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.

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


Borders in Science and Nation: The need for them and the need to have a healthy disrespect for them!

Tamil is an ancient language that has been around for several millennia. Several philosophers have written poetry, which are very old, but their content remains applicable for all the times. One such poem was written by Kanian Poongundranaar during the Tamil Sangam (which are perhaps comparable to Academic Societies today) period, which started around 300 BC (1). This poem starts as: யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் (Yaadhum Oorae, yaavarum kaelir), loosely translated as “All towns are the same and all people are our kin”. This is depicted in the United Nations Organization for the profound truth it conveys (2). The translation given in the Wikipedia page quoted says ‘all men are our kin’. This is incorrect and ‘all are our kin’ is the right translation. He did not envision any borders between towns!

I have written earlier about how I became a physical chemist, bordering physics and chemistry. I have been in the editorial advisory board of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP), a Journal published by the Owner societies. The title of the Journal implies that the border between physics and chemistry are thin and either can be the first or last name, for the sub-discipline. More importantly, this Journal showed how borders between the nation-states of Europe had become thin. This Journal combined several favorite Journals in physical chemistry published in various nations in the UK and Europe (among them were two Journals named after two of the greatest scientists of all time, Faraday and Bunsen, Faraday Discussion, published in UK and ‘Berichte der Bunsengesellschaft für physikalische Chemie‘ published in German). PCCP has established itself as one of the leading Journals in this area. Brexit may have happened but I am confident that PCCP will continue, at least, for my lifetime. It is published by the Owner Societies, which has many of the European Chemical Societies as its members. A few years ago, Chemistry, an Asian Journal came into existence as well.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember learning that chemistry is a study of matter and physics is a study of energy. Of course, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2 was already known having energy on the left hand side and matter (it’s mass) on the right hand side. One can translate this equation as physics = chemistry. However, still physics and chemistry as individual and independent disciplines exist and it may continue to exist. One subtle difference, that would be lost in this generalization is that chemists worry more about how atoms combine to form molecules or liquids or solids. They worry about the interactions between them and how they transform from one to another. Study of making and breaking bonds between atoms is indeed chemistry. Though atomic physics exists, there is no atomic chemistry. Atoms have to join together for chemistry!

Science, as a pursuit of understanding nature really cannot have a border. However, it is important to have disciplines and sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines and for individual researchers, focus on one specific problem in a narrow sub-discipline is needed. Divide and conquer works. One soon realizes that even to solve a specific problem in Science, it is important to have contributions from many disciplines. Again, taking a personal example, we have established experimental laboratories in India, where we can make the weakest bond, even between inert gases such as argon and neon and study them with a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer. We can also break the strongest bond, the triple bond between two N atoms in N2, in a single pulse shock tube. In both laboratories, building the experimental facilities involved knowledge of mechanical engineering, electronics and communication engineering, vacuum techniques, physics, chemistry and, of course, maths. One lifetime is not enough to learn all these thoroughly but even to talk to experts in all these area one needs to understand these subjects to some extent. It is important to collaborate and that involves mutual trust and respect. Learning all these subjects is not trivial and may require different skills one person may not be able to acquire. None of this skills are more important than others.

We have had humans on this earth for 200,000 years or more.  Currently, we have more than 7 billion people on our earth and they are distributed in about 250+ countries. We started living in caves, feeling secure and hunting animals, migrated to plains, started farming, developed languages to communicate with each other and started developing codes  of conduct so that we can all coexist. We really had no choice about whether to exist, but having come in to this world, we had to find ways to coexist. Religion was found and religious texts prescribed rules for life. Eventually, over the last few hundred years, the nation-state model has started working well. Most nations are democratic and they have a constitution to guide them with elected representatives who have a fixed term.

Given the size of this world, it is not practical to be governed by one ruler or executive and so we have many countries, which are divided in to states, which are divided into districts, and so on. And we have the United Nations. Any conflict in smaller entities is resolved by discussion and arbitration, with mutually agreed rules. While these borders are needed for practical purposes, as the borders in Science, we need to realize that these are arbitrary and came in to existence rather recently. As much as a chemist has no reason to hate a physicist, I don’t see any reason for a person from one district or state or country to hate another one from a different district or state or country. One could add, language and religion as well, which are drawing borders between people. As it is true in the border areas of science, one can note that in the borders drawn based on language, religion, state, nations etc… there is really no big difference between the two sides.

Those from India now are worried about two things as a nation. Tension in the borders between India and Pakistan and the tension in the borders between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When we realize that the senior leader of the ruling party BJP, Advani was born in what is Pakistan today, one can get a different perspective. Hosur, a small town in Tamil Nadu, bordering Karnataka, has it’s name in Kannada (Hosur in Kannada means new town). I have been to temples 60 km north of Bangalore (Yoganarasimha temple), where I saw the statues of 13 Aalwargal (Vaishnavite saints, following Vishnu as their God) who wrote poems in Tamil. Clearly the borders have been drawn recently. If we use them for any reason other than administrative simplicity. we will have problems.

Scientists know the importance of collaboration. Again, taking an example from a field that has excited me i.e. the hydrogen bond, one of the most important paper was published recently in Science, from China through a collaboration between physicists and chemists (3). They could see ‘the hydrogen bond’, when seeing atoms and molecules were thought to be impossible, not so long ago! Readers having no access to Science, may not be able to read it and anyone interested is welcome to read a commentary I wrote in Current Science, which is available online with free access (4). Naturally, when people from across the borders work together, they can achieve lot more than what is possible when they work independently. However, not only in Science, but also in human relations, mutual trust and respect are important. When that is lost, there will be tension,war, destruction …. Sooner or later, people realize that, it is better to develop mutual trust and respect and find ways to coexist.

I recommend an autobiograpy written by Prof. Curt Wittig from the University of Southern California (5). It is long but worth reading. A part of this was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry A in a Festchrift in his honor a few years ago. He has done some beautiful experiments in physical chemistry that helped in understanding the microscopic details of how chemical reactions happen. From his autobiography, one can learn a few things about the nations and their borders in Europe. The city in which he was born kept changing hands to different countries. His experiences in the Chicago southern neighborhood is unbelievable. It also shows that where you started in life hardly matters. Given the right opportunities, you can excel in your career and life.

In closing, let me reiterate: One should not take any of the borders too seriously, if one is interested in real progress. In the references below, two are to Wikipedia pages and they have to be understood as unauthenticated information.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_period Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaniyan_Pungundranar Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  3. J. Zhang, P. Chen, B. Yuan, W. Ji, Z. Cheng, X. Qiu, Science,Vol. 342, Issue 6158, pp. 611-614 2013. Link: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6158/611
  4. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. VOL. 105, NO. 7, pp 892-894.  Link: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/105/07/0892.pdf
  5. C. Wittig autobiography, longer version available at http://www.curtwittig.com/wp-content/uploads/curt-wittig-autobio.pdf