With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) taking over the reins of governance at the Centre, the Hindi language is heard more and more in the corridors of power these days. Known to be more at ease with Hindi than English, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has resolved to conduct his diplomatic conversations in Hindi even when there are English-speaking dignitaries on the other side of the table. On his recent trip to Bhutan, Modi delivered two public speeches and addressed a joint session of Parliament in Hindi. Many of his senior Cabinet colleagues too are heard speaking chaste Hindi. All in all, Hindi as a language seems to be becoming unofficially official. The emerging dominance of the language may have a great deal to do with the non-Westernised social background of many of the BJP MPs and ministers, most of them hailing from India’s Hindi-speaking heartland.
But like rivers, language too is loaded with an emotional trigger. And as with rivers, more than one war has been waged over language. The history of India’s official language has been fraught. Emotions have often run high between the political parties in the North and the South. It’s hardly a wonder then that M Karunanidhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief, has now objected to the Union home ministry’s directive to bureaucrats urging them to promote Hindi as the language on official websites and for posting comments on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. An angry Karunanidhi has drawn the Centre’s attention to Nehru’s assurance that English would be the official language as long as the non-Hindi speakers want it. The DMK chief’s testy remark, “Language battlefields have not yet been dried.
History has recorded anti-Hindi agitation,” could well be read as a warning against any attempts to impose Hindi on the non-Hindi-speaking population.
Arguably, Karunanidhi is reading more than necessary in the government’s directive to the bureaucrats. But then he has the bitter historic legacy of the past, of the North vs South language wars, to contend with. Recall Tamil Nadu’s militant anti-Hindi agitations in the pre and post-Independence periods. At the heart of the mass protests, the riots and political movements was the Centre’s attempt to designate Hindi as India’s official language. The first anti-Hindi language agitation against the compulsory teaching of Hindi in the schools of Madras presidency — lasting as many as three years — took place in 1937. Later, following the resignation of the Congress government in 1939, the mandatory Hindi education was withdrawn by the British governor of Madras in February 1940.
Fierce debates also played out in the Constituent Assembly over the adoption of a “national language”, the language in which the Constitution was to be written in and the proceedings of the assembly conducted. Hindi-speaking members such as Purushottam Das Tandon, Babunath Gupta, argued for adopting Hindi as the sole national language. On the other side, members from South India like TT Krishnamachari, NG Ranga, rooted for retaining English as the official language. Three years into the debate, the assembly thrashed out a compromise at the end of 1949, which did not have any mention of a ‘national language.’
The protracted tussles over language point to the serious implications that any move to hegemonise the Hindi language may have on the nation. Given the contemporary political and cultural assertion of regional parties — with language as a key instrument — the ruling BJP can ill afford to open up this flank of discord.