Sunday 20 September 2015

India's National Language Dilemma

India’s National Language Dilemma

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 20 September, 2015

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


Since independence, India has faced a major dilemma.

As probably the most diverse democracy on the planet – a multi-religious (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and other minorities), multi-linguistic (today there are 22 official languages in India), and multi-ethnic democracy characterized by community and caste, India faced the formidable challenge since its formation of how to create unity in this incredible diversity. Other countries can barely fathom the complexity of this challenge. One goes from one state to another – like Tamil Nadu to Karnataka, or Maharashtra to Gujarat, and the language of communication changes completely. It is like saying that when you drive from Kentucky to Ohio in the USA, you have to speak a different language. Another way to imagine this complexity is to imagine what Europe would be if it were a country rather than a continent composed of many countries. Such cultural complexity as seen in India is not seen in any other country.

One of the solutions proposed to create unity within this diversity was the creation of a national language. This solution was proposed by the Indian National Congress (INC), the party that spearheaded the nonviolent freedom movement in India. Prominent leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, and Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (aka Rajaji) mooted this idea so that the whole of India could communicate in one voice. This would lead to administrative clarity as well as cultural cohesiveness, they argued, and forge a nation of multiple, multi-dimensional identities into a whole.

Historical Opposition

However, this idea has faced serious opposition from its inception. The idea was introduced by the INC in 1937 when they were in charge of the Home Rule government under British authority. Rajaji introduced it during his tenure as Premier of Madras Province and made education in Hindi compulsory, leading to protests organized by EV Ramasamy Naicker (aka Periyar) against what Periyar considered the imposition of north Indian values and ideas on the people of the south – the domination of the Dravidians by the Aryans, as Periyar viewed it.

Periyar was a giant in the world of Tamil Nadu (the state that was formed based on language from the Madras state for speakers of the Tamil language) politics, and he left a legacy that has survived to this day, and will likely continue for a long time hereafter as well. Periyar was one of the leading pro-Dalit (Dalits are the lowest strata – the “untouchables” – in Hinduism’s notorious caste system) voices in the country, and he saw Hindi as an offshoot of Sanskrit, the language of the upper castes in Hinduism. He saw the people of Tamil Nadu as the original inhabitants of India – the Dravidians, who were subjugated and assimilated in a gradual process by the migrating Aryans from outside India. He saw the caste system in Hinduism as a construct by the Aryans to subjugate the native Dravidians in their own land, and therefore argued for the rejection of all Sanskrit-based culture as symbols of oppression of the Dravidians.

Periyar’s efforts in raising a Dravidian consciousness led to the formation of parties that claimed to stand for the rights of the “Dravidian people” – essentially, the non-Brahmins – parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) (lit., “Dravidian Peoples’ Progress Party”) and its chief rival, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), where the name “Anna” refers to a prominent leader of the Dravidian movement – CN Annadurai, the disciple of Periyar who became chief minister of Tamil Nadu following Periyar’s ideals on Dravida empowerment. The hold of the Dravida empowerment philosophy evolved by Periyar is so strong that for the last 48 years, power in Tamil Nadu has only been in the hands of either the DMK or the AIADMK.

Following independence in 1947, the Central Government tried to make the teaching of Hindi compulsory throughout India. This evoked widespread protests in Tamil Nadu, led by Periyar, eventually forcing the government to relent and make Hindi an optional subject in Tamil Nadu in 1950.

The Constituent Assembly considered the question of a national language and finally decided against it. Instead, it advocated that two languages, English and Hindi, be used for all official business in India for 15 years. In 15 years, Hindi would be widely promoted and eventually after 15 years, English would be dropped as an official language and Hindi would be the sole official language.

While this kept tensions under the lid for some time, people started getting worried once the 15 year deadline approached. The government instituted first the BG Kher committee in 1955 and later the Parliamentary Committee on Official Language (chaired by Gobind Ballabh Pant and hence also called the Pant Committee) to study the issue in 1957. The Pant committee recommended that Hindi be made the primary official language and English the subsidiary official language. This was again greeted with protests. To quell the agitation, PM Nehru stated in Parliament that the arrangement of English as the second official language would not end in 1965.

To keep good his word, Nehru introduced the Official Languages Act in 1963, two years before the 15-year deadline of the Constituent Assembly ended in 1965, to clarify that English would continue to be an official language beyond 1965. The act recommended that the then-existing system continue for another 10 years, after which a committee would examine how much progress Hindi had made in its spread through India and make recommendations to the President.

However, this did not satisfy the DMK, because of the language of the bill, which they viewed as ambiguous. The bill stated that:

Notwithstanding the expiration of the period of fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution, the English language may, as from the appointed day, continue to be used, in addition to Hindi,--

(a) For all the official purpose of the Union for which it was being used immediately before that day; and
(b) For the transaction of business in Parliament.

The difficulty the DMK had with the bill was the use of the word “may” in the sentence reading, “the English language may, as from the appointed day, continue to be used…” The DMK argued that “may” was ambiguous, and could just as easily be interpreted as “may not,” and so rejected the bill.

Soon after this, Nehru died, and his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri and his cabinet ministers Gulzarilal Nanda and Morarji Desai were strongly in favour of making Hindi a national language. This prompted the DMK, who feared that Shastri would not keep Nehru’s word, to intensify agitations. Things came to a boil when the Congress CM of Tamil Nadu introduced a bill to make compulsory in Tamil Nadu a three-language formula (English, Hindi, Tamil.)

The 15-year deadline for the continuation of English as a second official language would end on Republic Day, 1965 (January 22). Therefore, the DMK intensified anti-Hindi agitations in January 1965. Eventually Shastri backed down and agreed to honor Nehru’s commitments.
In 1968 a National Policy on Education was implemented by the Indira Gandhi government after the death of Shastri. This suggested a three-language formula, where children in all states in India would learn three languages – the language of the state, Hindi, and English. In states where the state language was Hindi, the students would have to learn any one of the many other official languages of India, preferably a South Indian language for the purposes of national integration.

However, this policy was not followed faithfully by most states. The Tamil Nadu government unilaterally passed a law not requiring compliance with the central law, and said that only Tamil and English need be taught in Tamil Nadu. In Hindi-speaking states, parents chose not to learn any southern languages, but use the provision to teach their children Sanskrit as the third language. The issue was thus never resolved.

Although Tamil Nadu has been at the forefront of efforts to block Hindi as the national language, many other states have a similar objection, although they do not state it so vocally. One such state is Bengal, which takes great pride in Bengali, considers it culturally more advanced than Hindi, and sees no reason for Bengali to play second fiddle to Hindi. Many other states have similar regional pride and do not see a reason to strongly opt for Hindi as a national language.

Thus, at many levels, there is opposition within India to naming Hindi as the national language. Many attempts have been made to reintroduce Hindi as the national language, but there has always been opposition to it. A recent Gujarat High Court ruling in 2010 affirmed that Hindi was not the national language and could not be imposed as such, even though Hindi had penetrated through most of India.

English as a Possibility?

Given the difficulty with Hindi as a national language, if one needs a link language throughout India, why not use English? After all, English is the lingua franca of the world. Even in countries with strong local language traditions, such as France or Germany, learning English is compulsory. In China, the government is making a very strong push to make its citizens learn English to be more competitive globally. In India itself, even poor people have understood well that English is the ticket to prosperity, so more parents want their children to go to a school where English, rather than the local state language, is the medium of instruction.

Given all this, it makes eminent sense for English to be made the national language of India on pragmatic grounds. However, this offends the nationalist spirit of many Indians, who point out that English was the language of the foreign rulers (the British) who ruled India for 200 years. They also point out that while many people in India may speak English, it is actually the native language of very few in India. For many, this seems like a colonial hangover.

In addition, people fear that, if English becomes the national language, literature in local languages will start to be neglected because local languages would cease to be taught in schools. Even in present-day India, the focus seems to have irretrievably shifted from regional languages to English, purely because of the job market. This has advocates of local languages and cultural diversity concerned (and rightly so) about the vast treasure of literature in local languages vanishing from India and about a generation of Indians, in the not-so-distant future, that is incapable of reading or appreciating any literature in regional languages. That would certainly be a huge cultural loss.

One could point out that opponents of Hindi also fear a similar cultural loss – that Hindi literature and poetry would benefit at the cost of the literature and poetry of other states.

Being Novel by Coming Full Circle

As we have seen, it is unlikely Hindi will ever be accepted by the entire nation currently. English also faces opposition from many angles, no matter what the pragmatic value it adds. One clearly needs a different approach.

Some have argued for Sanskrit as an alternative to Hindi, but there are two problems with it. One, it is a dead language. No one, apart from one small village in Karnataka, actually uses it for everyday language. Two, introducing Sanskrit will not satisfy Tamil Nadu – for, recall that the main objection of Tamil Nadu is that they did not want a Brahminical, “Aryan,” language thrust upon them. So Sanskrit will not work.

Here I propose a novel solution – actually an old solution that time has made novel.

I propose to introduce Hindustani – the mix of Hindi and Persian that was the dominant dialect of Hindi at the time of independence – as the national language.

This may seem like a foolish proposal, given that this was the language that Rajaji and Nehru wanted implemented in 1937 as the national language, and opposed passionately by Periyar. However, consider these facts.

·       Hindustani was being proposed as the national language only until 1947
·       Once Pakistan was separated from India, the Congress dropped the demand for Hindustani and switched to “pure” Hindi, whatever that means (in practice it meant replacing well-known Hindustani words like “maafi” with esoteric Sanskrit words like “kshama.”
·       Today’s Hindi bears very little resemblance to Hindustani because all the Urdu/Persian words have been stripped out.
·       If Hindustani becomes the national language, it will be a learning burden on both Hindi speakers and non-Hindi speakers alike because the “official” version of Hindustani that everyone will learn will contain substantial amounts of Urdu and Persian words.
·       Not only this, the inclusion of Urdu words means that this will be a good national unification bridge between Hindus and Muslims as well.
·       If Hindi speakers agree to this, it will be a big concession from them, and then Tamil people may not mind making a concession in turn.
·       Hindustani is not the language of Hinduism. There are plenty of non-Sanskrit words. The vedas do not use words like ijaazat, matlab, or kaamiyaab. Hence there is no need to think that this is an effort by Brahmins to thrust their culture on Dalits.
·       Hindustani is the language of Bollywood, and this is the greatest unifier in India today.
·       Hindustani may have been the common language of north India in 1947; today the official language is pure Hindi and Hindustani has been de-emphasized, leading to relative ignorance among the people of north India in Hindustani.
·       Hindustani, unlike English, is a uniquely Indian language. It is a blend of languages that was achieved in India. Nothing foreign about it.
·       And finally, (I will elaborate on this point in the next section), Hindustani is a much prettier language than Hindi. 

The Beauty of Hindustani

One of the key reasons I prefer Hindustani is that it is a far prettier language than Hindi, especially Sanskritised Hindi. Sanskrit is full of hard sounds that do not flow easily for music and poetry. This makes pure Hindi a difficult language for poetry and songs. Recognizing this, most poets who work in the Hindi film industry actually use Hindustani abundantly to make the language more musical. Perhaps some examples will help to understand. 

Below, Hindi phrases from songs are marked in red, and Hindustani phrases are marked in blue, so you can see the difference. See if you can even hum the pure Hindi equivalents.


Intezaar, aitbaar, iqraar, aur pyaar

Pratiksha, bharosa, sweekruti, aur pyaar


Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki qasam
Phir mujhe nargisi ankhon ka sahaara de de
Mera khoya hua rangeen nazaara de de

Meri priyatama mujhe meri prem ki vachan
Phir mujhe halki peeli netron ka sahaara de de
Mera gum hua rangeen adbhut drishya de de


Sham e gham ki qasam
Aaj gamgeen hain hum
Aa bhi jaa, aa bhi jaa aaj mere sanam

Dukh bhari sham par satya
Aaaj dukhi hain hum
Aa bhi jaa, aa bhi jaa, aaj mere premika


Seene mein jalan, ankhon mein toofan sa kyoon hai
Is sheher mein har shaqs pareshaan sa kyoon hai

Hriday mein jwala, netron mein aandhi sa kyoon hai
Is nagar mein, har vyakti chintit kyoon hai


Aap ki nazron nein samjha pyar ke kaabil mujhe
Aap ki vichar nein samjha prem ke yogya mujhe


Ajeeb dastan hai ye, kahan shuru kahan khatam
Ye manzilen hain kaunsi, na wo samajh sake na ham

Asaamaanya kahani hai yeh, kahan prarambh kahan samapt
Ye lakshya hain kaunsi, na wo samajh paae na ham


Khwab chun rahi hai raat, beqaraar hai
Tumhara intezaar hai

Sapne chun rahi hai raat, utsuk hai
Tumhari pratiksha hai

See my point? Because of all the lovely sounds in Hindustani due to Persian and Urdu influences, Hindustani sounds a lot prettier than Hindi. Given the other advantages I have listed for Hindustani in the bulleted list, and given that for 68 years we have struggled with this dilemma, I urge the nation to give this thought careful consideration.

Jai Hind!


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