Notes for Modern History (Post-Independence)
The Language Problem I
- The language problem was the most divisive issue in the first twenty years of independent India, and it created the apprehension among many that the political and cultural unity of the country was in danger.
- People love their language; it is an integral part of culture. Consequently , linguistic identity has been a strong force in all societies. This is even more true of a multilingual society like India’s.
- Linguistic diversity would inevitably give birth to strong political currents around issues linked to language, such as educational and economic development, job and other economic opportunities and access to political power.
- The Indian constitution recognizes twenty -two major languages, including English and Sanskrit. In addition, there are a myriad languages spoken by the tribals and others, with or without their own scripts.
- The problem posed to national consolidation by linguistic diversity has taken two major forms:
- (i) the dispute over official language of the union and
- (ii) the linguistic reorganization of the states.
The Language Problem II
- The controversy on the language issue became most virulent when it took the form of opposition to Hindi and tended to create conflict between Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi-speaking regions of the country .
- The issue of a national language was resolved when the constitution-makers virtually accepted all the major languages as ‘languages of India’ or India’s national languages. But the matter could not end there, for the country ’s official work could not be carried on in so many languages. There had to be one common language in which the central government would carry on its work and maintain contact with the state governments.
- The question arose what would be this language of all-India communication? Or what would be India’s official and link language?
- Only two candidates were available for the purpose: English and Hindi. Hindi or Hindustani, the other candidate for the status of the official or link language, had already played this role during the nationalist struggle, especially during the phase of mass mobilization.
- Hindi had been accepted by leaders from non-Hindi-speaking regions because it was considered to be the most widely spoken and understood language in the country . The real debate in the Constituent Assembly occurred over two questions: Would Hindi or Hindustani replace English? And what would be the time-frame for such a replacement to happen?
The Language Problem III
- The question of Hindi or Hindustani was soon resolved. Gandhiji and Nehru both supported Hindustani, written in the Devanagari or Urdu script. Though many supporters of Hindi disagreed, they had tended to accept the Gandhi–Nehru viewpoint.
- The issue of the time-frame for a shift from English to Hindi produced a divide between Hindi and non-Hindi areas. The spokespersons of Hindi areas were for the immediate switchover to Hindi, while those from non-Hindi areas advocated retention of English for a long if not indefinite period.
- The case for Hindi basically rested on the fact that it was the language of the largest number, though not of the majority , of the people of India; it was also understood at least in the urban areas of most of northern India from Bengal to Punjab and in Maharashtra and Gujarat.
- The critics of Hindi talked about it being less developed than other languages as a literary language and as a language of science and politics. But their main fear was that Hindi’s adoption as the official language would place non-Hindi areas, especially South India, at a disadvantage in the educational and economic spheres, and particularly in competition for appointments in government and the public sector.
- Such opponents tended to argue that imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi areas would lead to their economic, political, social and cultural domination by Hindi areas.
The Language Problem IV
- A compromise was arrived at. The constitution provided that Hindi in Devanagari script with international numerals would be India’s official language. English was to continue for use in all official purposes till 1965, when it would be replaced by Hindi. Hindi was to be introduced in a phased manner. After 1965 it would become the sole official language.
- Implementation of the language provisions of the constitution proved to be a formidable task. The issue remained a subject of intense controversy , and became increasingly acrimonious with the passage of time.
- Sharp differences on the official language issue surfaced during 1956–60. In 1956, the Report of the Official Language Commission recommended that Hindi should start progressively replacing English in various functions of the central government with effective change taking place in 1965.
- Fully aware of the danger that the official language issue could pose to Indian polity , the leadership of the Congress took the grievances of the non-Hindi areas seriously and handled the issue with great care and caution. In pursuance of Nehru’s assurances, though with delay caused by internal party pressures and the India–China war, an Official Languages Act was passed in 1963.
- Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru’s successor as prime minister, was unfortunately not sensitive enough to the opinion of non-Hindi groups. Instead of taking effective steps to counter their fears of Hindi becoming the sole official language, he declared that he was considering making Hindi an alternative medium in public service examinations. This meant that while non-Hindi speakers could still compete in the all-India services in English, Hindi speakers would have the advantage of being able to use their mother tongue.
- Many non-Hindi leaders in protest changed their line of approach to the problem of the official language. While previously they had wanted a slowing down of the replacement of English, now they started demanding that there should be no deadline fixed for the changeover.
- Some of the leaders went much further. On 17 January , the DMK organized the Madras State Anti-Hindi Conference which gave a call for observing 26 January as a day of mourning. Widespread rioting and violence followed in the early weeks of February leading to large-scale destruction of railway s and other Union property. The agitation continued for about two months, taking a toll of over sixty lives through police firings.
- With the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966, Indira Gandhi became the prime minister. As she had already won the trust of the people of the South, they were convinced that a genuine effort would be made to resolve the long-festering dispute.
- Indira Gandhi moved the bill to amend the 1963 Official Language Act. The Act provided that the use of English as an associate language in addition to Hindi for the official work at the Centre and for communication between the Centre and non-Hindi states would continue as long as the non-Hindi states wanted it, giving them full veto powers on the question.