Of all the lies that are now being spread in an effort to undermine India’s diverse and pluralistic traditions, few are more pernicious than the claim that Hindi is India’s national language.
It is not. It never has been. And you can check the Constitution if you do not believe me.
In fact, India has no national language. And this is a consequence of debates (often heated ones) in the Constituent Assembly. In 1946, a member of the Assembly, R V Dhulekar of the United Provinces (broadly: today’s Uttar Pradesh), declared, in words that echo uncomfortably today, “People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India… They had better leave.”
Dhulekar was not quite the Kangana Ranaut of his era and when Jawaharlal Nehru pacified him, he cooled down. But he was not the only one making this demand. Many members of the assembly made the same sort of point, raising issues that would come up again and again in the years to follow: should car number plates be in Roman or devanagari? Should the Centre communicate with states in Hindi?
Hindi imposition was never on the government’s agenda
Nehru and Gandhiji were both keen on Hindustani (which is closely related to Hindi but is not as sanskritised as All India Radio-style Hindi) as a national language but they gave in after they heard the furious objections from people from the South. For instance, TT Krishnamachari, later to become a cabinet minister from Madras, spoke of ‘Hindi Imperialism’ and worried about the ‘enslavement’ of the people of the South.
The final compromise was that there would be no national language. Instead, Hindi became an official language — for governmental communications — along with English.
That should have been that. But there was a loophole. The Constitution wanted the use of English as an official language to be reviewed in 15 years. That review came up in 1965. By then, passions were once again running high. The Jana Sangh (the forerunner of today’s BJP) demanded the imposition and teaching of Hindi all over India. This was a popular demand among Jana Sangh voters who tended to be concentrated in the Hindi belt and it was in those debates that Atal Bihari Vajpayee first came to national attention.
But there was a counter-offensive from leaders in non-Hindi belt states. Congress leaders from Mysore, Bengal, Andhra and Tamil Nadu bitterly opposed the imposition of Hindi. This contrasted with the position of the Congress central leadership. Just as Nehru had wanted Hindustani in 1950, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted Hindi. Shastri would have had his way except for violent riots and protests that broke out all over South India.
Finally, it was decided to leave things as they were and not to push for Hindi. And there the matter has remained — till now.
By the end of the language riots of the 1960s, most sensible politicians came to the conclusion that Hindi would spread anyway, even without official diktats. There was no need to shove it down the throats of South Indians or Bengalis.
Partly, it was that people from the Hindi belt were travelling all over India and taking their language with them. And partly it was that popular culture had a strong Hindi element.
The Hindi element of Indian pop culture
Take the Mumbai film industry. Over the years, most of its leading lights have come from states where Hindi is not the mother tongue: Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Yash Chopra, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, V Shantaram, Ramesh Sippy, Gulzar, K Asif, Dev Anand, the Nadiadwala family, Vyjayanthimala, Smita Patil, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi,Jayaprada, Ekta Kapoor, Farah Khan, Sharmila Tagore, Tabu, Sahir Ludhianvi, Sunil Dutt — the list is endless. Even Amitabh Bachchan, who UP likes to claim for itself, is actually half-Punjabi.
But the Mumbai film industry put aside the linguistic origins of its leading lights and made films in Hindustani. That, more than anything else, helped promote the spread of Hindi and Hindustani. And later, television followed the lead of the Hindi film industry.
The model India ultimately chose for its language policy was, like India itself, that of a mosaic. America is a melting pot. No matter where immigrants come from, they are expected to learn English and become ‘American’.
In India, on the other hand, we rejected the melting pot idea. There was no pressure to become the same as everyone else or to speak the same language. You could retain your ethnic identity and still be an Indian.
You could be as much of an Indian if you only spoke Tamil as you could if you only spoke Bengali. That became the central theme of our language policy. It did not matter what language you spoke: Indian-ness is not defined in narrow linguistic terms.
It is a model that has kept India together. In contrast, when Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on the Bengalis of its eastern wing, it prompted charges of cultural suppression and led eventually, to the secessionist feeling that caused the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.
It is because India has settled on a policy of letting every language shine while Hindi makes gradual but consistent inroads into non-Hindi speaking states that the violent language agitations of the 1960s have not been repeated. So why then is there a sudden resurgence of the demands for Hindi imposition?
If it had been a Hindi vs English, issue then I would have understood. There is a strong anti-English strand to the BJP and its support base. But this time, it is Hindi vs everybody else’s language.
Even BJP ditched the idea of imposing Hindi
Why would the BJP want to resume a battle that has already been settled with a very Indian (and very successful) compromise? Even Vajpayee, who shone during the 1960s campaign to impose Hindi, later abandoned the crusade recognising that the slow and steady rise of Hindi all over India was more effective than an acrimonious dispute over its enforced imposition.
Frankly, the resurgence of the issue baffles me. For years and years, the Jana Sangh and the BJP have resented the old Congress taunt that they were the parties of the bania traders and the small shopkeepers of the Hindi belt. This avatar of the BJP has conclusively rebutted that claim and has demonstrated that the party has national ambitions that extend far beyond the Hindi belt.
So why resurrect an old Jana Sangh platform from the days when the party’s entire base was the Hindi belt? It won’t even help the BJP in the Hindi belt where it cannot go much further ahead than it already has. And it will put off voters outside of the Hindi belt in exactly those areas where the BJP hopes to make an impact and prove that it is more than just a Hindi-belt party.
Unless there is some devious plot that I have not been able to unravel, my guess is that Amit Shah spoke loosely, repeating old ‘Sanghi’ rhetoric, without intending to re-open a national debate. His followers obediently repeated his words on autopilot.
But now, as the ramifications of what this debate could involve sink in, the BJP will have to give the issue a quiet burial. You can’t force Hindi on people who, quite correctly, refuse to accept that it is somehow superior to their own languages.
Because in trying to do that, you don’t just damage the idea of Indian plurality and diversity. You also make Narendra Modi’s BJP seem like a regional party with a cow belt agenda.
And Narendra Modi is far too shrewd to let that impression gain ground
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)