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Shastri’s burden

The new prime minister was soon besieged by food shortage and the language agitation

Written by Inder Malhotra |
September 3, 2012 12:24:49 am

The new prime minister was soon besieged by food shortage and the language agitation

AS a perceptive American observer once remarked,the burdens on the Indian prime minister “dwarf the Himalayas”. Remarkably,he said this in the time of the towering Jawaharlal Nehru. What this would mean in the case of Lal Bahadur Shastri — who,many thought,was to his predecessor what Harry Truman was to Franklin Roosevelt — was to become evident very soon. Hardly had he settled down in the top job,when food shortage first and the simmering language conflict later besieged,and practically overwhelmed,him.

Discontent with soaring food prices was acute and countrywide. The language agitation,when it erupted with the force of a bombshell at the beginning of 1965,hit him and his government even harder. Shastri hadn’t invented either of the two hugely troublesome problems. These were deeply rooted in Indian history,since the British days,and things hadn’t changed much after Independence. In 1957,Nehru had “deeply regretted” that India was unable to feed itself even a decade after the tryst with destiny. It was Shastri’s bad luck that both problems reached a crescendo during his watch.

While the main reason for the food shortage was the gap between demand and supply,a major change in the pyramid of the country’s power structure,with transference of power from the Centre to the states,had aggravated the situation. Food is a state subject,and all states,ruled by the Congress party at that time,fiercely guarded their rights. Nehru,with his authority and charisma,could still persuade them to accept what they did not like. This was no longer possible. Shastri’s willingness,nay keenness,to share power with state chief ministers and Congress party leaders was of little help. Between June and November 1964,he held numerous meetings at which every worthwhile suggestion was vetoed by one stakeholder or the other.

It was in the midst of this unhappy situation that the language conflict burst into the open in Tamil Nadu,and for several months eclipsed even the food problem.

The story had begun in 1949,when the Constituent Assembly,after heated debates,had agreed that Hindi was the official language of the Union of India. This was accompanied by a safeguard that for a 15-year period English would also be used for all official purposes,and the resultant article in the Constitution was a compromise brought about by Nehru,always sensitive to the sentiments of linguistic minorities. Hindi zealots were insistent that the changeover to Hindi alone should be instant or at best within five years. The 15-year “grace period” was to end on January 26,1965 because the Constitution had come into effect on that day in 1950.

However,as Ramachandra Guha has recorded in his India After Gandhi,strong opposition to a changeover to Hindi alone on any date had begun in Tamil Nadu as early as 1956,ironically the year during which the country’s political map was redrawn along linguistic lines. In that year,the Academy of Tamil Culture passed a resolution urging that English should “continue to be the official language of the Union and language of communication between the Union and states…”. The signatories to it included not only C.N. Annadurai,leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam,vehemently opposed to Hindi,but also C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji),a veteran of the freedom movement who had not yet left the Congress party.

Sadly,no one in the ruling establishment in Delhi took note of this. So,two years later,the issue again led to violent agitation when the statutory Official Language Commission recommended (with two Tamil members dissenting) “that steps should be taken forthwith to ensure the effective changeover to Hindi on the appointed day”. Nehru’s prompt response to the agitation and representation from Congress MPs from southern states was that “English would remain the ‘associate official language’ for as long as non-Hindi-speaking people wished it”. In 1963,he piloted the Official Languages Act incorporating his assurance on the status of English after 1965. Since the new law said English “may continue”,people in Tamil Nadu complained that the assurance fell short of an “iron-clad guarantee”. They were assuaged,however,when Nehru added his own “personal” assurance in the House.

With Nehru gone,the mood in Tamil Nadu changed. The Union home ministry’s circular to all Central government departments added to southern suspicions of both Shastri and the Union home minister,G.L. Nanda,being supporters of “Hindi zealots”. The last straw on the camel’s back was a particularly provocative circular by the Union information and broadcasting ministry on the use of Hindi.

The DMK launched a succession of collective agitations in all major cities,and in these at least 50 people were killed in police firing. What made the situation practically uncontrollable was that two young DMK activists,presumably drawing inspiration from Buddhist monks in Vietnam,immolated themselves. Caught in the crossfire between anti-Hindi explosion in the South and Hindi backlash in the North,with the Congress party deeply divided,the prime minister was slow to act. On February 11,Shastri’s highly competent food minister,C. Subramaniam,and a junior minister,also from Tamil Nadu,resigned. That night,Shastri made a five-point broadcast in which he offered the Tamils much,but not enough to satisfy them. About the complexity,contradictions and procrastination of subsequent developments the less said the better.

Suffice it to say that a “package deal” that satisfied all concerned was reached only in June,shortly before the 1965 war with Pakistan began. It greatly strengthened Shastri’s position,but before he could incorporate the language consensus into the Official Languages Act,he had died in Tashkent.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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