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60 REVOLUTIONS — ANTI-HINDI AGITATION

Let there be a solution not necessarily by us. We are not the last scions of India. Perhaps we are confused. We have more political rancour. In future times a proper solution may be arrived at…. It is my request, it is my pleading and I would say that on a solution of this issue depends the entire political future.... —C.N. Annadurai, Rajya Sabha, May 1963

In a now perhaps justly forgotten book, ominously called India: The Most Dangerous Decade, published in 1960, US analyst Selig Harrison—like a prophet of doom—had predicted, “the risk of India being split up into a number of totalitarian small nationalities”.

The one prominent seed-bed of discontent Harrison identified was the Tamil south. Even though the rising Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) formally foreswore secession from the Indian union in the wake of the Chinese aggression, this was one prediction of Harrison which was not too far off the mark.

The seeds of language conflict were present even in the founding moment of India as its Constitution was being drafted by a far-from democratically-elected Constituent Assembly.With a boycott by Muslim League representatives, the assembly was little more than a Congress legislature party. Language was a chink in the nationalist armour throughout the long anti-colonial struggle.

An anti-Hindi protest in Coimbatore
An anti-Hindi protest in Coimbatore
Even at the turn of the twentieth century, attempts were made by well-meaning nationalists—the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, for instance—to popularise the teaching of Hindi.

But the Hindi zealots were not particularly helpful with their endless debates, and consequent confusion, in defining Hindi and Hindustani and its relationship with Urdu and north Indian Muslims. Linguistic reorganisation of provincial Congress committees was then little more than pragmatic acceptance of ground reality.

The most acrimonious debates in the Constituent Assembly were, interestingly, not on a common civil code but on the question of official language of the Indian Union.

The arguments demonstrate that both sides viewed language as underpinning national unity—if the Hindi zealots saw it as a unifying force, its opponents saw its imposition on the south as the cause of discord. In the event, the story, most certainly apocryphal, of Hindi nudging its nose at the finishing line by the casting vote of the chairman, did little to legitimise its new constitutional status. The 15-year deadline for English to be an associate official language only postponed the day of reckoning.

The force of sentiment against Hindi could not have been lost on the members of the Constituent Assembly. For barely a decade earlier the Congress government in Madras Presidency had faced a most popular (which included Muslims as well) agitation against the teaching of Hindi compulsorily in schools.

Did you know? 

  • January 26, 1965  was declared a day of mourning in the south by an anti-Hindi DMK.

The Congress’s use of the same brutal colonial methods they had earlier condemned, added to the force of the movement. The anti-Hindi agitation of 1937-39 made a Periyar (the venerated one) of E. V. Ramasamy.

The years leading up to January 26, 1965, when Hindi would become the sole official language, were marked by continued arguments and debates. DMK was to spearhead the decisive anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s.

New converts were won—P. Subbarayan, who had at best been evasive in the Constituent Assembly, Suniti Kumar Chatterji and the sagely C. Rajagopalachari who had faced the brunt of the 1937-39 anti-Hindi agitation, which gave legitimacy to the movement.

Paradoxically, nobody strengthened the case against Hindi more than the Hindi fanatics themselves. Countering that Hindi was the language of the majority, former chief minister C.N. Annadurai brilliantly quipped that, in that case, the common crow and not the peacock would have to be India’s national bird.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s legally-not-binding assurance that English would remain as long as the south wanted it to did little to solve the problem. Every successive move by the state to solve the problem—for instance, the Official Language Act, 1963—were seen as pandering to Hindi demands.

A students’ procession against Hindi in Tiruchy
A students’ procession against Hindi in Tiruchy
With DMK declaring January 26, 1965, as a day of mourning, the stage was set for unprecedented turmoil in independent India. A moderate Rajagopalachari suggested Part XVII of the Constitution containing the section on the official language of the Union, “be heaved and thrown into the Arabian Sea”, while DMK announced its burning.

Thousands were arrested and top DMK leaders incarcerated, lending them an aura which was converted into electoral power in a few years. DMK, however, was not a lone regional swallow in the Indian unionist summer. The Congress fell in over half a dozen states signalling the rise of regional political parties which since 1989 have decided the fate of India’s political present and future.

They also remain the bulwark against the Hindu homogeneity that BJP is trying to forge. The language question is far from settled. But perhaps what politics could not solve, globalisation and technology have mitigated to an extent.

The writer is a historian

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