The first anti-Hindi agitation happened in 1937 spearheaded by E.V. Ramaswamy, also known as Periyar, and the leaders of the Justice League Party (which later became Dravidar Kazhagam). They opposed the introduction of compulsory teaching of Hindi in the schools of Madras Presidency by the first Indian National Congress government led by C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji). Ever since then, Tamils have protested imposition of Hindi in their state. So why are Tamils protesting Hindi imposition while most of the other states seem okay with it?
The topic is quite familiar and must be discussed now as the new NEP states that “The study of three languages by students in Hindi-speaking states would continue to include Hindi and English and one of the modern languages from other parts of India, while the study of languages by students in non-Hindi speaking states would include the regional language, Hindi and English.” Seemingly harmless, the new education policy has drawn a lot of flak from language specialists and common folk alike. To get a better insight into the issue, I’d like to speak as a Tamil and as a linguist to share my perspective on why I think it’s not a great move.
India has been the land of thousands of languages that are spoken in its mainland. That being said, India has Hindi as its official language and English as its Subsidiary Official Language. The constitution has identified 22 official languages altogether. However, I want you to note that Hindi is not the national language. India does not have a national language. Indian states were politically divided based on the languages spoken there.
The History of Anti-Hindi Protests in Tamil Nadu
During the first anti-Hindi agitation, many leaders were arrested and two leaders – Natarajan and Thalamuthu lost their lives in the protest. The protest lasted for about three years and finally, Lord Erskine withdrew the bill after the resignation of Congress in 1940. Again after Independence, when Nehru then Prime Minister tried to introduce Hindi as the official language, the southerners protested again which led to Hindi and English taking the positions as official languages. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru enacted the Official Languages Act in 1963 to ensure the continuing use of English beyond 1965. However, after the elections, Hindi was imposed by the Chief of the State in 1965.
It is estimated that about 70 lives were lost during these protests across Tamil Nadu.
The Congress government in the state headed by M Bhaktavasalam faced a lot of backlash and protest. C. Annadurai led the protest along with other leaders in Tamil Nadu. Two Congress ministers C Subramaniam and OV Alagesan submitted their resignation to Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri forwarded these resignations to the President Dr. Radhakrishnan. Dr. Radhakrishnan, however, refused to accept the resignation and advised the Prime Minister to reconsider his action. The Prime Minister then announced that they would honour the words of Jawaharlal Nehru and retain English as the official Language and assured that English can be used for Centre State Intrastate Communication and that all civil services examinations would be conducted in English.
It is estimated that about 70 lives were lost during these protests across Tamil Nadu. These protests also changed the political scenario in Tamil Nadu. Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, an offshoot of Justice Party, won the elections and protecting Tamil became one of their major agendas. The agitations did seem successful that pushed then Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi to make amendments to the Official Languages Act in 1967 in 1967. The Official Languages Act was amended to guarantee the indefinite use of Hindi and English as official languages. This effectively ensured the current “virtual indefinite policy of bilingualism” of the Indian Republic.
Reformations in Tamil Nadu
Historically, Tamils have always been fierce protectors of their language and culture and have always taken pride in it. The language has gone through several reformations where sounds and words of Sanskrit origin were either removed or translated to ‘pure Tamil’. Letters that were taken from Grantha script were removed and new letters were created. Even writers such as Suryanarayana Shastri and Constantine Joseph Beschi changed their names to Parithimar Kalaignar and Veeramamunivar to reflect their love for the language. Till date, attempts are being made to avoid the usage of borrowed words from other languages. This is why Tamil has proper Tamil equivalents for words such as coffee (Kulambi), tube light (Kuzhalvilakku), CD (Kurunthagadu), ice cream (Panikkoozh), mobile phone (Kaipesi), pendrive (Virali), and many more.
The DMK government has been playing a key role in protecting the language. The government has several strategies to ensure this. Concessions were offered to shopkeepers if the name boards were in Tamil and the same is applicable to movies if the movie has a Tamil name. (This tax deduction was repealed after the implementation of GST). Reservations were made available for students who studied in Tamil medium schools and a very basic level of Tamil learning was made mandatory to school and college students.
Concerns of Language Imperialism
There are several reasons why I personally believe Hindi imposition or imposition of any language is a bad idea. All that a government does regarding languages are often discussed under ‘Language Planning’ and ‘Status Planning’ in Linguistics. When a government decides to endorse a language, the language gains more popularity and is assigned some status of power. When the government does not recognize or when it bans a language completely, the language can become a minority language or eventually even go extinct. Looking into the history of languages across the globe, we can see it happening everywhere.
So, when Hindi is imposed on the non-Hindi speaking states, we can foresee the languages in these regions slowly losing their status and eventually being forgotten by their native speakers.
Status planning changes the function of a language or a variety of a language and the rights of those who use it. For example, when speakers of a minority language are denied the use of that language in educating their children, their language has no status. This has been the case with many tribal languages in India and with several African and Native American languages. We often see headlines about how the last speaker of a language died and it marks the death of the language as well.
We can also note how T.T. Krishnamachari spoke of language imperialism and pointed out that imposing a language on a state is also indirectly imposing power over the state. He said, “I refer to this question of language imperialism. There are various forms of imperialism and language imperialism is one of the most powerful methods of propagating the imperialistic idea… This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary, will also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the legislature, the language of the Centre… My honourable friends in UP do not help us in any way by flogging their idea ‘Hindi Imperialism’ to the maximum extent possible. Sir, it is up to my friends in UP to have a whole-India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs.”
This imperialism takes away the autonomy of the state and the status of the language is lost. This is one of the reasons why the government had fought to gain ‘Classical Language’ status to Tamil.
Hindi Imposition isn’t just an imposition of language
Culture and Language go hand-in-hand. It is quite difficult to discuss one without the other. Philologists and Linguists discuss this with the help of a theory called ‘Linguistic Relativity theory’. The theory of linguistic relativity states that the structure of a language influences the way its speakers conceptualize the world. It helps us see the world in a way our language helps us see the world. It does not determine our thought processes but definitely helps us shape it. So, when Hindi is imposed on the non-Hindi speaking states, we can foresee the languages in these regions slowly losing their status and eventually being forgotten by their native speakers.
As imaginary and unthinkable as this seems, think of what happened to languages like Pali, Maithili etc. These were languages that were once spoken commonly and now the language is either dead or has no next generation speakers. The ideas and concepts that are unique to these language speakers would vanish along with them. The culture, folklore, oral narratives, the history, the legends that these language speakers had carried along with them for so many years would gradually be lost.
Coming to the scenario in India, Hindi has been a dominant language for a long time and imposing it on other language speakers would lead to regional languages losing their status even within their states. I would like to add that Tamils are not against Hindi. Tamils are against imposition. Tamil Nadu has hundreds of Hindi Prachar Sabhas across the state and Tamils do learn the language when they have to live outside their state. The beauty of our country lies in its diversity. What good is it when the whole nation speaks the same language after killing so many lives, so many languages that add to the diversity of this country?
2. Insights On India
3. The News Minute
4. The Hindu
5. First Post: Why Hindi isn’t the national language
6. First Post: Hindi imposition row: Framing debate as North vs South issue shrouds insidious role of caste
Featured Image Source: DT Next