Visiting Scholar, Wolfson College, University of Oxford
The recent pronouncement of Home Minister Amit Shah in espousing the cause of Hindi has reignited old tensions of Hindi-versus-non-Hindi languages in India. The contestation over the official privileging of Hindi over non-Hindi languages in India’s governance has a long history whose understanding is vital to fully grasp the stakes involved in the current controversy.
Article 343 of India's Constitution states that “the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script” and Article 351 further states that “it shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language…by drawing wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.”
The importance accorded to the Hindi language and especially to the Devanagari script and the Sanskrit language in the Constitution reflected the strong pro-Hindi bias of a very powerful section among the Constitution-makers. This privileged placing of Hindi had attracted strong opposition from the representatives of non-Hindi regions and non-Hindi linguistic groups from North India. In this tussle between opposing tendencies, the positions taken by Gandhi and Nehru — the two most important Congress and national leaders — reveal the strength of the fault lines on the language issue in India.
Gandhi supported Hindi or Hindustani as the national language that would take the place of English for communication between Indians of different linguistic backgrounds. In that spirit, he campaigned most vigorously for Hindi in the South, establishing the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha to promote the teaching of Hindi to the speakers of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Ignoring the anti-Sanskrit sentiments in Tamil Nadu, Gandhi argued for a common Sanskrit vocabulary for all languages of India and went even further in advocating a common Devanagari script for all Indian languages.
Along with this advocacy of Hindi, Sanskrit and the Devanagari script, Gandhi and Nehru showed a conciliatory attitude towards Urdu and non-Sanskritised Hindi. Nehru was particularly sympathetic to Urdu and felt an emotional bond with the language and its script. Both Gandhi and Nehru were genuinely worried about the negative consequences of Hindi extremism for India’s unity.
However, both eventually succumbed to the pressure of the pro-Hindi forces in the country. Nehru expressed his helplessness in protecting Urdu from the onslaught of the Hindi lobby. He said in a speech in 1948, “if my colleagues do not agree, I cannot help it.”
The power of the Hindi/ Sanskrit/ Devanagari lobby can by gauged from the fact that Sanskrit, which is the claimed mother tongue of only a few hundred people, is included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution listing all the recognised languages in India while none of the tribal mother-tongues, such as Santhali (36 lakh), Bhilli (12.5 lakh) and Lammi (12 lakh) etc are constitutionally recognised.
Sadhana Saxena in an excellent paper, Language and the Nationality Question, published in 1996, has pointed out that the 1981 Census data listed official figures for Hindi speakers at around 26 crore, but that this number was arrived at by grouping several widely spoken tribal languages under Hindi.
It is important to add here that not only were tribal languages but also Braj, Avadhi and Maithili were included in the Hindi fold. Avadhi, Braj and Maithili have their own distinctive character, but have been relegated to the status of dialects of Hindi by privileging ‘Khari Boli’ as the official Hindi. What greater irony can be than that Braj, which was a bhasha (language), became a boli (dialect) of ‘Khari Boli’.
There are strong voices of protest against this unfair denial of the status of the language from many linguistic groups in North India characterised as the Hindi region. Perhaps, the denial of linguistic diversity of North India was to foster a homogenous linguistic identity among the Hindus of North India.
American scholar Paul Brass, in his book Language, Religion and Politics in North India (1974), has provided an excellent account of how the struggle of Maithili speakers to get constitutional recognition for their language was resisted by Hindi nationalists. He points out that some Maithili speakers used the term ‘Hindi imperialism’ to decry the Hindi nationalists. According to him, “A Maithili ‘devotee’ put it, ‘the wolf of Hindi wants to swallow the whole of the language of north Bihar’.” Brass has also discussed the role of the Hindi movement in denying the constitutional recognition of the Bhojpuri and Magahi languages.
It is an illustration of the opposition of some Hindi fanatics to all non-Hindi languages that one such Hindi enthusiast, Ravi Shankar Shukla, a member of the Constituent Assembly, had opposed the constitutional recognition of any non-Hindi language. It was this stance that led some non-Hindi members of the Constituent Assembly, such as TT Krishnamachari and Durgabai Deshmukh, to insist on the constitutional recognition of non-Hindi languages. Though the non-Hindi linguistic groups succeeded in getting this constitutional recognition for their languages, they could not prevent the pre-eminent status of the ‘Official Language of the Union’ accorded to Hindi.
Granville Austin, in his well-documented study of the Indian Constitution, summed it up aptly: “It was one of the unfortunate coincidences of Indian history that Hindustani was a northern language and that it was given special status by North Indians, like Nehru, Prasad, and Azad and by north-oriented Gujaratis like Gandhi and Patel.”
The Hindi-non-Hindi conflict is generally shown one as between North India and South India. This is certainly the most significant aspect of the issue, but our account indicates that the development of literacy and the growth of intelligentsia in the non-Hindi linguistic groups in North India have the potential to create a new and potentially even more powerful fault line on the language issue if the pro-Hindi advocacy is not moderated.