What History Tells Us About Discussions Around Hindi as 'Rashtra Bhasha'

After Amit Shah rekindled the debate, a historical analysis of language and inclusive Indian nationalism.

Language as a potential ground for identity, power, unity and integrity has been the subject of debate among different political parties and linguistic groups in India for a considerable period of time. The most recent speech made by Union home minister Amit Shah on Hindi Diwas in New Delhi on September 14 has once again generated fear, and apprehension among non-Hindi speakers. He accentuated that it was necessary to have Hindi as a common language for he felt that it has the potential to unite India, but backtracked after the suggestion came under criticism.

The argument for Hindi as a ‘common language’ or Rashtra Bhasha (national language) continues to attract a great deal of attention of scholars cutting across academic disciplines. This needs to be studied historically and analysed critically from the perspective of inclusive Indian nationalism. This is simply because the question of language has multiple and contentious layers in it.

Also Read: ‘Hindi as a Second Language’: Amit Shah Backtracks After Sparking Language Debate

As historian Ramachandra Guha argues, among the topics debated by the Constituent Assembly, the most controversial, contested and provocative question was language. A range of discussions was held on which language should be spoken in the Constituent Assembly, which language should be used to write the Constitution, and the language which should be given the singular label ‘Rashtra Bhasha.’

Home minister Amit Shah’s remarks on Hindi caused a stir. Photo: PTI/Vijay Verma

Remarkably, a Congress member in the Constituent Assembly, R.V. Dhulekar, from the United Provinces moved an amendment on December 10, 1946, on the Rashtra Bhasha. When he began speaking in Hindustani, Rajendra Prasad, the chairman of the Constituent Assembly, reminded him gallantly that many members would find it difficult to understand the language. Not heeding to this affable suggestion, Dhulekar reiterated his argument persuasively:

“People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India. People who are present in this House to fashion a Constitution for India and do not know Hindustani are not worthy to be members of this Assembly.”

Thankfully, he did not say ‘go to Pakistan’ as there was no Pakistan in 1946.

Dhulekar even proposed in his amendment resolution that the Procedure Committee of the Constituent Assembly should frame rules in Hindustani and not in English. He made a sarcastic remark saying:

“We have all along been talking of America, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and the House of Commons. It has given me a headache. I wonder why Indians do not speak in their own language. As an Indian, I feel that the proceedings of the House should be conducted in Hindustani.”

The observation made by Dhulekar raised a series of questions. As Granville Austin contends, the ‘common tongue’ of India in 1946 was the language of the conqueror – English. The 1951 Census of India reveals that Hindustani, considered to be the bazar language comprising Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, was spoken only by 45% of the total Indian population. As a result, the members of the Constituent Assembly expressed no interest in the ‘one language’ formula. Instead, they were willing to accept Hindi as the official language of the Union.

Gandhi’s beliefs

It should also be emphasised here that many of the Constituent Assembly’s members began to derive their ideological strength from Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, it was Gandhi who contemplated that only Hindustani had a remarkably rich potential to emotionally unite North India with South India in general and the Hindus with the Muslims in particular. As a result, he advocated strongly that Hindustani should be the Rashtra Bhasha. This view had been repeatedly espoused by many, including Purushottamdas Tandon, a Congress member as well as the vice-president of the All India Hindi Literature Conference. He even reasoned that Hindi with the Devanagari script alone should be the national language.

The question of national language took a new dimension post-1947. The Hindi-speaking members of North-Central India, as Austin argues, were led by a hard-core of ‘linguistic extremists.’ These linguistic extremists, whom Austin identifies as ‘Hindi-wallahs’, continued to be militant in their ideology. They were even willing to split the assembly and the country in their ‘unreasoning pursuit of uniformity.’ On the other hand, moderate and inclusive leaders like Nehru attempted to preserve national unity and peace within the assembly and demanded that Hindi should be the official language and English should be the de facto national language.

Also Read: India Doesn’t Need Hindi to Unify the Masses

One of the most eloquent members of the Constituent Assembly, T.T. Krishnamachari of Madras, was very critical of the proponents of the national language. He remarked:

“If we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi this kind of intolerance would make us fear that the strong Centre would also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the Centre.”

He even condemned some of the members for promoting ‘Hindi imperialism.’ As Paul Brass argues, when the proponents of Hindi language called for its recognition as the national language the country, the representatives of the non-Hindi speaking areas insisted that their languages were equally national.

Nevertheless, while responding to the members from Madras, a pro-Rashtra Bhasha member, Seth Govind Das, indicated that even after 25 years of efforts on the part of Gandhi, the members from Madras were not able to understand Hindustani.

Taking this argument to another level, Purushottamdas Das Tandon, a resilient advocate of Rashtra Bhasha, reiterated that those who oppose acceptance of Hindi as national language were still following a policy of anti-national appeasement and therefore, they were consciously catering to communal aspirations.

Gandhi felt only Hindustani could emotionally unite North and South India in general and Hindus with the Muslims in particular. Credit: Wikimedia

A compromise is reached

Ultimately, the Constituent Assembly arrived at a compromise and decided that the official language of the Union would be Hindi in the Devanagari script. However, it made it clear that the English language would continue to be used for all the official purposes for 15 years from the commencement of the Constitution.

With the adoption of the Constitution by the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949, India became the largest democracy in the world. As Granville Austin maintains, the Indian Constitution was accepted as the chapter of Indian unity, and definition of Indian nationalism. Most importantly, decision-making by consensus and the principles of accommodation helped India survive the madness and chaos of partition.

Nevertheless, as soon as the Constitution came into force on January 26, 1950, some Hindi enthusiasts, including Vallabhbhai Patel, began to link the question of Hindi with employment. When he was delivering his speech at Thiruvananthapuram on May 21, 1950, Patel underlined that if the people of South India did not learn Hindi, the “national language”, they would be lagging behind both in Central organisations and Central government.

Shankar’s Weekly, 21 May 1950, NMML, New Delhi

On the other hand, however, while speaking in the Lok Sabha during a debate on Frank Antony’s resolution for including English in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution on August 7, 1959, Nehru categorically remarked:

“Hindi is at present objected to by many people in the South. Why? Because of a feeling of imposition and not because they are against Hindi. Hindi is progressing there, but the moment you talk of any kind of imposition, they get angry, quite rightly. Therefore, all talk of imposition must go.”

In the post-independent India, two language commissions were set up – in 1955 and 1960 – to survey the progress of Hindi. The question of language was taken up once again by the Lok Sabha in 1963. While the proposed immediate implementation of the constitutional provision on official language, the parliamentarians from the South and Bengal argued strappingly for the retention of English.

Consequently, a compromise was reached which led to the introduction of the Official Languages Act in 1963. The fundamental objective of this Act was to satisfy both the proponents of Hindi and non-Hindi members. As an advocate of inclusive nationalism, Nehru gave his personal assurances in parliament that there would be no attempt to impose Hindi on the non-Hindi speaking states.

Anti-Hindi movement

Nevertheless, after Nehru’s demise in 1964, the then home minister of India, Gulzarilal Nanda, a staunch advocate of Hindi, issued a new directive notice to all other Union ministries to report on the progress made in promoting the use of Hindi for official purposes. He also asked to indicate the steps they propose to use Hindi after the designated day of transition on January 26, 1965.

When the news of this directive reached Tamil Nadu, there were massive student demonstrations, riots, and self-immolations, which continued for several months. Consequently, Union ministers and the chief ministers of all the states met in Delhi in June 1965. A compromise was reached with an assurance that Hindi would never be imposed on non-Hindi speaking states.

This significant and historic compromise of 1965 was subsequently introduced into the Official Languages Act through the Official Languages Amendment Act in 1967. This Act provided for joint use of Hindi and English in the Indian parliament. It also provided Hindi as the language of communication between the Centre and Hindi speaking states and English for communication between the Centre and non-Hindi speaking Indian states.

Also Read: Why Children Should Learn in Their Mother Tongue

It is mentioned in the Constitution of India that Hindi should develop progressively. The members of the Constituent Assembly made this conscious decision not because Hindi was better or more powerful language than other languages, but for practical reasons.

Hindi as the Rashtra Bhasha has rich potential for Hindi nationalism, but not inclusive Indian nationalism. How will it profit us if we honour Hindi as Rashtra Bhasha and treat the constitutionally recognised Indian languages as something else? Will this supposed Rashtra Bhasha really create a consciousness of unity and integrity in the real sense, if non-Hindi languages are tinned as the ‘other’?

The government, which is in power, must be sensitive to the fears, anxieties, and apprehensions of non-Hindi speakers. It should be realistic about what constitutes unity and integrity in India, rather than adopting any sentimental approach towards any particular language.

India needs Nehru’s inclusive approach now more than ever before. Nehru’s very thoughtful statement made in the Lok Sabha in 1959 is worth emulating:

“I want things to develop naturally, imbibing the good things of the past and the present, because I dislike pressure in the case of language. I dislike imposition in the case of language. Therefore, I dislike Hindi enthusiasts trying to impose Hindi.”

M. Christhu Doss is assistant professor, department of history at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.