Languages in India: Some experiences and a suggestion

India/Bharatha Kanda has been around for millennia with many languages spoken, without any national language! Some mention about the 56 kingdoms in ancient India. People have been traveling across the length and breadth of India, without a passport or a link language. People learned languages as needed. During the independent movement, some in the north of India decided India should have one language and they chose Hindi. Even before Independence, Hindi was pushed in all parts of India, where it was not spoken. In Madras State Rajaji as Congress Chief Minister imposed Hindi in April 1938. He went to the extent of asking people to speak in Hindi in the streets and Tamil at home. This led to a massive protest in the State (1). Protestors were not just political parties with different views. It included people from all background including religious leaders from Shaivaite Matts. Many political leaders were arrested and two named, Thalamuthu and Natarajan, died in prison. In Chennai, you can see a Government building named after the two who died in prison. By February 1940, Hindi imposition was lifted. Congress lost the next election.

Natrajan and Thalamuthu who died during the protest. I would recommend a recent article by A R Venkatachalapathy about this protest. (4)

After Independence, Hindi imposition was attempted again. In Parliament, attempts to make Hindi as the National language failed. Hindi and English were kept as two official languages and many of the languages spoken in India were kept as National Languages. As far as my knowledge goes, that was the only vote in which President joined to tilt the balance towards Hindi. Parliament vote was divided exactly in half for/against Hindi. Many of the states in India started following a three language formula.

As the Indian Government was trying to push Hindi as the National Language, Paksitan Government pushed Urdu as the National Language. Indian Government yielded when there was widespread opposition in making Hindi the National Language. Pakistan Government did not yield. In 1948 itself, students of Dhaka University staged a massive protest. On 21st February 1952, Pakistani police fired an unarmed and peaceful student demonstration and killed many students. International Mother-Language day is celebrated on this day. Bangladesh was born in 1970s (2). It would be interesting to look at the history of Hindi/Urdu. As I have pointed out UP has been having major Hindu/Muslim conflicts and built BHU and AMU, while Bangalore and Calcutta built IISc and IACS. From what I have learned, Hindi and Urdu both originated from Hindustani. Hindi and Urdu have more in common than Hindi and Sanskrit. Marati and Bengali may be closer to Sanskrit than Hindi.

Forgetting the experience before Independence, Congress Government in the Madras state again tried to impose Hindi in the 1960s. This may have been one of the reasons a tall leader from Tamil Nadu Kamaraj and an incorruptible Kakkan lost the next election. DMK came to power in 1967. Unlike the Parliament which was divided in half, Tamil Nadu assembly voted unanimously for the two language formula of having Tamil and English. I must have started my schooling around that time and I did not know all this history. I learned Tamil and English in school in Madurai. I did pass Prathmic and Madhyama offered by the Dhakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha and had learned to read and write Hindi. I went to IIT Madras and then to IIT Delhi.

During my stay in Delhi, I did not like the way some assumed and insisted on Hindi. One day, after we watched a Tamil movie in the hostel, as we were going to have some tea, we were chatting in Tamil among ourselves. One person on the street shouted at us in Hindi: ‘Aap Dilli may hain, Hindi may bathkaro’. Though I had learned about Hindi protest, I did not know much details at that time. I certainly did not like this. After IIT Delhi, I went to Kansas State University. In my first week, I met a guy from India at the University library. He started talking to me in Hindi and I told him that, I did not know Hindi that well. He was shocked and asked me: How can you be from India and not know Hindi? I realized he had no clue about India. What was surprising, many in the Hindi speaking states assume every one in India knows and speaks Hindi. They have not been taught about India.

After returning to IIT Kanpur as a faculty member, I went to Calcutta to attend a symposium. One of my close friends from Kansas days came to Calcutta from TIFR, Bombay. We were walking in the streets of Calcutta and heard people speaking in Bengali. My friend from Bombay was surprised and told me: Look at these Bengalis, they are speaking in Bengali on the streets. I was even more surprised by his comment and replied: What do you expect the Bengalis to speak? He then told me that they speak Marati at home and Hindi on the streets. I then told him that he should visit Tamil Nadu.

Now we see yet another attempt to make Hindi the only link language in India with the home minister claiming Hindi can unite India. I certainly don’t agree. According to Wikipedia today, world over ” 178 countries have at least one official language, and 101 of these countries recognise more than one language.” (3) India has two official languages and 22 National Languages. I do not see any need for India to have one link language which should be spoken in the streets all over India. Though India became an independent country in 1947, India has survived for several millennia including seven decades after independence without having such a link language. Imposing one is not needed. Starting from Rajaji in 1937, the proposers of Hindi have given one after another illogical reasons. One such argument was Hindi will improve the employment opportunities. It was never the case. After 7 decades of three language formula by all states except Tamil Nadu, Hindi states are among the least developed. For the home minister to say ‘Hindi is needed for Unity’, is indeed unfortunate as he is ignoring the fact that India has been around and has progressed well over the last seven decades.

Would Hindi help all Indians travel across the length and breadth? It is not fair to ask everyone to learn your language to help you on travel. I propose the following, which many may not like. Local language/Hindi/English be used in all sign boards across India. Local language and English remain as official languages in the States that do not want to have Hindi as an official language. All Government services, announcements by flights and trains should be made in local languages in addition to English/Hindi. If people migrate to different states, they will learn the local language. They have been doing it for millennia! Forcing Hindi on people against their wishes is not wise.

  1. M. Ilanchezhiyan, “Thamizhan Thodutha Por” (War waged by Tamils) II Edition 1986.
  2. Safar Ali Akanda, Language Movement and the Making of Bangladesh”, The University Press Limited, Bangladesh 2013
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Official_language
  4. https://www.rediff.com/news/special/when-the-south-rose-against-hindi/20190614.htm