Hindi imposition: A fire kept alive for well over a century

Speaking on the occasion of Hindi Diwas, Amit Shah said Hindi was the only language that could unite the country as it was the most spoken language in India.
File photo of Hindi signage at Park Railway Station in Chennai defaced to protest ‘Hindi imposition’
File photo of Hindi signage at Park Railway Station in Chennai defaced to protest ‘Hindi imposition’

CHENNAI: Over a hundred years ago, poet Subramania Bharathi said the people of India speak 18 languages but are united by one thought — independence. ‘Seppu mozhi pathinettu udaiyaal; enil chinthanai ondrudaiyaal,’ he said.  

It was at this time that efforts began to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking people. A century later, the fire of “Hindi imposition” is kept alive by politicians on either side of the Vindhyas.

The latest tussle was sparked by Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Speaking on the occasion of Hindi Diwas, he said Hindi was the only language that could unite the country as it was the most spoken language in India.

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Unsurprisingly, stiff opposition from non-Hindi speaking states, especially Tamil Nadu, followed. Shah later said he had been misunderstood and virtually withdrew his comments. 

Azhi Senthilnathan, coordinator, Tamil Language Rights Federation, said the issue of Hindi imposition began with Mahatma Gandhi and later became a policy of the Congress party.

In the 1910s, the Congress decided to promote Hindi across the country. It was through the effort that the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha was established in 1918 in Chennai by Gandhi. Gandhi remained the Sabha’s president till he breathed his last. The first Pracharak of the Sabha was Gandhi’s son Devadoss Gandhi. 

According to Senthilnathan the first opposition to Gandhi’s move came from Dalit scholar Ayothee Dasa Pandithar and his associate, the Tamil scholar, Pamban Swamigal (not to be confused with the Saivaite saint of the same name). The opposition gained momentum and first erupted as an agitation in 1938 when C Rajagopalachari was premier of the Madras Presidency.  

Senthilnathan is of the view that although Gandhi gave importance to the mother tongue of different sections of society, he played a negative role as far as imposing Hindi was concerned, at one point terming the opposition to Hindi from non-Hindi speaking people as the “tyranny of (linguistic) minorities’.  

“Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, BR Ambedkar, Lal Bahadur Sastri, Morarji Desai and a host of other leaders from north India had similar views on Hindi,” he said, adding that Ambedkar said Hindi should be made the official languages of all States for better administration. 

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The argument of those opposing Hindi has been that all Indian languages should have an equal status. Picking Hindi as a national language would provide an unfair advantage to those for whom it was a mother tongue.

Those favouring Hindi as a link language argue English was a colonial imposition that should be shunned. Tamil politicians have preferred English for being a language that puts no Indian region at a disadvantage while connecting the speaker to the world. CN Annadurai, DMK founder and former Chief Minister, articulated the argument against Hindi imposition when addressing the students of Alagappa university decades ago.

“They argue that there is a need for having a link language for all States of India. There is no such demand from the people because the link language differs according to the people’s needs in terms of their routine life, place of living and business etc. For Tamils, apart from Tamil, being mother tongue, English, which has been there for over two centuries, alone can be the link language. The intention to impose Hindi as a link language itself is wrong,” he said.  

Interestingly, Rajaji, who introduced Hindi at a section of schools in 1938, changed his views in the 1960s. According to his grandson CR Kesavan, a senior Congress functionary in TN, “Rajaji said that it was like having chutney on your plate. You can taste it or leave and it won’t affect you in the examinations.” 

“Prior to Independence, people needed some binding force and thought Hindi could play that role. But after Independence, Rajaji made it clear that imposing Hindi was not appropriate, particularly after the formation of linguistic states,” he said. Two Prime Ministers — Nehru and Shastri — assured non-Hindi speaking people that English would remain one of the link languages, he added.  
Apart from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra and West Bengal have also opposed Hindi imposition but what is the solution to the problem?

“We have 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule. All these languages should be made official languages of the Union government. The central government should use them as official languages in the respective States. For example, in Tamil Nadu, Tamil should be used as official language and in Kerala, Malayalam and the link language should be English,” said Senthilnathan, who was part of the team that drafted the Language Rights and Equality Bill.

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