By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Multi-lingual countries in South Asia such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, either face or have faced, immense problems in designating a native language as the official language of the country.
The problem did not exist when these countries were ruled by the British as English was the sole official language then. But the question of having a native language as the official language, which arose out of the freedom movement and the coming of independence, became an emotive and divisive factor the moment these countries became independent.
In each case, the majority linguistic group or the dominant political group wanted its language to be the official language on the plea that the official language should be the language of the single largest group or the politically dominant group.
But the other language groups felt that this would give an undue advantage to one linguistic group while handicapping the others from the cradle to the grave.
The language issue came to the fore in Pakistan in 1952, five years after the country’ birth. The Founder leader of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had declared that “Urdu and Urdu alone” would be the official language of the new country though the language of the single largest ethnic group, the Bengalis, was Bengali. University students in East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh) rose in revolt.
Over the years, this movement became a liberation movement based on multiple grievances. The end result was a liberation war which culminated in the creation of an independent Bangladesh in December 1971. Today, Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh with English as an associate official language. But millions had to sacrifice their lives to make that possible.
In Sri Lanka, the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils clashed over the official language soon after independence in 1948. The leader of the majority Sinhalese, S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, adopted the “Sinhala Only” policy in 1956. The Tamils protested, peacefully at first, but violently later. The language issue along with other ethnic Tamil grievances gave birth to an armed revolt which took decades to quell.
Tamil is now an associate official language at the Centre and is used as the official language in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, but that came at a huge human and material cost.
In India, the aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose credo is to road roll multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious India into one nation based on the motto “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan”, is now hell bent on spreading its tentacles to the non-Hindi speaking, multi-lingual and substantially multi-religious people of South India.
The powerful Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said that since Hindi is spoken by “most” Indians, only Hindi can unite the country. He declared that when India faces the next general election in 2024, Hindi would have achieved a “monumental status.”
“When I first took charge of the Home Ministry, in the first 10 days, not a single file came to me with Hindi noting. Now, 60% of the files which come to me have Hindi noting,” he said.
Reportedly, non-Hindi speaking Indians fear that they will not be able to get a job or posting in the all-important Home Ministry, unless their Hindi is as good as that of native Hindi speakers.
Not surprisingly, leaders of Tamil Nadu have warned that they will revive the massive anti-Hindi agitation of 1965, which stopped the roll of the Hindi Juggernaut and also obliterated India’s “national” parties in the State. India’s national parties, which are committed in varying degrees, to making Hindi the sole official language of India, have not been able to capture power in Tamil Nadu since 1967.
Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) announced mass protests on September 20. DMK President M.K. Stalin recalled that since 1938 Tamils had been protesting against Hindi imposition and agitations had taken place in 1949, 1953 and 1965. “The need has once again arisen for an agitation of that scale, ” Stalin stressed. He charged that Tamil was sidelined in the competitive examination conducted by the Railways and the Postal Department.
Tamil Nadu Culture Minister K Pandiarajan (All India Anna DMK) said that If the Centre imposes Hindi unilaterally, then there will be an adverse reaction not only in Tamil Nadu but also in non-Hindi speaking states like Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Kerala Chief Minister and Marxist Communist leader Pinarayi Vijayan pointed out that the people in the South and Northeast don’t speak Hindi and accused Amit Shah of planning to make non-Hindi speaking people disown their mother tongue.
“The claim that Hindi unifies our country is absurd. That language is not the mother tongue of a majority of Indians. The move to impose Hindi on them amounts to enslaving them. The Union Minister’s statement is a war cry against the mother tongues of non-Hindi speaking people,” Vijayan thundered.
Tamil matinee idol-turned politician Kamal Hasan released a video in which he said that India became a republic in 1950 with a promise to the people that their languages and cultures will be protected, but now, the rulers in Delhi are “constrained to prove to us that India will continue to be a free country.”
Former Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka, K.Siddaramaiah said: “We will never compromise Kannada’s importance. India has a rich history and diverse geography and there is a need to embrace the country’s diversity to remain united.”
Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy demanded that the Home Minister withdraw his comments as they may lead to unrest in the non-Hindi speaking regions.
“India is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and a secular nation. Any move to impose Hindi would only strike at the pluralistic features of the nation and its cultural identity,” he said.
The Opposition Congress party said that the de facto use of both Hindi and English should not be tinkered with, and controversies must not be stirred up on “emotive” issues well settled by Constitution-makers
According to K.Venkataramanan of The Hindu, the Hindi imposition issue got a new lease of life when a paragraph in the Draft New Education Policy 2019 referred to the mandatory teaching of Hindi in States where Hindi is not spoken.
The document said that in the ‘non-Hindi speaking States’, the Central government should encourage the establishment of colleges and other institutions of higher education which use Hindi as the medium of education.
The “Hindi issue” goes back to the debate on the official language in the Constituent Assembly which drafted the Indian constitution in 1949-50. It is noteworthy that Hindi was voted in as the official language by a single vote.
However, as per the Munshi-Ayyangar formula, the constitution added that English would continue to be used as an Associate Official Language for 15 years. The Official Languages Act incorporating this formula came into effect on the expiry of this 15-year period in 1965. That was the background in which the anti-Hindi agitation took place in Tamil Nadu.
In 1959, Jawaharlal Nehru had given an assurance in parliament that English would continue to be in use as long as non-Hindi speaking people wanted it. And this was reiterated by Indira Gandhi in 1965 in Tamil Nadu. This helped end the anti-Hindi agitation in that State.
As per an Indian report, the non-Hindi speaking people, especially the Tamils, feel that the increasing importance given to Hindi in the functioning of the Central government and all other all-Indian institutions will give an unfair advantage to the people whose mother tongue it is.
“A child born in a Hindi-speaking family will have a natural advantage over a child born in a non-Hindi speaking family. This is iniquitous. On the other hand, if English is the official language ,all Indians will be equal with no linguistic group enjoying a natural advantage,” the report said.
(The featured image at the top shows the antri-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu in 1965)