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In 1967, as a green Indira Gandhi watched in dismay, the Congress government was voted out of power in Tamil Nadu. Even venerable leaders like then chief minister M. Bhaktavatsalam and prime ministerial kingmaker and national Congress president K. Kamaraj bit the dust as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under C.N. Annadurai came to power with a thumping two-thirds majority. 

After 1967, the Congress has never held power in the southern state. For the past 50 years, power in Tamil Nadu has seesawed between the two Dravidian parties—the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The Congress has always been an also-ran. Its loss of power had much to do with something that the party had become closely identified with two years earlier which had met with severe opposition in the state. The issue was that of Hindi, its status in the country and more specifically, in Tamil Nadu. 

On 25 January 1965, the students of Madras University went on strike in protest against the imminent imposition of English with Hindi as mandated by the Constitution. When the Constitution had come into force on 26 January 1950, it had provided for a 15-year waiting period before Hindi would become the sole official language of the nation. In the interim, both Hindi and English would function as official languages. 

The 15-year period was to come to an end on 26 January 1965. This deadline had always been viewed in Tamil Nadu with some trepidation. Occasionally, the state and its leaders’ anti-Hindi stance led to humourous repartee. In response to a Hindi zealot’s claim that Hindi deserved to be made India’s national language since its speakers were the most numerous, Annadurai is said to have retorted that on the basis of that logic, the crow ought to be India’s national bird and not the peacock. But feelings about the language issue went way beyond that. 

In 1963, as many as three “Anti-Hindi" conferences had been held in the state with a view to lobbying for the continuation of English. But now with the deadline almost upon them, the demands became more strident and also soon took a morbid turn. 

On the 25th, there were protest marches in most towns and cities in Tamil Nadu. Over 50,000 people marched peacefully in Madras (now Chennai). Protestors held placards and banners against Hindi imposition and raised slogans. In Coimbatore, “pall bearers" carried a mock “dead body" of the Hindi demon, accompanied by “wailing" students. 

Soon however, things turned violent. Violence against protestors by pro-Hindi forces (reportedly, goons in the pay of the Congress) erupted and there were clashes in several places. The police opened fire to quell the violence resulting in deaths. In parallel, there were self-immolations by young men and gruesome and gut-wrenching deaths accompanied by the slogans, “Tamil Vazhuga! Hindi Ozhiga!" (Long live Tamil! Death to Hindi!) 

An agitated Bhaktavatsalam and an even more perturbed prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, attempted to allay fears about Hindi imposition. For close to two weeks, the state seethed and boiled and only by mid-February did the situation return to a semblance of normalcy when forced by the resignation of two Tamil ministers from his ministry, Shastri went on radio and assured the people that he would abide by Nehru's promise to keep English in use as long as the people wanted. 

The Tamil writer Sujatha’s story Coconuts (without actually naming the state or language) captures the zeitgeist of that time. A young couple returning from a holiday in the hills stop at a wayside stall to buy coconut water. Forgetting himself, the young man asks the old vendor, “Kitna?" provoking a few men shooting the breeze nearby into action. Things get out of hand and soon enough, there is violence. The merest mention of a word had incited passions. Such was the deep-rooted anti Hindi sentiment of that time. 

Before 1965 

The year 1965 wasn’t the first instance of anti-Hindi agitations in the state. The first anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu was held in 1937. As per the provisions of the Government of India Act of 1935, the colonial government had introduced a measure of self-government in the provinces. Under its auspices, a ministry headed by Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari, later independent India’s first and last Indian governor-general) came to power in the multi-lingual Madras Presidency (as it was then) which included areas from all the southern states. 

Among its more controversial measures was to introduce Hindi as a compulsory subject in schools. It was viewed as an affront both to the Tamil language and the Tamil literary tradition, which was arguably older and richer than Hindi. Among its most fervent opponents was Periyar (E.V. Ramaswami Naicker). The protests put the Rajaji government in a quandary. 

As part of its anti-colonial struggle, the Congress had made known its preference for Hindi (Hindustani) in preference to English. The Motilal Nehru Committee report of 1928 had suggested Hindi as a possible official language after independence. Gandhi had founded the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha with a view to popularizing Hindi in the southern states. 

The introduction of Hindi by the Rajaji government was therefore in line with the Congress’s agenda to create a national identity for Indians which while encouraging all Indian languages would be posited on Hindi as a “link language" and a tool for national unity. The idea was to cast aside English, which was viewed as a colonial imposition. 

The fervor of the anti-Hindi movement however caught Rajaji unawares. In a bid to diffuse the movement, the Congress ministry announced that though Hindi would be taught compulsorily in schools, there was to be no examination in the subject and the total time devoted for teaching Hindi would be only a couple of hours each week. This did not pacify the opposition. Protests continued for the next two years. 

It is interesting to consider why Hindi was viewed with such suspicion. The opposition to Hindi was in part a reaction against caste. Colonial rule in the Madras Presidency had created an indefensible anomaly. Brahmins, not more than 3% of the Presidency’s population had cornered a great number of government jobs, were highly preponderant in modern professions such as law and medicine and also constituted the bulk of the Congress leadership. They were also seen as people who systematically blocked entry to claimants from other castes. 

Brahmins in the Tamil-speaking regions also spoke a Sanskrit-laced Tamil which, in the view of many, placed them in a position of advantage vis-à-vis Hindi. That Congress eminences like Rajaji were Brahmin and also reasonably fluent Hindi speakers was a fact not lost on the public. Hindi imposition was viewed as a Brahminical conspiracy to keep the lower castes in their thrall and this was unacceptable. 

Periyar, the leader of the 1937 movement had himself left the Congress in disgust in 1925 after he was convinced that the Congress was insufficiently committed to the question of caste equality. By the late ‘30s, he was in the forefront of what had come to be known as the Self-Respect Movement which was vehemently opposed to Brahmin domination. 

In part, ‘Hindi’ was a stand-in for ‘Brahmin’ and opposition to Hindi was a way of registering a protest against Brahmin domination. Equally, there was the notion of the south Indian ‘Dravidian’ being a counterpoint to the north Indian ‘Aryan’. Hindi was a North Indian language and both North Indians and Hindi’s southern supporters, the Brahmins, were of presumed ‘Aryan’ stock or origins. 

It was the heyday then of the Aryan Invasion Theory. In Nehru’s Discovery of India (published only later in 1946, but which encapsulates the prevalent historical ideas of the time well), he writes of the ‘Aryans’, “… who poured into India in successive waves from the north-west." He also talks of the ‘Dravidians’ being the possible “…representatives of the Indus Valley Civilization." Viewed thus, it was a battle of the ‘sons of the soil’ against the usurpers. As Periyar put it, Hindi was an agent of ‘continuing Aryan, Brahminic, Sanskritic imperialism.’ 

In February 1940, the government issued a notification bringing to an end the provision for compulsory teaching of Hindi in schools. (The Rajaji Congress ministry had by then resigned protesting the involvement of India in the Second World War.) The anti-Hindi campaign ceased, only to erupt again twenty-five years later in 1965. 

Post-1965, Tamil Nadu continues to look askance at the machinations of politicians from Delhi. The fear of North Indian domination has continued as has the opposition to Hindi. The ‘jallikattu’ protests which pulverized Tamil Nadu in early 2017 were viewed by many commentators as emerging out of the politics of opposition to Hindi imperialism and North Indian domination.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. For his previous Mint on Sunday essays, click here.

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