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Hindi’s hegemony didn’t start with NEP, Amit Shah or Ajay Devgn. It’s been on since 1947

The row over supposed Hindi supremacy push owing to its ‘popularity’ predates incidents such as NEP's three language formula and Amit Shah or Ajay Devgn's remarks.

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The recent controversy over Ajay Devgn’s tweet calling Hindi as India’s national language may seem like a continuation in the ongoing debate over ‘Hindi imposition’ sparked by the Centre’s ‘three language formula’ in the National Education Policy and Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s remark asking Hindi to be used nationally as a link language.

But this recurring row over the supposed Hindi supremacy push owing to its ‘popularity’ predates all such incidents. Rather, this supremacy or imposition debate is one of the pathologies of India’s early language policy, which can be best explained by five reasons.

A language in the making

At the time of India’s Independence, Hindi was still a language in the making. The geographical reach of Hindi was not bigger than that of Telugu or Bengali. Hindi as it is spoken today was not the mother tongue of people in linguistic/geographical regions like Awadh, Braj, Mithila, Magadh, Bundelkhand, Ahirwal, Nimad, Marwar or Mewar. In these areas, each language is unique and it is not easy for a Maithil person to understand Bundelkhandi or Brajbhasa.

As Hindi was not standardised in 1947, the government tasked the Central Hindi Directorate to do so. After much deliberation, it was decided to use roman numerical. It is still not settled whether to use Persian/Arabic/Turkic words in Hindi or not and what is better, Sanskritised Hindi or Hindustani. Echoing this sentiment, former CM of Madras Presidency and Rajya Sabha member P. Subbarayan presented a dissent note to the 1st Official Language Commission. “People who possess as their mother tongues well formed languages with a continuous literary history of over thousand years and more like Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Punjabi feel very difficult about accepting this new policy about official language, particularly when by direct and indirect means, it is attempted to be forced upon them,” he wrote.

Also read: Hindi is not a language of knowledge anymore. Mediocrity has stifled its soul

Priority in Constitution

Hindi was given priority over other Indian languages in the Constitution itself. Article 351 says, “It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.”

This idea of making Hindi “a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite cultures of India” is flawed and deeply contested. Hindi was accorded this coveted position by the Constituent Assembly and not by Parliament consisting of elected representatives. This point was highlighted by S.K. Chatterji in his dissent note submitted to the 1st Official Language Commission. He submitted that Hindi was given prominence just because it was the most widely understood language of North India. People in non-Hindi-speaking areas agreed to accept Hindi, some with enthusiasm and some with doubt and misgivings, mainly because they thought that linguistic unity is vital. “An inherent orthodoxy connected with religion also strengthened this attitude of exclusiveness. Hindi also became, for some people, the symbol of Hindu religious orthodoxy, both in North India and elsewhere, just as Urdu was associated with an Islamic background,” he argued. 

Though the Congress never raised the slogan of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan; this Savarkarite ideological strand was always there in the freedom struggle. North Indian Hindi-speaking members of the Congress party in the Constituent Assembly insisted that Hindi was accepted as the Official Language of the Indian Union.

Promotion of Hindi

In the post-Independence era, Hindi grew but the growth was not organic. The Union government spent money to promote Hindi especially in non-Hindi-speaking areas so that it may be accepted as the link language nationally. The Department of Official language, under the Union Home Ministry, was given specific task that involved “co-ordination in all matters relating to the progressive use of Hindi as the Official Language of the Union, including administrative terminology, syllabi, textbooks, training courses and equipment (with standardised script) required therefore.”

There is a Hindi training programme in place for central government employees since 1955. The presidential order dated 27 April 1960 said “in-service training in Hindi may be made obligatory for Central Government employees who are aged less than 45 years. In this scheme, no penalty should be imposed for failure to attain the prescribed standards by the due date. Facilities for Hindi training may continue to be provided free of cost to the trainees.” This is how Hindi has penetrated the non-Hindi-speaking areas.

The Union government is running these programmes across the country. In government departments across India, Hindi Day is celebrated and essay and typing competitions are held. Government rewards good performers in these competitions. There is an Official Language Wing in the law ministry, which translates all government bills in Hindi. At the same time, no incentive is given to Hindi-speaking employees for learning other Indian languages.

Also read: Translate ‘Gaay hamari mata hai’. That’s the secularism gap between English, Indian languages

Hindi in education

In the field of education, the 1st Official Language Commission had put much emphasis on introduction of Hindi as compulsory subject in secondary schools in all non-Hindi areas, so that the next generation of Indians may be Hindi-knowing, but at the same time it brushed aside the suggestion students in Hindi-speaking areas in secondary schools should compulsorily learn another Indian language (a South Indian language).

The Commission instead suggested that options for these students should include languages like Sanskrit, French, German, and Russian. This was the mainstream idea related to the language policy just after the Independence that non-Hindi students must learn Hindi, but Hindi students should study Sanskrit or some foreign language.

Hindi in mass media

Mass media also played a crucial role in the proliferation of Hindi. Until the 1990s, the Union government was in sole control of radio and television. Television broadcasting started in 1965 and till the mid-1990s, most of the programming was in Hindi. Only after regional stations were established that things started to change. But by that time, the foundation had already been laid. During 1983-1991, many popular programmes and serials were launched in Hindi. Mythological serials like Ramayana and Mahabharata became powerful vehicles to carry Hindi with the religious massaging.

This is just a snapshot of various schemes that made Hindi a pan-Indian language. It didn’t happen just like that. Establishing the hegemony of Hindi was a nationalistic project. Amit Shah and Ajay Devgn are just reiterating it.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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