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Explained: 70 years ago, here’s how the Constituent Assembly debated status of Hindi

Many of today’s assertions and apprehensions about the alleged imposition of Hindi over the rest of India were also heard in the Constituent Assembly, which discussed this question over seven decades ago.

Written by Udit Misra | New Delhi |
Updated: September 24, 2019 10:00:10 am
Hindi language, Amit Shah on Hindi Diwas, Amit Shah appeals for Hindi language, Hindi promotion, Hindi Diwas 2019, Hindi as official language, status of hindi, India news, Indian express Jawaharlal Nehru and some other members of the Constituent Assembly of India during one of the early sittings of the Assembly. (Archive)

Home Minister Amit Shah’s Hindi Diwas (September 14) call for “one language” for all of India triggered protests. Shah said that while it was natural to have a difference of opinion on the official language of a Union as diverse as India, the founding fathers of the Constitution had evaluated all arguments in the Constituent Assembly and agreed unanimously to have Hindi as the “Raj Bhasha”.

It was almost exactly 70 years ago, between September 12 and 14, 1949, that the Constituent Assembly of India debated the status of India’s languages. Among the issues that were discussed were the use of the term ‘national language’, instead of ‘official’ language; Hindi vs languages such as Bengali, Telugu, Sanskrit, or Hindustani; Devanagari script vs the Roman script; the language to be used in the higher judiciary and Parliament; international numerals vs those in Devanagari script.

President Rajendra Prasad underlined the criticality of the debate at the outset: “…There is no other item in the whole Constitution which will be required to be implemented from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute… Even if we (get) a particular proposition passed by majority, if it does not meet with the approval of any considerable section of people…, the implementation of the Constitution will become a most difficult problem”.

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These are edited excerpts of what some of the members of the Constituent Assembly said. Many arguments are echoed even today.

N GOPALASWAMI AYYANGAR, member of the Drafting Committee, presented the initial draft and the first amendment, which said Hindi in Devanagari script should be the official language, but English should be used for at least 15 years. “The [language] scheme… was the result of a great deal of discussion and compromise. If I may emphasize it, it is an integrated whole. …If you touch one part of it the other things fall to pieces.”

SETH GOVIND DAS argued for “one language and one script”, and said that Hindi should replace English at the earliest. “Democracy can only function when majority opinion is honoured. If we differ on any issue, that can only be decided by votes. Whatever decision is arrived by the majority must be accepted by the minority respectfully… We have accepted our country to be a secular State but we never thought that that acceptance implied the acceptance of the continued existence of heterogeneous cultures. India is an ancient country with an ancient history. For thousands of years one and the same culture has all along been obtaining here. …It is in order to maintain this tradition that we want one language and one script for the whole country. We do not want it to be said that there are two cultures here”.

NAZIRUDDIN AHMAD, by contrast, stressed: “…We should not make a declaration of an All India language all at once. …English should continue as the official language for all purposes for which it was being used, till a time when an All India language is evolved, which will be capable of expressing the thoughts and ideas on various subjects, scientific, mathematical, literary, historical, philosophical, political…”

S V KRISHNAMOORTHY RAO too, said English should remain, and a future Parliament should decide on the matter. Hindi, he said, was inferior to many South Indian languages: “This Hindi and Hindustani question is purely for the north. But we are prepared to accept Hindi. In the greater interests of the country this question should be decided in a dispassionate atmosphere when feelings have sobered down.”

MOHD HIFZUR RAHMAN argued for replacing Hindi with Hindustani, the language that Mahatma Gandhi favoured, and which the Congress had agreed was “spoken from Bihar right up to Frontier”. The clamour for Hindi, he said, was “the reaction of the Partition” — “in this state of grief and anger… they are showing their narrow-mindedness against a particular community. They want to settle the language question in the atmosphere of political bigotry and do not want to solve this problem as the Language problem of a country”.

R V DHULEKAR recalled that from Ramdas to Tulsidas and from Swami Dayanand to the Mahatma, all wrote in Hindi, and argued forcefully: “You may belong to another nation but I belong to Indian nation, the Hindi Nation, the Hindu Nation, the Hindustani Nation. I do not know why you say it is not the National Language. I shudder at the very idea that our universities and our schools and our colleges and our scientists, that all of them should, even after the attainment of Swaraj, have to continue to work in the English language… What will the ghost of Lord Macaulay say? He will certainly laugh at us and say, ‘Old Johnnie Walker is still going strong’.”

FRANK ANTHONY conceded that “English cannot, for many reasons, be the national language of this country”, but cautioned that the Hindi that was being imposed was very different from the one that common people spoke. “There is a process of a purge which has become current…, in this present fanatical movement a new kind of Hindi which is unintelligible to the Hindi speaking Hindu in the street…, a highly Sanskritised Hindi will be imposed. …You talk of equality of opportunities on the one side and on the other hand you implement precipitate policies which are the negation of the principle of equality of opportunity.”

QAZI SYED KARIMUDDIN pitched for Hindustani: “You have already agreed that English shall stay here for the next 10 or 15 years, then why you are denying the Muslims their rights by banning Urdu script? You have got a majority so you are trying to ban it completely — to finish it… Only that language in which both Hindus and Muslims easily express themselves and… which has evolved through common intercourse, i.e. Hindustani, should be made the national language.”

LAKSHMINARAYAN SAHU argued for Hindi being made the national language. “I can also claim the same status for Oria, which is far more ancient than Bengali… My friends from the South would claim that their language is very ancient. (But) there is no question of ancient or medieval. Some people are so much enamoured of English that they think they would lose their very existence if English is not used as the official language… We have to move forward in the interests of the whole nation and country, and if a few people are inconvenienced they should put up with it.”

N V GADGIL wanted Sanskrit to be made the national language, and that English should be retained “for at least one century more”. Hindi, he said, is a provincial language; “there are languages in which literature is far more rich, and yet we have accepted Hindi as the national language”.

T A RAMALINGAM CHETTIAR said this “very difficult question… probably means life and death for the South”. Chettiar said he had “great admiration for the Hindi people”, but “they will have to realise that we too may have some patriotism and love for our language, for our literature and things like that”. He disagreed with Hindi being called the “national language” because “Hindi is no more national to us than English or any other language”. The South, he said, was “feeling frustrated”, and asked for “accommodation”. “Unless steps are taken to make the people in the South feel that they have something to do with the country, …I do not think the South is going to be satisfied at all. …To what it may lead, it is not easy to say at present.”

SATISH CHANDRA SAMANTA said Bengali should be preferred over Hindi as the national language because it was a rich language, was taught internationally, and because Bande Mataram, the poem that inspired the freedom struggle, was in Bengali.

ALGU RAI SHASTRI said “there is no doubt that Sanskrit is the mother of all the languages spoken in India”, and “its eldest and the seniormost daughter (Hindi) alone can today be the national language”.

SYAMA PRASAD MOOKERJEE said he did not share the view of those who speak of the day “when India shall have one language and one language only”. “Unity in diversity is India’s keynote and must be achieved by a process of understanding and consent, and for that a proper atmosphere has to be created.” Most people were accepting Hindi because it was “understood by the largest single majority in this country today”. If, however, Mookerjee said, “the protagonists of Hindi… had not been perhaps so aggressive in their demands and enforcement of Hindi, they would have got whatever they wanted, perhaps more than what they expected, by spontaneous and willing co-operation of the entire population of India”.

A resolution of the Constituent Assembly could not decide the supremacy of a language, he noted. “If you want that Hindi is to really occupy an All-India position and not merely replace English for certain official purposes, you make Hindi worthy of that position and allow it to absorb by natural process words and idioms not only from Sanskrit but also from other sister languages of India… I can speak Hindi in my own Bengali way. Mahatma Gandhi spoke Hindi in his own way. Sardar Patel speaks Hindi in his own Gujarati way. If my friends from UP or Bihar say that theirs is the standard Hindi… it will be a bad thing not only for Hindi, but (also) for the country.”

P T CHACKO said that “A national language has to evolve itself and is not to be created artificially. The national language for a great country like India should… be capable of expressing all the needs of modern civilisation; …it should have a lore of scientific literature”. He wanted attention to other “very urgent problems” instead — that of freedom fighters “dying for want of food and shelter”, of “trade and commerce becoming duller day by day”, of “rampant unemployment”, and of the “Kashmir problem” in the North and the “menace of Communist hooliganism” in the South.

DR P SUBBARAYAN suggested the adoption of Hindustani in Roman script. He wondered why there was hatred towards the English language when the Americans, of whom only 20% belonged to the British Isles, could adopt it.

KULADHAR CHALIHA of Assam said Sanskrit should be the national language because “Sanskrit and India are co-extensive”. Hindi was a “compromise solution, and because it is good for India, not because Hindi is a better language”. However, Hindustani would be an even better choice.

REV. JEROME D’SOUZA said that he accepted the broad outline of Ayyangar’s proposal “because it embodies the widest common measure of agreement”. But he recalled that the French say “Tout homme a deaux, langues, la sienne et puis le francais (All men have two languages, they say, their own and then the sweet French tongue)”, and hoped that “perhaps, a day may come when the whole civilised world may say, ‘All men have two languages, their own and then sweet language of India'”.

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU recalled Gandhi’s views on this matter. One, “that while English is a great language (that) …has done us a lot of good, …no nation can become great on the basis of a foreign language”. Two, the chosen language should be “more or less a language of the people, not a language of a learned coterie”. And three, “this language should represent the composite culture of India”. Therefore, Nehru said, Gandhi used the word ‘Hindustani’ “in that broad sense representing that composite language”.

Nehru, however, cautioned against forcing Hindi on all of India’s peoples. “Is your approach going to be a democratic approach or… authoritarian?” he asked “the enthusiasts for Hindi”, in some of whose speeches, he said, he had detected “a tone of authoritarianism, very much a tone of the Hindi-speaking area being the centre of things in India, the centre of gravity, and others being just the fringes of India”.

This, Nehru said, was “not only an incorrect approach, but …a dangerous approach” — “You just cannot force any language down the people or group who resist that.”

PANDIT RAVI SHANKAR SHUKLA of the Central Provinces and Berar argued that Keshub Chandra Sen had said in 1874 that without one vernacular language, unity was not possible for India. Many languages now in use in India have Hindi in them, Shukla said; Hindi is prevalent “almost everywhere”; therefore, Hindi “should be made the common language throughout India”. He advised “friends from the South” to “learn Hindi as early as possible, because if they do not learn Hindi quickly enough, they might be left behind”.

G DURGABAI of Madras argued for Hindustani as the national language, and expressed “shock” at the way Hindi in Devanagari script was being pushed. “The attitude on your part to give a national character to what is purely a provincial language is responsible for embittering the feelings of the non-Hindi speaking people.” The demand that Hindi numerals be adopted was “the height of language tyranny and intolerance”, she said.

SHANKARRAO DEO of Bombay warned that “the cry, namely, ‘one culture’ has dangerous implications”, and the very word ‘culture’ was dangerous. “The Chief of the RSS Organisation appeals in the name of culture. Some Congressmen also appeal in the name of culture. Nobody tells us what exactly this word ‘culture’ means. Today, as it is interpreted and understood, it only means the domination of the few over the many… If you insist upon having one culture, then, to me it means the killing of the soul of India.” India stood for “vividhata”, Deo said: “That is our richness… If you mean by national language one language for the whole country, then I am against it.”

SARDAR HUKAM SINGH said he had always given “unreserved support for Hindi in the Devanagari script” as the “lingua franca or Rashtra Bhasha of our country”, but had changed his mind “simply because of the fanaticism and intolerance of those who support it”. Now he preferred “Hindustani in the Roman script”, which “will remove the antagonism… in this House and will enable our Southern friends… to learn the language more easily”.

JAIPAL SINGH of Bihar pushed for the recognition of the tribal languages of Mundari, Gondi and Oraon in the Constitution.

PURUSHOTTAM DAS TANDON of United Provinces said the provision in Ayyangar’s draft “in regard to Hindi not being used at all except in addition to English for five years and more, till a commission makes a recommendation and that recommendation is accepted by the President”, was “a rather hard provision”. Also, dropping Devanagari numerals for their international form was a “monstrosity”. “…I say internationalism is no argument and it is not fair that our people should suddenly in this manner be asked to give up their own numerals.”

MAULANA ABUL KALAM AZAD said the absence of a common language was a key hurdle in finding a replacement for English. He expressed disappointment that the Congress had given up its consensus on Hindustani: “…From one end to the other, narrow-mindedness reigned supreme. …Narrow-mindedness means pettiness and density of mind and refusal to accept higher, nobler and purer thoughts. …It was this narrow-mindedness… which had buried the glory and advancement of ancient India in the darkness of gloom… Of all the arguments employed against Hindustani, greatest emphasis has been laid on the point that if Hindustani is accepted then Urdu also will have to be accommodated. But… Urdu is one of the Indian Languages. It was born and bred and brought up in India and it is the mother-tongue of millions of Hindus and Muslims of this country.”

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