By Nandini Rathi
The listing of Hindi as an official language of India took place on September 14, 1949, which since then has been commemorated as Hindi Diwas. Hindi and English are India’s two official languages for the Union government, while the constitution recognises a total of 22 languages. Since Indian independence in 1947, efforts were made by the Union government to drive Hindi to the status as a widely used language, wherein it was assisted in no small part by the rising popularity of Hindi cinema.
The Indian National Congress in its 1925 Karachi session decided that Hindustani — the popular, undifferentiated blend of Hindi and Urdu — should be the lingua franca of the independent nation. However, this resolution was modified a few years later due to the influence of Hindi Sahitya Sammelan which suggested that Hindi should be adopted. The resolution miffed the Muslim members of the Congress and strained the communal tangle. The Muslim League, which had been formed in 1906, on the other hand, endorsed Urdu as a symbol of Muslim identity and thus most fit to be India’s lingua franca. As the India’s partition became imminent, Urdu — perceived as aligned with Pakistan — was discarded from national language contenders of newly independent India.
The pro-Hindi/Hindustani group, which included Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, argued for adopting one of the two languages as the sole national language, while the anti-Hindi group opposed that and favored retaining English as the official language. The Indian Constitution Committee in 1949 arrived at a compromise, known as the Munshi-Ayyangar formula, to settle the issue. The name of the language was Hindi (in Devanagari script), but the proponents of Hindustani were comforted with a directive clause that directed Sanskrit as the mainstay of Hindi vocabulary, with an explicit non-boycott of words within it from other languages. There was no mention within it of a ‘national language,’ and described only the Indian union’s two official languages. The official use of English, initially, was to cease 15 years after the Constitution came into effect, that is, on January 26, 1965.
The pro-Hindi lobby of politicians like Balkrishna Sharma and Purushottam Das Tandon spurned the adoption of English — a remnant of imperialism — as an official language and staged demonstrations demanding Hindi as the sole national language. They moved several amendments towards this effort but that could never take place as the imposition of Hindi remained unacceptable to more than half of Indians, especially in the south and the east of the country. Tamil Nadu saw violent protests against Hindi in 1965, after Hindi was effectively made compulsory.
As a result, 15 years after the Constitution of India came into effect, the Congress’ working committee agreed to a resolution which stated that position of English as an official language would not change unless all states consented to it. Finally, via the Official Languages Act of 1967, the government adopted a policy of bilingualism that indefinitely guaranteed the use of English and Hindi as official languages in the Indian Republic.
After 1971, India’s language policy focused on promoting regional languages by enlisting them in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India, which meant that those languages would be entitled to representation on the Official Languages Commission. The step was meant to curb the linguistic resentment of the multi-lingual masses. The list has grown from 14 at the time of independence to 22 in 2007.
Lingual politics has anything but left India. In its three years in office, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has courted a fresh batch of controversies with attempts to promote the use of Hindi, perceived by critics as a renewed attempt of majoritarian imposition of the language on non-native speakers. In 2014, the government ordered its officials to use Hindi on social media accounts and in government letters. Modi himself, in spite of being fluent in English, has consistently chosen to conduct diplomacy in Hindi at international forums with global leaders. Earlier this year, former President Pranab Mukherjee gave a nod to the central government’s suggestion that all dignitaries and ministers must give their speeches in Hindi.
The unifying role of a shared language in most nationalisms is well known, however, its hegemonic imposition remains problematic and divisive. One doesn’t have to look further than Bangladesh’s example to know that history is rife with instances when language has been used as a vehicle to promote chauvinism and divisions. The BJP and its predecessor Jan Sangh have long championed Hindi as a uniting force for India. A polarisation on the issue could well consolidate the party’s north Indian Hindi speaking base. However, as evidenced by the recent protests over Hindi signage on Bengaluru metro and Tamil Nadu’s highway milestones, popular annoyance and anti-Hindi politics are quick to rear their heads upon perceiving a sneaky incursion.
By Nandini Rathi