Making Sense of Tamil Nadu’s Anti-Hindi Protests

The rejection of the imposition of Hindi is both an attempt to reject cultural homogenisation from the north and an expression of the desire for economic mobility by choosing English.

When Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M. Karunanidhi turned 94 on June 3, the party organised a grand function inviting political leaders from all parties barring the BJP. The function was meant to not just celebrate his birthday or to commemorate 60 years of his career as a legislator; it was also an event that signalled the coming together of political forces seeking to resist the authoritarian moves by the central government against various marginalised sections.

When the speech by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar was translated from Hindi to Tamil, the audience had several moments to cheer. Pointing this out when it was his turn to speak, DMK working president M.K. Stalin said that this clearly shows that Tamils are not against the Hindi language. His observation comes in the wake of a series of protests against manoeuvres by the central government to push Hindi through the back door, particularly following the president’s approval of the recommendations made by the Committee of Parliament on Official Language. They range from instructing legislators from the Hindi-speaking belt to communicate only in Hindi, making Hindi compulsory in Central Board of Secondary Education and Kendriya Vidyalaya schools, and allowing exams and interviews to be conducted in Hindi even in non-Hindi-speaking states. No such options have been announced for non-Hindi speakers. The recent replacement of names written in English with Hindi on national highways in Tamil Nadu too drew widespread criticism.

In contrast to the cheerful reception to Kumar, in June 1960, Ram Manohar Lohia had to abruptly cut short several public meetings in Hindi due to disruptive tactics by the audience in Chennai (Madras at that time), including stone pelting. Yet he only had words of caution for promoters of Hindi: “These protagonists of Hindi are doing immense harm to the cause of Hindi, if they do not understand that Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil etc. have to live as sister languages”. He also said the Dravidian party, though opposed to Hindi, is not opposed to him and his cause of social justice. His words, going by Stalin’s remarks, have indeed turned prophetic.

A linguistic battle on ideological lines

Decades of the Dravidian movement’s opposition to the compulsory learning of Hindi was premised on their ideological battles against Brahmanism, the hegemony of  Sanskrit and promotion of Hindu nationalism. There were two grounds on which they resisted the imposition of Hindi. One, Sanskrit was seen as a vehicle of propagation of Brahmanical Hindu scriptures that upheld caste and gender hierarchies. Given its proximity to Sanskrit, Hindi was also seen as a language that perpetuates a ‘backward’ culture of caste and gender oppression. As scholars of the Dravidian movement V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai note, Periyar’s critique of such a brand of nationalism was premised on what he saw as essentially a Brahmin-Baniya enterprise to reinforce their hegemony.

Hindi imposition was, therefore, linked to a larger hegemonic project that connected the idea of the Indian nation to Brahmanical Hinduism and Hindi, to the detriment of non-Hindi speakers, lower castes and non Hindus. Even the late Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, despite revealing strands of Hindu revivalist politics, had expressed strong reservations on mandating the celebration of Sanskrit week in July 2014. The exalting of Sanskrit also simultaneously implied an inferiorisation of the Tamil language in the public sphere despite the language having an equally rich history and, by inference, Tamils vis-à-vis those who could speak Hindi or know Sanskrit (read: upper castes).

Second, Hindi was opposed on the grounds of its unworthiness as a language to acquire modern, useful and progressive knowledge – knowledge of science, technology and rational thought. English was, therefore, the ideal language and Hindi was seen to offer little in this regard. Rather than demanding Tamil in the place of Hindi, the demand has always been on use of English to learn and communicate. This is best expressed by P. Subbarayan, a former deputy minister of education in the Congress government and one of the members of the First Official Language Commission constituted in 1955. In his dissent note to the commission, Subbarayan said, “…It must be admitted that Hindi is not as old and as well-advanced as some other Indian languages, particularly Bengali and Tamil. … There is even a feeling among some of the Tamil people that English is easier for them to understand and learn than Hindi….They naturally feel that there is no reason why they should give up a first class language which they have ready in their hands in preference to an ill-developed second class instrument…” He concluded his dissent note insisting that English must remain as the official language “so long as Hindi does not attain the standard which is necessary for the purpose of replacing English”. In 1965, when Hindi was to become the official language, violent agitations by the DMK in Tamil Nadu, which lasted for 55 days and was supported by other states like Bengal, forced the central government to bring about the Official Languages Amendment Act of 1967. The amendment ensured that English would continue as an associate official language indefinitely.

Subsequently, the two Dravidian parties that have ruled Tamil Nadu since 1967 (DMK and AIADMK) promoted education in English and Tamil, which has unarguably contributed to the state’s development. The state, from being one with poverty levels close to that of Bihar in the 1980s, has at present become a model state in terms of human development. Caste-based affirmative action policies accompanied by investments in education and healthcare, along with a relatively robust social security net, have contributed to the process. A key component of the state’s development model is its attainments in higher education. More than 45% youth in the age group of 18-23 who finish high school enter into some form of higher education or the other. This makes it the best Indian state in terms of the share of youth accessing higher education.

A memorial in Chennai for those who died in anti-Hindi agitations. Credit: Surya Prakash.S.A./CC BY-SA 3.0

A memorial in Chennai for those who died in anti-Hindi agitations. Credit: Surya Prakash.S.A./CC BY-SA 3.0

What explains today’s protests?

Decades of affirmative action have also given rise to a self-confident segment among ‘lower’-caste Tamils. They are now, as M.S.S. Pandian has noted elsewhere, fairly well entrenched in positions of power and are confident that English alone can serve as a vehicle for a professionally successful future. Neither Sanskrit nor Hindi threaten them, unlike in the past. The field of language and cultural production in Tamil, for example, are thriving with avant garde magazines, publishing houses, a transnational reading public and books with  content and design often of global standards, thus transcending barriers of national politics and Hindi hegemony. As Pandian has observed , “most of the Tamils do not think that either their language or they themselves need to be defensively protected. If they continue to be Tamils, it is an identity which is donned unselfconsciously.” The question therefore is: why are the Tamils agitating against the Centre’s moves to impose Hindi today?

We see this recent phase of anti-Hindi articulations in the state as a response – and even resistance – to several attempts by the BJP-led central government to curb autonomy and undermine the the identity of Tamils. Despite the Supreme Court’s directive to constitute a Cauvery Management Board to regulate the sharing of the Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the central government has done little on this front. However, the same government was quick to respond to the Supreme Court ban on jallikattu, seen as a quintessential Tamil sport. The arbitrariness of demonetising the Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes without consulting any of the states; the imposition of GST, which undermines the powers of state governments to mobilise resources; and moves to extract hydrocarbon (oil and natural gas) in Neduvasal, despite repeated protests by the people of the region fearing ecological damage are all read as signs of the central government’s attempt to encroach on the autonomy of the state. To add to this, making NEET compulsory for medical admissions all over the country has meant that the medical education infrastructure that the state has built up may not be accessible to rural students from within the state. According to a report in Scroll.in, the state accounted for 26 of the 100 top-ranked institutes of higher education in the country as ranked by the National Institute Ranking Framework, while there were only 21 in the list from all the Hindi-belt states. To make matters worse, the BJP’s ex-parliamentarian Tarun Vijay, responding to allegations of racist sentiments in India, remarked that North Indians have managed to live with dark-skinned South Indians and so cannot be accused of being racist.

Also read: Sanskrit and Indian Heritage – Whose Language is it Anyway?

While there have been murmurs of protest against the indirect imposition of Hindi, the Keezhadi excavation episode triggered a major controversy. Excavations done by the Archaeology Survey of India (ASI) in the Keezhadi region of Sivaganga district in the state in 2013-14 suggested the existence of an ancient urban civilisation on the banks of the river Vaigai dating back to 200 BC. This was a major finding, as it was the first piece of archaeological evidence of the presence of an urban settlement in the region during the Sangam age, with artefacts bearing Tamil Brahmi letters. Soon after the discovery, Amarnath Ramakrishna, superintending archaeologist of the ASI’s excavations branch (Bangalore), who has been supervising the excavations and was considered responsible for carrying forward the excavations with vigour, was transferred. There was also substantial delay in the release of funds for the third phase of excavation, which was done only after political parties and activists protested. In fact, the Madras high court noted with disapproval the slow progress being made on the excavations. One member of the high court bench, Justice Selvam, observed, “There seems to be an oblique motive behind the officer’s transfer. You spoil the excavation works by doing such things.” To many, this transfer and delay was wanton, a move to negate the recognition of a Dravidian settlement deep south that the Tamils can look upon with pride. In another instance, a few days ago the central government has announced that the Central Institute of Classical Tamil, an autonomous institute supported by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, will now function as a part of the Central University of Tamil Nadu, Tiruvarur. This means not only the loss of financial autonomy but, importantly, academic autonomy – every decision made has to now be approved by the university and hence allows for greater control by the central government.

Such moves are seen as an imposition of the idea of ‘one India and one culture’, which undermines the importance of regional autonomy, language identity and culture. Further, as Tamil activists have argued, the utilitarian logic of learning Hindi formally has completely eroded. It is indeed ironic that the call to learn Hindi is being made in the era of globalisation, especially when technologies are so conducive to customisation. During the previous anti-Hindi agitations, there was at least some logic to the argument that learning Hindi opens up employment opportunities in North India. At present, however, the state is witness to large scale in-migration of low-skilled labour from Bihar, Chattisgarh, Assam and Odisha for jobs, unaffected by any language barrier.

At the other end, though, the state has not been able to generate sufficient quality jobs for its skilled workforce, while investments in education have enabled international migration. According to a recent study by S. Irudaya Rajan, Bernard D’Sami and Samuel Asir Raj, the state accounts for the second highest remittances into the country after Kerala, with remittances accounting for nearly 14% of the state’s income. In fact, a substantial number of emigrants have moved to the US, indicating the skilled nature of a significant share of the out migration. Internal migration for employment, however, has not been that high and is confined mostly to the neighbouring South Indian states. It is well known that it was a proficiency in English that helped Indian software firms take advantage of the presence of a low-cost pool of programming labour and make inroads into the global market. This knowledge of English, Swaminathan Anklesaria Iyer points out, was made possible only by the steadfast stance taken by the Dravidian movement that culminated in large-scale agitations in the state in 1965 and allowed for English to remain an official language. This refusal to submit to the exclusivist nationalistic project of the BJP is, therefore, as much a politics of transnationalism embedded in a desire for economic mobility as it is a politics seeking to preserve sub-nationalist cultural and linguistic identities against homogenising efforts.

S. Anandhi and M. Vijayabaskar are with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. Views expressed are personal.