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Minding our languages

With Tamil poised to enter the Chennai High Court, Neera Chandhoke looks back at the Indian state’s successful negotiations with linguistic demands. Lessons of political prudence have been learnt through trials by fire, she says

Written by Neerachandhoke | April 24, 2008 12:31:36 am

The Tamil Nadu Government has demanded that in addition to English, Tamil should be used to conduct proceedings in the high court. The acceptance of this demand by the Union law minister, as reported in this paper on Sunday April 20, illustrates once again that the Indian state has proved more than sagacious when it comes to accommodating linguistic demands. This lesson in political prudence has, however, not come naturally to the state. It has been learnt literally through trial by fire, for in the 1950s and 1960s the new nation was in danger of being torn apart on the twin issues of linguistic states and that of the national language.

Throughout the freedom struggle, the Congress leadership had been committed to the idea that language should form the basis of constituent states in a post-Independence federal India. In 1927, the Congress adopted a resolution suggesting that ‘that the time had come for the redistribution of provinces on a linguistic basis’. The resolution was significant because the colonial power had constituted administrative units in complete disregard of language ties. For example, the Madras presidency stretched from Cape Comorin and touched the Jagannath Temple in Puri. It extended to the Bay of Bengal in the east, and to the Arabian Sea along the Malabar Coast. The Presidency encircled Mysore State, and impinged on the princely states of Cochin and Travancore on the coast of Coromandel. Not surprisingly in 1931, 60.3 per cent of the population in the Presidency was to speak a language other than Tamil: Telugu, Oriya, Malayalam, and Kannada. In the same year, 57.2 per cent of the population of Bombay Presidency spoke a language other than Marathi, such as Gujarati, Sindhi and Kannada.

In 1928, the Motilal Nehru Report reiterated that the principle of linguistic states was desirable since language ‘corresponds with a special variety of culture, of traditions and literature. In a linguistic area all these factors will help in the general progress of the province’. But when the time came for the realisation of these commitments, the leadership of the newly constituted republic was to palpably hesitate and prevaricate. Given the political context of the time, this vacillation was understandable. Linguistic states might just have opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in a country that had been already divided in the name of religion, consolidate narrow, chauvinistic loyalties, and threaten the unity and the political integrity of the country. On November 27 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru stated in the Constituent Assembly that though there were pressing issues facing the government, language was not one of them. And the Linguistic Provinces Commission or the Dar Commission stated that the time “for embarking upon the enterprise of redrawing the map of the whole of Southern India, including the Deccan, Bombay, and the Central Provinces” had not come.

The government was, however, compelled to change its mind when Sri Potti Sriramulu, a respected leader of Andhra Pradesh and a disciple of Gandhi, went on a fast unto death for a separate Andhra state in 1952. His death prompted language riots in Telugu-speaking areas. On December 16 1952, Nehru announced that Andhra would be a separate state, even as demands for other linguistic states burst onto the horizon. Nehru appointed the States Reorganisation Commission on December 22 1953. The report of the commission, which ran into 267 pages, and which consisted of four parts, was made public in October 1955. The report proposed the linguistic reorganisation of states. In 1956, the Seventh Amendment to the Indian Constitution reordered the political map on the basis of language. The leadership was, however, determined that no demand that was connected with religious identities, or secessionism, would be tolerated. In other cases, the government would decide whether a particular linguistic group should get its own state. Right up to 1966 when Punjab was trifurcated, often bitter and violent conflicts over language were ultimately resolved through pluralistic solutions.

The Government of India was confronted by similar violence and political mobilisation when it came to deciding which language would be the national language. Ambedkar confessed that at the time of the discussion of the draft constitution, no article proved more controversial than the one that dealt with Hindi as the national language. The very thought provoked outrage among non-Hindi speakers, particularly Tamil speakers who tended to regard Hindi as a latecomer on the linguistic scene, compared with Tamil which is an ancient, classical language. Moreover, to accord status to one language as the national language would be to give speakers of that language an unfair advantage in educational and employment opportunities, and to correspondingly disadvantage non-speakers of the language.

Confrontation was pre-empted by postponing the implementation of Hindi as the national language till 1965. But by 1963 the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu assumed appalling proportions. Sections of the Constitution were publicly set on fire, and student unions and political parties joined the massive protests against the decision to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking populations. January 26 1965, the day when the switch to Hindi was to be implemented, was marked by public mourning, hoisting of black flags, rioting, police firing, killings, and self-immolation. The central government had no option except to assure states that Hindi would not be imposed, and that they could continue to use English for official purposes. Further, the major languages of India, which are listed in the Eighth Schedule, are treated as official languages. The original Eighth Schedule contained 14 languages, now it contains 22 languages.

As the experience of India in the decades following Independence establishes, the only option that is available to a multilingual society is that of recognising and validating linguistic identities. Even as democratic societies learn to respect diversity, it is possible that new trans-linguistic communities around work and leisure-time are constructed. The denial of language, on the other hand, is to invite conflict. This has been sadly proved by the experience of our neighbour — Sri Lanka.

The writer is professor of political science, University of Delhi

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