Although Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s call on Saturday for Hindi as India’s “Rajbhasha”, the common language that could apparently unite the country, has been met with reasonable resistance from the southern states and West Bengal, the biggest pushback yet will come from Tamil Nadu.
Political leaders and movie actors, the twin-pillars of Tamil Nadu’s socio-political life, have reacted strongly to Shah’s assertion of the national importance of Hindi with actor-politician Kamal Haasan being the most frontal when he said “no Shah, Sultan or Samrat” should renege on the promise of university in diversity that had been made when India was made a republic. DMK leader MK Stalin wanted to nip the move in the bud and has called for a statewide agitation on September 20.
Although not directly related to the language row, actor Surya’s remarks on Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse on Monday in which he quoted Dravidian ideologue Periyar E V Ramasamy (better known as Periyar), that Godse was only the gun that killed Gandhi also found sufficient resonance in the political circles.
Stalin and Haasan were quick to seize the opportunity offered by Shah’s casual superciliousness because opposition to Hindi is in the DNA of Dravidian politics. If the uncompromising passion for Tamil and its culture is one of the defining features of Dravidian ideology, opposition to Hindi or any Vadamozhi (northern language) is a catalyst that perpetually strengthens it.
Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre, there has been periodic assertions from its leaders on the apparent supremacy of Hindi. In 2014, the UGC reportedly sent a circular to universities in Tamil Nadu that Hindi should be their main language. The same year, there were also allegations of promotion of Sanskrit through CBSE schools and in 2016, Union Minister Jitendra Singh had reportedly said his government wanted to promote the use of Hindi as a routine language for conversations in government offices in the South and the North East.
The threat of Sanskrit came up again in 2016 when even a 93-year-old Karunanidhi had to revive his opposition to Vadamozhi in the most critical language possible. “Don’t create a situation for another agitation like the anti-Hindi agitation. If they are planning to impose it, then every Tamil should come together to root out the dominance of Sanskrit. Let’s take a pledge that there is no place for Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu,” reportedly Karunanidhi said.
In a culturally autonomous Tamil Nadu, Hindi and Sanskrit are not some languages, but inter-changeable metaphors of north Indian domination and that’s precisely why it instantly unites people across party-lines, including those who ally with the BJP from time to time. In fact, nowhere in south India people express and assert their socio-cultural autonomy as politically as in Tamil Nadu. It’s what makes the state unique in the South.
This is not surprising given that the state’s modern political history is built partially on the anti-Hindi sentiments dating all the way back to pre-Independence India. The state witnessed major protests in the 1930s, when the then Chief Minister of Madras Presidency C Rajagopalachri tried to impose Hindi. Widespread agitations erupted also in the 1940s when another Congress government in the Presidency revived the imposition; and also in the 1960s, when the Centre was trying to make Hindi the sole official language. In fact, these agitations swept the Congress and the national sentiments out of Tamil Nadu politics and strengthened the Dravidian movement and provincial pride.
Tamil Nadu still continues to be a state with a very poor presence of Hindi although CBSE schools in some culturally discernible pockets do try to encourage Sanskrit and Hindi. Even after the anti-Hindi agitations of the 1965, national governments have been trying to push it. In 1986, the DMK suspected Hindi imposition through Navodaya Schools and hence fought against the Rajiv Gandhi government; and in 2014, Jayalalithaa reacted strongly to the Centre’s order asking government of India officials to communicate in Hindi in social media as well as against the UGC’s move to impose Hindi in the universities in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly by 2014, the Congress, which still carries the original burden of Hindi-imposition, backed Jayalalitha.
Despite repeated pushbacks, the BJP and its leaders fail to see the big picture and understand that Tamil Nadu’s resistance is only an expression of its regional pride. In fact, it manifests in many ways, but probably assumes the most perceptible form when demonstrated as opposition to Hindi.
Whether it’s the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, Mullapperiyar and Cauvery, Jallikkattu, GST or NEET, whenever the socio-cultural identity of the Tamils come under threat, the state unites and fights back. In fact, Jayalalithaa, the BJP’s ally once, had been the most audacious among all the contemporary leaders in asserting such regional autonomy. She always stood up to the Centre, made them rollback decisions that she found hurtful to the state, kept Union Ministers waiting for an appointment, and showed absolute disregard for the top-down demonstration of power from Delhi.
This is a pitch that Stalin and upcoming politicians such as Haasan will certainly use.
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