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By: Neeti Nair
The recent fracas over a circular of the Home Ministry that was apparently meant to encourage the use of Hindi in social media and via hundreds of “urban official language operational committees” across the country brings to mind several similar experiments, and lessons not learnt, from India’s past. It is in the realm of education that India’s bureaucrats and politicians sought to impose Hindi early on, and it is in this realm that the challenge of managing both standards and expectations remains.
The 1949 Radhakrishnan Education Commission report gave considerable space to the vexed question of the medium of instruction for schools and colleges across India. Arguing for regional languages to be developed alongside a “federal language” Hindi, the report also referred to English as a language of international communication and alluded to the yugadharma, or the philosophy of the age. “Sense of the oneness of the world is in the making and control over a medium of expression which is more widespread and has a larger reach than any of our languages today will be of immense benefit to us.”
The 15 years that followed were supposed to be spent on the development of scientific terminology in textbooks and other regional literatures, efforts that would enable the use of regional languages as a medium of instruction in institutions of higher learning. Instead, following the 15-year timetable laid down by the Constitution to transition towards Hindi, administrators centered in Delhi focused on switching over to Hindi as soon as possible.
So for instance, Osmania University was to be made into a model Hindi University. A unique Urdu-medium institution that was also the region’s only university refused to be material for another experiment in higher education. This new imposition by faraway Delhi was roundly criticised by a student movement that quickly drew in politicians even from the ruling Congress party who pleaded the right to vote on their conscience rather than by party whip. Five years of protests led Nehru to concede that it was “no good trying to force a decision on the Andhra government and people.”
In school education, too, the natural reflex was to impose uniformity, focus on a ham-handed way of “national integration”. To a 1951 memorandum from the Anglo-Indian community that cited Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution on minority rights and requested that their schools, where English remained the continued…