“There was no article which proved more controversial than article 115 (which deals with the Hindi question). No Article produced more opposition. No article more heat”

– Thoughts on Linguistic States, B. R. Ambedkar

Recently a circular was issued by the Raj Bhasha Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs, asking Government officials to use Hindi, or Hindi and English, while communicating on social media platforms etc

The circular is based on a decision taken on March 10 when the Congress was in power and is dated May 27, two days before Mr Rajnath Singh took charge as Home Minister. The circular is meant for officials in Category A States which use Hindi as their official language.

Though the subsequent furore was quick to blame Mr. Modi personally in a rather uninformed manner, the reaction that the issue generated among the common public, and the comments by some of the political leaders from the north and the south demands a relook at the constitutional provisions regarding the Official Languages of India and the debates which preceded their inclusion into the constitution.

One will be surprised that the language debate happening at present is not much different in its tone and tenor from the deliberations held among the members of the Constituent Assembly. The importance given to the issue can be gauged from the fact that the language question remained a point of contention during the entire length of the period of framing of the constitution of India.

Constitutional Provisions

Provisions regarding the Official Language are given in Part XVII of the Constitution from Article 343 to 351. It is divided in four chapters – Language of the Union; Regional Languages; Language of the Supreme Court, High Court etc; and Special Directives.

Regarding the provisions, Granville Austin comments that

“The members of the CA did not attempt the impossible; they did not lay down in the language provisions of the Constitution that one language should be spoken all over India. Yet they could not avoid giving one of the regional languages special status, so they provided, not that there be a ‘national’ language, but, using a tactful euphemism, that Hindi should be the ‘official language of the Union'”

Issue at Hand

The Constituent Assembly had not been separated into distinct factions in its early days since the general sentiment in favour of an Indian language as opposed to English, the language of the oppressor, blinded all other concerns. Not all the provisions whipped up extreme reactions in the Assembly. Only as they set to work did the difficulties become apparent and the split grew in an unprecedented manner. The language issue was important because, as John Keay notes:

At issue was more than just the medium of government business. The adoption of an official language would empower all those who spoke it while disadvantaging those who did not. Easier access to educational places, government posts and public sector jobs, plus a sense of privileged identity, awaited the chosen language group; hard study, perpetual disparagement and a marginalised heritage would be the lot of the unchosen. Careers were at stake, vast communities affected. Here was a subject worth fighting for, even dying for.

There were mainly two groups – the Pro – Hindi members unofficially headed by Purushottam Das Tandon and Seth Govind Das and the moderate non-Hindi bloc headed by South Indian leaders.

Gandhi to independence

Mahatma Gandhi was pro-Hindustani. Hindustani is a term used for that language which is neither a Sanskritized Hindi nor Persianised Urdu, but a combination of both freely admitting words wherever necessary from different provincial languages and also assimilating words from foreign languages. Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajenda Prasad and Abdul Kalam Azad accepted this. In fact, Rajagopalachari suggested broadening Hindustani even further by writing it in regional scripts.

 The 1928 Motilal Nehru Report also wanted Hindustani to be the common language. It was Gandhi-ji who initiated the idea of widening the independence struggle by using provincial languages and based on his suggestion, the 1920s saw Provincial Congress Committees being formed along linguistic lines. In 1934 Congress made Hindustani its official language. During this time when Nehru said that “Hindustani was bound to become the all-India medium of communication“, it did not cause any resentment since not much thought had gone into the role envisaged for English, the status of regional language, languages of court etc during this period.

 The reason why the top leadership of Congress preferred Hindustani instead of Tamil or Bengali which were more developed at that time and ‘met the needs of the state‘ was because it was spoken widely in the north and also, more importantly, the leaders felt that it bridged the Hindu – Muslim divide. This is not to say that the issue did not attract any criticism at all.

 When Rajaji made Hindi mandatory in high schools of Madras in 1938 there was a violent reaction with slogans like “Let Hindi die and Let Tamil live. Let … Rajagopalachari die.

Independence to Partition

The first sign that language will be a thorny issue appeared when Rules of Constituent Assembly was being framed. It had been generally accepted that the members can speak in Hindi or English or in their mother tongue.

A pro-Hindi member Seth Govind Das, took exception to this and said in Hindustani:

I want to tell my brethren from Madras that if after twenty-five years of efforts on the part of Mahatma Gandhi, they have not been able to understand Hindustani, the blame lies at their door. It is beyond our patience that because some of our brethren from Madras do not understand Hindustani, English should reign supreme in a Constituent Assembly assembled to frame a Constitution for a free India.”

In response A K Ayyar promptly asked that Seth Govind Das’s speech be translated into English for him since he could not understand the content and that he was too old to learn Hindustani at this point of time. Issue was settled, with the members free to talk in the language of their wish.

Next mention of language was made as part of the Fundamental Rights. The draft Rights said that Hindustani in Devanagari or Urdu scripts will be the national language and English will be a secondary official language. Two members wanted Roman to be made an optional script for Hindustani since South Indians were not familiar with the northern scripts. But Patel dropped the entire clause on language saying that language will be dealt with by a higher committee.

Partition to Bitter Debates

Partition was a watershed moment as far as the language issue was concerned. Hindi-wallahs upped their ante against the impure Persianised Hindustani. The question of Hindustani becoming the national language was effectively closed. All drafts mentioning Hindustani was replaced by Hindi. “Partition killed Hindustani and endangered the position of English and the provincial languages in constitution” noted an observer.

K. Santhanam, one of the more influential national politicians from Madras said:

If there had been no partition, Hindustani would, without doubt have been the national language. But the anger against Muslims turned against Urdu. Hindustani became a bad word after Partition and the party leaders were reluctant to divide the party over it [despite being proponents of Hindustani]”.

The pro- Hindi group did not just stop with that, but made their attacks on English and provincial languages bitter, resulting in the alienation of popular support for them. Initially there were two main strands of opposition against Hindi group – Muslims and South Indians. Muslims wanted Hindustani in both scripts did not care about English while the South Indian bloc, who wanted English to be retained, was ready for Hindi with Devanagari script as an official language in addition to English.

Meanwhile even the Congress Presidential campaign acquired linguistic overtones with Telugu speaking Pattabhi Sitaramayya and a hardcore Hindi proponent Purushottam Dad Tandon pitted against each other. Tandon contested in the election despite requests from Prasad, asking him not to do so as it might virtually become a North versus South contest. This did not happen and Sitaramayya later won with a slender margin.

By this time the outline of the general demand of Hindi group was spelled out

  • Hindi in Nagari as Official Language
  • English optional during a transitional period
  • Mandatory knowledge of Hindi for entry in to Civil Services while the Hindi applicants should know a provincial language.

Members like T T Krishnamachari of Madras and L K Maitra of Bengal warned the Constituent Assembly of threats from secessionist groups and accused the Hindi group of displaying linguistic fanaticism and ‘Hindi-imperialism’. Nehru who had become more of an umpire rather than a player after the question of Hindustani was shelved, supported the moderates. He was lamenting the fact that issue of Hindi was hijacked by language extremists there by affecting Hindi’s chances of becoming an all-India language. Nehru had a clear belief that Hindi was superior to the provincial languages and this is known from many of his speeches. In one instance he says:

Everybody knows that obviously Hindi is the most powerful language of India. But it is the misfortune of Hindi that it has collected round it some advocates who continually do tremendous injury to its cause by advocating it in the wrong way.”

Final Debate – Numerals

Towards the final days of drafting of the language provisions, bitterness and fanatical statements started emanating from everywhere. Seth Govind Das, President of Hindi Sahitya Sammellan said that Hindi in Nagari must be made the national language of India and that ‘this arrangement was quite in accordance with the nation’s will‘. Purushottam Das Tandon said :

those who oppose acceptance of Hindi as national language and Nagari as the single script are still following a policy of anti-national appeasement and are catering to communal aspirations.

During the assembly proceedings, the pro-Hindi group had a large base from Bihar, Central Provinces, United Provinces, and interestingly several members from the South also. Their amendments which gave predominance to Hindi were flatly rejected by the non-Hindi bloc led by Southern members who fervently refused the clause that provided for the progressive substitution of Hindi during a 15 year transitional period when English is used as the official language.

But a consensus was taken in a meeting of all the Congress members of the Constituent Assembly that Hindi in Nagari will be accepted as the official language. The status of Hindi with regards to this was never in doubt again.

The sorest part of language issue was when the representation of numerals was discussed. Facetiously speaking, this reiterated that Indians were obsessive about numbers. Non-Hindi bloc mentioned that Arabic numerals (which had its origin in India) should be used for all official purpose. Hindi group protested furiously saying that Devanagari numerals must be used. The question of numerals was so hotly debated that nearly 3 hours alone was spent speaking about it.

The debate ended with a 75-74 vote in favour of Devanagari numerals but it was accepted that such a controversial issue cannot be implemented with such a thin margin. This issue was a turning point in the language debates. Austin observes:

The pressure of the extremists, particularly on the numerals issue drove many Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and even Bihari assembly members from the Hindi group into the ranks of its moderates.”

South Indian moderates scoffed at the intransigent stand on numerals, and The Hindu called the fight over the numerals “stupid and useless“, which on retrospect indeed looks very much so.

At this time Ambedkar came to the fore-front and suggested that a Language Commission formed after the inauguration of Constitution will consider the question of Numerals and the transitional period of English. Munshi – Ayyangar (MA) formula, which later became the basis for the current provisions of our constitution, had its origin in these suggestions from Ambedkar. MA formula was endorsed by even Patel, who had sympathised with Tandon and group, and who had been annoyed by the southern resistance to Hindi. In his suggestions Ambedkar also recommended that all the Indian languages should be listed in a schedule in the constitution.

At a superficial level the reason cited for listing languages in a separate schedule is that these languages were supposed to be the sources from which Hindi should broaden itself. But leaders have later on mentioned that it was out of psychological reasons and to give the languages a status that the languages were listed in a Schedule.

We had these languages listed in the Constitution to protect them from being ignored or wiped out by the Hindi-wallahs.” said a leader.

When the MA formula was finally produced Ayyangar rightly pointed out that it was a compromise between mutually incompatible ideas. In response to MA formula Seth Govind Das said that “Indian had had one cultural tradition for 1000s of years. We do not want it to be said that there are two cultures here.

To which Bharatiya Jana Sangh leader from Bengal, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee responded thus:

If it is claimed by anyone that by passing an article in the Constitution of India, one language is going to be accepted by all by a process of coercion, I say, sir, that that will not be possible to achieve. Unity in diversity is India’s keynote and must be achieved by a process of understanding and consent and for that a proper atmosphere has to be created.

Contrast this with Nehru’s attitude:

Although English must continue to be a most important language in India, no nation could become great on the basis of a foreign language. The language India chose for itself must be a language of the people, not a language of the learned coterie. It is the reference to Hindustani that has allowed me to support MA formula. Else it would have been very difficult for me

It is clear that Nehru had no more interest in provincial languages being given equal treatment than Ambedkar had when he had introduced Sanskrit to be made the national language, so as to douse the ‘jealousies raised by the special status accorded to Hindi’.

After much deliberations and resignations from a couple of members including Tandon, M-A formula was passed with 5 amendments among deafening cheers.

Further reading:

1. The Indian Constitution – Cornerstone of a Nation by Granville Austin

2. India: A History – John Keay

3. The Indian Constitution – Fadia and Fadia

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Sarath Ramakrishnan

Sarath Ramakrishnan

When not coming up with witty responses to verbal duals of long past, I read and write. Brevity is not my forte.