically,
it was Rajaji who, as Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, introduced
Hindi as a compulsory subject in 1938.

Rajaji’s article

Two decades later, Rajaji wrote in a newspaper article (The Hindustan
Times, January 3, 1958): “That 42 per cent of the people of India
speak Hindi in one dialect or another and that English is not an
Indian language are admitted by us [those who are opposed to making
Hindi as union official language], but we have pointed out that the
distribution of this Hindi-speaking population in the States of India
is such that it would be most unfair to change over from English to

The Census of 2011 should bring us to speed on the remarkable
linguistic diversity of India. A broad-minded and inclusive policy of
encouraging the development and use of all Indian languages as well as
English, which is now being used by growing numbers of Indians, is
clearly the way to go.

Giving all the major languages spoken in India equality of status will
ensure that there will be no unhealthy sentiment against any language.
On the other hand, any heavy-handedness in language policy at the
national or State level will have divisive, if not disintegrative,
implications. The news media, which have a huge mass reach today, have
a social responsibility to strengthen the process of shaping a
broad-minded and inclusive language policy.


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of the list as to the veracity of a message's contents.
Members who disagree with a message are encouraged to post a rebuttal,
and to write directly to the original sender of any offensive message.
 A copy of this may be forwarded to this list as well.  (H. Schiffman,

For more information about the lgpolicy-list, go to

This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list