[lg policy] Speaking in many tongues

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Jun 11 11:12:52 EDT 2019

Speaking in many tongues5 min read . Updated: 11 Jun 2019, 05:11 PM ISTManu
S. Pillai <https://www.livemint.com/Search/Link/Author/Manu%20S.%20Pillai>

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
Indian Languages <https://www.livemint.com/topic/indian-languages>Hindi

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

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

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.

*Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai
is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018). He
tweets @UnamP*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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