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How Hindi Came to Dominate India

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The Pulse

How Hindi Came to Dominate India

A look back at how Hindi came to supersede both English and India’s many regional languages.

How Hindi Came to Dominate India
Credit: Pixabay

Since coming into power in May 2014, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government has issued a number of official orders, circulars and notifications that it claims are meant to promote the Hindi language. For example, the new rupee notes issued by the Reserve Bank of India after demonetization in November 2016 carry numerals in the Devanagari script (used to write in Hindi, among a number of other languages). In March 2017, milestones on national highways in Tamil Nadu suddenly changed from English to Hindi. Most recently, in April 2017, the president of India gave “in principle” approval to the recommendation made by a Parliamentary panel that the “HRD [Human Resource Development] Ministry needs to make credible efforts for making Hindi a compulsory subject,” and that Hindi should be “compulsorily taught in all CBSE [Central Board for Secondary Education] schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas [Central Schools] until Class X.”

In non-Hindi speaking areas, all these steps are considered as a part of plan to impose Hindi over them. The government has justified its actions by saying that it is promoting the language and not imposing it.

Hindi-Hindu Issues

Historically, the use of Hindi has not only been an issue between speakers and non-speakers but has also polarized the religious communities in India. Claimed to be the mother tongue of only 25 percent of Indians, Hindi is a regional language spoken in many dialects. During the British rule in India, Hindi — in Khari Boli form — was considered the language of Hindus. This sense still prevails in the minds of many individuals and find support from some religious organizations.

One of the early steps toward communal division of language was taken after the setting up of Fort William College in 1800. Under the director of the College, John Barthowick Gilchrist, reading materials were prepared for the trainees in two different scripts: For Muslims, Urdu written in Persian script was used, and for Hindus, Hindi written in Devanagari script.

Decades later, after the fall of Mughal Empire in 1857, as a part of the divide-and-rule policy, the British promoted Hindi language as an effort to erect Hindi-based Hindu nationalism against the declining Mughal elites. One Hindi supporter was Sir Anthony MacDonnell, lieutenant governor of the North-Western Provinces and chief commissioner of Oudh. In 1900 MacDonnell issued an order, which, according to Alok Rai, allowed the “permissive — but not exclusive — use” of Devanagari in the courts of the province.

During the anti-colonial movement, in an attempt to unite Hindus and Muslims over language issue, the Indian National Congress insisted on the use of Hindustani, a hybrid language that mixed Hindi and Urdu and was written in either Urdu or Devanagari script. To promote the Hindustani language for communal unity, the Indian National Congress leadership, under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi, came up with the Wardha Scheme of Education in 1937.  Under this plan, which was endorsed at the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, education was to be promoted in Hindustani written in both Hindi and Urdu script.

The Wardha scheme was opposed by the Muslim League, which came out with the Pirpur report in response. The report was critical to the Wardha Scheme of Education and dismissed Hindustani as non-existent language. Both the report and the Muslim League’s leadership asserted that Urdu was a language of Indian Muslims, which had to be promoted at the national level. The effect of this religion-based linguistic identity was so strong that even Muslims from non-Urdu speaking provinces favored Urdu (one strong supporter was A.K. Fazlul Haq, a Bengali-speaking leader of the League).

In the 1940s, when the Indian constituent assembly was discussing the language issue, a majority of Hindu members were initially willing to give Hindustani the status of a national language. However, many changed their positions due to the then ongoing violence related to the partition. The sense of “otherness” and “their language” became stronger. As a result, Hindu lawmakers started demanding that Hindi be declared as the national language of India. Late historian Granville Austin has written that partition killed Hindustani and endangered the position of English and the provincial languages in the constitution. According to K. Santhanam, a member from south India in the constituent assembly, “If there had been no partition, Hindustani would without doubt have been the national language, but the anger against Muslims turned [members] against Urdu.”

Post-independence, attempts to “Sanskritize” Hindi and “Arabize” Urdu have further deepened the rift between the two languages.

Hindi Versus Regional languages

The issue of Hindi versus other regional languages also cropped up during the anti-colonial movement. In 1921 the Indian National Congress accepted the idea of political units based on vernaculars and also of linguistic provinces. In the constituent assembly there was a difference of opinion among the members on the issue of Hindi. The case for Hindi as a national language was strongly supported by the majority members from Hindi-speaking north and central India. On the other side was a group from east and south India in favor of English and local languages.

According to Austin, the central points of the controversy were the length of time English should continue to be used as the language of government and the status to be accorded to other regional languages. Supporters of Hindi believed that Hindi should not only be the “national” language, by virtue of inherent superiority over other Indian languages, but that it should replace English for official purposes immediately or in a very short time. Supporters also held that Hindi should soon replace English as the second language of the provinces. The second group, and some moderates including Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that English, as the de facto national language, should be replaced slowly and cautiously. Their differences were resolved by Munshi-Ayyangar formula, where it was accepted that the official language of the Union was to be Hindi with the Devanagari script, but that international numerals would be used. However, English was to be used for Union affairs for 15 years. Parliament could extend the period of English use or mandate the use of Devanagari numerals.

In 1963, the Official Languages Act was passed. It maintained that from 1965 English “may” still be used along with Hindi in official communication. In 1965, as the due date was approaching, a state-wide protest was called in Tamil Nadu against what was seen as the imposition of Hindi language. In solidarity with the protesters, on February 11, 1965, two Union ministers from Tamil Nadu resigned from their offices.

To manage the growing effect of the anti-Hindi movements in Tamil Nadu and stop its spread to other non-Hindi speaking states, then-Indian Prime Minister Lal Bhadur Shastri made a public statement saying that he would honor Nehru’s assurance that English would be used as long as the people wanted. The government of the day ruled out its earlier position on replacing the use of English language with Hindi.

The prime minister’s assurance on the issue was taken as an assurance from the Congress party as a whole. This was one of the reasons why, for years afterward, the party won significant number of seats in south India, including in the 1977 general elections (despite committing brutalities during Emergency days from 1975 to 1977). The fear was still there that the rival Janta Party might impose Hindi on south India.

In subsequent years steps were taken by the succeeding Union governments to spread the use of Hindi in non-Hindi speaking parts of India.  Yet Hindi has not been conveniently accepted as their “own” language by people beyond north India. Though there has been an increase in the number of non-native Hindi speakers who can speak or understand the language, this may be due to cultural factors rather than government policy.

Language flourishes by attracting people and not through imposition from the above. One major attraction has been the Hindi film industry, which has popularized the Hindi language in non-Hindi speaking areas of India. As historian Ramachandra Guha writes, Hindi cinema, over time, “made the Hindi language comprehensible to those who previously never spoke or understood it. When imposed by fiat by the central government, Hindi was resisted by the people of the south and the east. When conveyed seductively by the medium of cinema and television, Hindi has been accepted by them.”

Amit Ranjan is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. The views expressed in the piece are of the author and do not reflect those of the institute the author is associated with.