One of the most detailed debates in the Constituent Assembly was whether Hindi should be the official language of India. Even today, anybody reading the brilliant debates in the constituent assembly may be puzzled by why so much time was spent on the language issue compared to many other more fundamental constitutional design challenges. B.R. Ambedkar later revealed that no other issue had generated as much heat as the one on the official language of the new republic. Hindi was accepted by a slim margin of one vote. It was supposed to replace English in 1965 as the language of government. The status quo was maintained after violent agitations in several states of peninsular India.
Indian nationalists have for long recognized that a diverse country such as ours needs a common language for communication. The natural candidate for that is either the language most commonly spoken in India or the classical language of Indian civilization—Hindi or Sanskrit. The Zionists united Israel by reviving Hebrew. The overwhelming majority of national leaders—from M.K. Gandhi to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar—wanted some variant of Hindi. Ambedkar argued for Sanskrit and Subhas Chandra Bose was in favour of Hindi written in the Roman script.
All these issues have come to a head once again—be it the decision to have milestones on national highways in Tamil Nadu written in Hindi, the advice given by the Central government that all its ministers should make their speeches in Hindi, or making Hindi compulsory in schools. Such impositions will quite naturally come up against opposition in states that have cultural identities based on other languages. India is not Pakistan, but it is useful to remember that the imposition of Urdu on the Bengalis was the first catalyst of the movement that eventually created Bangladesh.
There are a few issues that need clarity. First, Hindi is best placed as a language to ease communication between different states. It cannot be seen as a replacement for local languages as a lingua franca.
Second, the discussion has been about Hindi as an official language of the Indian nation. It is not meant to be a national language.
Third, native Hindi speakers who are puzzled at the opposition to the imposition of their language on other citizens should ask themselves how many other Indian languages they have tried to learn.
Fourth, India finally accepted a system of linguistic states because of the realities of sub-national identity that should never be ignored.
The point to be made is that the forced spread of Hindi is a disservice that Hindi chauvinists are doing to their own language. Their insensitive actions will have angry reactions—and that is the last thing India needs at this juncture. Hindi chauvinism has had several unthinking champions. Even sophisticated leaders such as the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia and the great scholar Rahul Sankrityayan—though not chauvinists —did not take account of the reaction in other parts of India to their aggressive insistence of Hindi. The Narendra Modi government has its ideological roots in the Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan way of thinking. It should not be stoking the dying embers of linguistic conflict.
The curious fact is that Hindi has very peacefully spread across the country over the past 50 years. Few would today remember the language riots in what was then Madras. Hindi cinema has done a lot to make the language understood in most parts of the country; it may not be the pure Hindi that was mercilessly lampooned in the 1970s comedy Chupke Chupke, but a more open variant that has absorbed even the lingo of the Mumbai streets. Cable television has also helped this process in more recent years.
A traveller can today hear Hindi spoken in most corners of the country. The language is bound to spread further in the coming years thanks to migration, commerce and entertainment. That should be welcomed. What should not be welcomed is either the force-feeding of the language with colonial intent or seeing it as a substitute for Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, etc., in their respective states. The eighth schedule of the Constitution lists 22 national languages. Hindi can be the first among equals. It cannot hope to become the only one.
These are crucial issues that the most aggressive votaries of Hindi often forget. India has seen language riots when the republic was young. We are now a more mature nation—and reopening those old wounds is pointless. Especially when Hindi has peacefully spread across the country and can live with other Indian languages.
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