Question of National Language

  • The controversy on the language issue became most virulent when it took the form of opposition to Hindi and tended to create conflict between Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi-speaking regions of the country.
  • The dispute was not over the question of a national language, that is one language which all Indians would adopt after some time, since the view that one national language was essential to an Indian national identity had already been rejected overwhelmingly by the secular majority of the national leadership.
  • India was a multilingual country and it had to remain so. The Indian national movement had carried on its ideological and political work through the different Indian regional languages.
  • Its demand then was for the replacement of English by the mother tongue as the medium for higher education, administration and courts in each linguistic area.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru had clearly put across this view in 1937: ‘Our great provincial languages . . . are ancient languages with a rich inheritance, each spoken by many millions of persons, each tied up inextricably with the life and culture and ideas of the masses as well as of the upper classes.
  • It is axiomatic that the masses can only grow educationally and culturally through the medium of their own language. Therefore, it is inevitable that we lay stress on the provincial languages and carry on most of our work through them. Our system of education and public work must therefore be based on the provincial languages.
    • The issue of a national language was resolved when the constitution-makers virtually accepted all the major languages as ‘languages of India’ or India’s national languages. But the matter could not end there, for the country’s official work could not be carried on in so many languages.
    • There had to be one common language in which the central government would carry on its work and maintain contact with the state governments.
  • The question arose what would be this language of all-India communication? Or what would be India’s official and link language? Only two candidates were available for the purpose: English and Hindi. The Constituent Assembly heatedly debated which one should be selected.
  • In fact, the choice had already been made in the pre-independence period by the leadership of the national movement, which was convinced that English would not continue to be the all-India medium of communication in free India.
    • For example, even while appreciating the value of English as a world language, through which Indians could access world science and culture and modern Western ideas, Gandhiji was convinced that the genius of a people could not unfold nor could their culture flower in a foreign language.

Gandhiji’s view on English Language

  • In fact, Gandhiji, during the 1920s emphasized that English is ‘a language of international commerce, it is the language of diplomacy, it contains many a rich literary treasure, and it gives us an introduction to Western thought and culture’.
  • But he argued English occupied in India ‘an unnatural place due to our unequal relations with Englishmen’. English ‘has sapped the energy of the nation . . . it has estranged them from the masses . . . The sooner therefore educated India shakes itself free from the hypnotic spell of the foreign medium, the better it would be for them and the people.’
  • And he wrote in 1946: ‘I love the English tongue in its own place, but I am its inveterate opponent if it usurps a place which does not belong to it.
  • English is today admittedly the world language. I would therefore accord it a place as a second, optional language.’
  • Nehru echoed these sentiments in his 1937 article on ‘The Question of Language’ and also during the Constituent Assembly debates.

Leader’s stand for Hindi Language

  • Hindi or Hindustani, the other candidate for the status of the official or link language, had already played this role during the nationalist struggle, especially during the phase of mass mobilization.
  • Hindi had been accepted by leaders from non-Hindi-speaking regions because it was considered to be the most widely spoken and understood language in the country.
  • Lokamanya Tilak, Gandhiji, C. Rajagopalachari, Subhas Bose and Sardar Patel were some of Hindi’s enthusiastic supporters.
  • In its sessions and political work, the Congress had substituted Hindi and the provincial languages in place of English.
  • In 1925, Congress amended its constitution to read: ‘The proceedings of the Congress shall be conducted as far as possible in Hindustani.
  • The English language or any provincial language may be used if the speaker is unable to speak Hindustani or whenever necessary.
  • The proceedings of the Provincial Congress Committee shall ordinarily be conducted in the language of the Province concerned.
  • Hindustani may also be used.’ Reflecting a national consensus, the Nehru Report had laid down in 1928 that Hindustani which might be written in the Devanagari or Urdu script would be the common language of India, but the use of English would be continued for some time.
  • It is interesting that ultimately the constitution of free India was to adopt this stand, except for replacing Hindustani by Hindi.

Debate over two Questions in Constituent assembly

  • Would Hindi or Hindustani replace English ?
  • And what would be the time-frame for such a replacement to happen?


  • Sharp differences marked the initial debates as the problem of the official language was highly politicized from the beginning. The question of Hindi or Hindustani was soon resolved, though with a great deal of acrimony.
    • Gandhiji and Nehru both supported Hindustani, written in the Devanagari or Urdu script.
    • Though many supporters of Hindi disagreed, they had tended to accept the Gandhi-Nehru viewpoint. But once Partition was announced, these champions of Hindi were emboldened, especially as the protagonists of Pakistan had claimed Urdu as the language of Muslims and of Pakistan.
    • The votaries of Hindi now branded Urdu ‘as a symbol of secession’. They demanded that Hindi in the Devanagari script be made the national language. Their demand split the Congress party down the middle.
    • In the end the Congress Legislative Party decided for Hindi against Hindustani by 78 to 77 votes, even though Nehru and Azad fought for Hindustani. The Hindi bloc was also forced to compromise: it accepted that Hindi would be the official and not the national language.
  • The issue of the time-frame for a shift from English to Hindi produced a divide between Hindi and non-Hindi areas.
    • The spokespersons of Hindi areas were for the immediate switchover to Hindi, while those from non-Hindi areas advocated retention of English for a long if not indefinite period.
      • In fact, they wanted the status quo to continue till a future parliament decided to shift to Hindi as the official language.
    • Nehru was for making Hindi the official language, but he was also in favour of English continuing as an additional official language, making the transition to Hindi gradual, and actively encouraging the knowledge of English because of its usefulness in the contemporary world.

Dominition of Hindi lanuage

  • The case for Hindi basically rested on the fact that it was the language of the largest number, though not of the majority, of the people of India; it was also understood at least in the urban areas of most of northern India from Bengal to Punjab and in Maharashtra and Gujarat.
  • The critics of Hindi talked about it being less developed than other languages as a literary language and as a language of science and politics.
  • But their main fear was that Hindi’s adoption as the official language would place non-Hindi areas, especially South India, at a disadvantage in the educational and economic spheres, and particularly in competition for appointments in government and the public sector.
  • Such opponents tended to argue that imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi areas would lead to their economic, political, social and cultural domination by Hindi areas.
  • The constitution-makers were aware that as the leaders of a multilingual country they could not ignore, or even give the impression of ignoring, the interests of any one linguistic area.
    • A compromise was arrived at, though this led to the language provisions of the constitution becoming ‘complicated, ambiguous and confusing in some respects’.
    • The constitution provided that Hindi in Devanagari script with international numerals would be India’s official language. English was to continue for use in all official purposes till 1965, when it would be replaced by Hindi. Hindi was to be introduced in a phased manner. After 1965 it would become the sole official language.
    • However, parliament would have the power to provide for the use of English for specified purposes even after 1965.
    • The constitution laid upon the government the duty to promote the spread and development of Hindi and provided for the appointment of a commission and a Joint Parliamentary Committee to review the progress in this respect.
    • The state legislatures were to decide the matter of official language at the state level, though the official language of the Union would serve as the language of communication between the states and the Centre and between one state and another.
  • Implementation of the language provisions of the constitution proved to be a formidable task even though the Congress party was in power all over the country. The issue remained a subject of intense controversy, and became increasingly acrimonious with the passage of time, though for many years nobody challenged the provision that Hindi would eventually become the sole official language.

Weakness of the Hindi protagonists

  • The constitution-makers had hoped that by 1965 the Hindi protagonists would overcome the weaknesses of Hindi, win the confidence of non-Hindi areas, and hold their hand for a longer period till such time they had done so. It was also hoped that with the rapid growth of education Hindi too would spread and resistance to Hindi would gradually weaken and even disappear. But, unfortunately, the spread of education was too slow to make an impact in this respect.
    • Moreover, the chances of Hindi’s success as an official language were spoilt by the proponents of Hindi themselves. Instead of taking up a gradual, slow and moderate approach to gain acceptance of Hindi by non Hindi areas and to rely on persuasion, the more fanatical among them preferred imposition of Hindi through government action.
    • Their zeal and enthusiasm tended to provoke a counter-movement. As Nehru told parliament in 1959, it was their overenthusiasm which came in the way of the spread and acceptance of Hindi for ‘the way they approach this subject often irritates others, as it irritates me’.
    • Hindi suffered from the lack of social science and scientific writing. In the 1950s, for example, there were hardly any academic journals in Hindi outside the literary field. Instead of developing Hindi as a means of communication in higher education, journalism, and so on, the Hindi leaders were more interested in making it the sole official language.
    • A major weakness of the Hindi protagonists was that, instead of developing a simple standard language which would get wide acceptance or at least popularize the colloquial Hindi as spoken and written in Hindi areas as also in many other parts of India, they tried to Sanskritize the language, replacing commonly understood words with newly manufactured, unwieldy and little understood ones in the name of the ‘purity’ of language, free of alien influences.
    • This made it more and more difficult for non-Hindi speakers (or even Hindi speakers) to understand or learn the new version. All India Radio, which could have played an important role in popularizing Hindi, instead took to so Sanskritizing its Hindi news bulletins that many listeners would switch off their radios when the Hindi news was broadcast.
    • Nehru, a Hindi speaker and writer, was to complain in 1958 that he was unable to understand the language in which his own Hindi speeches were being broadcast. But the purifiers of Hindi did not relent and resisted all attempts to simplify the Hindi of news broadcasts. This led many uncommitted persons to join the ranks of the opponents of Hindi.
  • However, Nehru and the majority of Indian leaders, remained committed to the transition to Hindi as the official language. They believed that, though the study of English was to be encouraged, English could not continue forever as India’s official language. In the interests of national unity as also economic and political development they also realized that full transition to Hindi should not be time-bound and should await a politically more auspicious time when the willing consent of the non-Hindi areas could be obtained. The non-Hindi leaders also became less and less open to persuasion and their opposition to Hindi increased with time. One result of this alienation of non-Hindi-language groups was that they too were not open to rational arguments in favour of Hindi. Instead they veered towards an indefinite continuance of English.
  • Sharp differences on the official language issue surfaced during 1956-60, once again revealing the presence of disruptive tendencies.
  • In 1956, the Report of the Official Language Commission, set up in 1955 in terms of a constitutional provision, recommended that Hindi should start progressively replacing English in various functions of the central government with effective change taking place in 1965.
  • Its two members from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and P. Subbaroyan, however, dissented, accusing the members of the Commission of suffering from a pro-Hindi bias, and asked for the continuation of English. Ironically, Professor Chatterjee was in charge of the Hindi Pracharini Sabha in Bengal before independence.
  • The Commission’s report was reviewed by a special Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). To implement the recommendations of the Committee, the President issued an order in April 1960 stating that after 1965 Hindi would be the principal official language but that English would continue as the associate official language without any restriction being placed on its use.
  • Hindi would also become an alternative medium for the Union Public Service Commission examinations after some time, but for the present it would be introduced in the examinations as a qualifying subject.
  • In accordance with the President’s directive, the central government took a series of steps to promote Hindi. These included the setting up of the Central Hindi Directorate, publication of standard works in Hindi or in Hindi translation in various fields, compulsory training of central government employees in Hindi, and translation of major texts of law into Hindi and promotion of their use by the courts.
  • All these measures aroused suspicion and anxiety in the non-Hindi areas and groups. Nor were the Hindi leaders satisfied.
    • For example, Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, an eminent linguist and a former staunch advocate and promoter of Hindi, stated in his dissenting note to the Report of the Official Language Commission that the outlook of the commission was one of the‘Hindi speakers who are to profit immediately and for a long time to come, if not forever’.
  • Similarly, in March 1958, C. Rajagopalachari, ex-president of the Hindi Pracharini Sabha in the South, declared that ‘Hindi is as much foreign to the non-Hindi speaking people as English to the protagonists of Hindi’.
  • On the other hand, two major champions of Hindi, Purshottamdas Tandon and Seth Govind Das, accused the Joint Parliamentary Committee of being pro-English.
  • Many of the Hindi leaders also attacked Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Minister of Education, for dragging their feet in implementing the constitutional provisions and deliberately delaying the replacement of English. They insisted that the deadline for the changeover to Hindi laid down in the constitution must be rigidly observed. In 1957, Dr Lohia’s Samyukta Socialist Party and the Jan Sangh launched a militant movement, which continued for nearly two years, for the immediate replacement of English by Hindi.
  • One of the agitational methods adopted by the followers of Lohia on a large scale was to deface English signboards of shops and in other places.
  • Fully aware of the danger that the official language issue could pose to Indian polity, the leadership of the Congress took the grievances of the non Hindi areas seriously and handled the issue with great care and caution.
  • The attempt was to work for a compromise. Nehru, time and again made it clear that an official language could not and would not be imposed on any region of the country and that the pace of transition to Hindi would have to be determined keeping in view the wishes of the non-Hindi people.
  • In this he was supported by the leaders of Praja Socialist Party (PSP) and Communist Party of India (CPI). PSP criticized Hindi extremism and said that it ‘might severely strain the unity of a multilingual country like India’.
  • The highlight of Nehru’s approach was a major statement in parliament on 7 August 1959. To allay the fears of the non-Hindi people, he gave a definite assurance: ‘I would have English as an alternate language as long as the people require it, and I would leave the decision not to the Hindi-knowing people, but to the non-Hindi-knowing people.’ He also told the people of the South that ‘if they do not want to learn Hindi, let them not learn Hindi’. He repeated this assurance in parliament on 4 September 1959.
  • In pursuance of Nehru’s assurances, though with delay caused by internal party pressures and the India-China war, an Official Languages Act was passed in 1963.
    • The object of the Act, Nehru declared, was ‘to remove a restriction which had been placed by the Constitution on the use of English after a certain date, namely, 1965’.
    • But this purpose was not fully served as the assurances were not clearly articulated in the Act. The Act laid down that ‘the English language may . . . continue to be used in addition to Hindi’.
    • The non-Hindi groups criticized the use of the word ‘may’ in place of the word ‘shall’. This made the Act ambiguous in their eyes; they did not regard it as a statutory guarantee.
    • Many of them wanted a cast iron guarantee not because they distrusted Nehru but because they were worried about what would happen after Nehru, especially as the pressure from the Hindi leaders was also growing.
    • The death of Nehru in June 1964 increased their apprehensions which were further fuelled by certain hasty steps taken and circulars issued by various ministries to prepare the ground for the changeover to Hindi in the coming year.
    • For example, instructions were given that the central government’s correspondence with the states would be in Hindi, though in the case of non-Hindi states an English translation would be appended.
  • Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru’s successor as prime minister, Was unfortunately not sensitive enough to the opinion of non-Hindi groups. Instead of taking effective steps to counter their fears of Hindi becoming the sole official language, he declared that he was considering making Hindi an alternative medium in public service examinations.
  • This meant that while non-Hindi speakers could still compete in the all-India services in English, Hindi speakers would have the advantage of being able to use their mother tongue.
  • Many non-Hindi leaders in protest changed their line of approach to the problem of the official language. While previously they had wanted a slowing down of the replacement of English, now they started demanding that there should be no deadline fixed for the changeover.
  • Some of the leaders went much further. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK ) and C. Rajagopalachari, for example, demanded that the constitution should be amended and English should be made the official language of India.

Anti Hindi movement

  • As 26 January 1965 approached, a fear psychosis gripped the non-Hindi areas, especially Tamil Nadu, creating a strong antiHindi movement.
  • On 17 January, the DMK organized the Madras State Anti-Hindi Conference which gave a call for observing 26 January as a day of mourning.
  • Students, concerned for their careers and apprehensive that they would be outstripped by Hindi speakers in the all-India services, were the most active in organizing a widespread agitation and mobilizing public opinion. They raised and popularized the slogan: ‘Hindi never, English ever.’
  • They also demanded amendment of the constitution. The students’ agitation soon developed into statewide unrest. The Congress leadership, though controlling both the state and the central governments, failed to gauge the depth of the popular feeling and the widespread character of the movement and instead of negotiating with the students, made an effort to repress it.
  • Widespread rioting and violence followed in the early weeks of February leading to largescale destruction of railways and other Union property. So strong was the anti-Hindi feeling that several Tamil youth, including four students, burned themselves to death in protest against the official language policy.
  • Two Tamil ministers, C. Subramaniam and Alagesan, resigned from the Union cabinet. The agitation continued for about two months, taking a toll of over sixty lives through police firings.
  • The only eminent central leader to show concern for the agitators was Indira Gandhi, then Minister for Information and Broadcasting. At the height of the agitation she flew to Madras, ‘rushed to the storm-centre of trouble’, showed some sympathy for the agitators and thus became, after Nehru, the first northern leader to win the trust of the aggrieved Tamils as well as of the people of the South in general.
  • Efforts were made by the Jan Sangh and the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) to organize a counter-agitation in the Hindi areas against English, but they did not get much public support.

Outcomes of Anti Hindi Movement

  • The agitation forced both the Madras and the Union governments and the Congress party to revise their stand.
  • They now decided to yield to the intense public mood in the South, change their policy and accept the major demands of the agitators.
  • The Congress Working Committee announced a series of steps which were to form the basis for a central enactment embodying concessions and which led to the withdrawal of the Hindi agitation.
  • This enactment was delayed because of the Indo-Pak war of 1965, which silenced all dissension in the country.
  • With the death of Lai Bahadur Shastri in January 1966, Indira Gandhi became the prime minister. As she had already won the trust of the people of the South, they were convinced that a genuine effort would be made to resolve the long-festering dispute.
  • Other favourable factors were the Jan Sangh’s muting of their antiEnglish fervour and the SSP’s acceptance of the basic features of the agreement worked out in 1965.
  • Despite facing economic problems and the weakening of the Congress’s position in parliament in the 1967 elections, Indira Gandhi moved the bill to amend the 1963 Official Language Act on 27 November.
  • The Lok Sabha adopted the bill, on 16 December 1967, by 205 to 41 votes. The Act gave an unambiguous legal fortification to Nehru’s assurances of September 1959.
  • It provided that the use of English as an associate language in addition to Hindi for the official work at the Centre and for communication between the Centre and non-Hindi states would continue as long as the non-Hindi states wanted it, giving them full veto powers on the question.
  • A virtually indefinite policy of bilingualism was adopted. The parliament also adopted a policy resolution laying down that the public service examinations were to be conducted in Hindi and English and in all the regional languages with the provison that the candidates should have additional knowledge of Hindi or English.
  • The states were to adopt a three-language formula according to which in the non-Hindi areas, the mother tongue, Hindi and English or some other national language was to be taught in schools while in the Hindi areas a non-Hindi language, preferably a southern language, was to be taught as a compulsory subject.

The Government of India took another important step on the language question in July 1967. On the basis of the report of the Education Commission in 1966 it declared that Indian languages would ultimately become the medium of education in all subjects at the university level, though the time-frame for the changeover would be decided by each university to suit its convenience.


  • After many twists and turns, a great deal of debate and several agitations, small and big, and many compromises India had arrived at a widely accepted solution to the very difficult problem of the official and link language for the country.
  • Since 1967, this problem has gradually disappeared from the political scene, demonstrating the capacity of the Indian political system to deal with a contentious problem on a democratic basis, and in a manner that promoted national consolidation.
  • Here was an issue which emotionally divided the people and which could have jeopardized the unity of the country, but to which a widely acceptable solution was found through negotiations and compromise. And it was not only the national leadership provided by the Congress, with some hiccups on the way, which came up to the mark; the Opposition parties too measured up when it came to the crunch.
  • In the end, the DMK, in whose rise to power the language issue played an important role, also helped by cooling down the political temper in Tamil Nadu.
  • Of course, no political problem is solved for all times to come. Problem-solving in a nation as complex as India is bound to be a continuous process. But it is significant that Hindi has been making rapid progress in non-Hindi areas through education, trade, tourism, films, radio and television. The use of Hindi as an official language has also been growing though English is still dominant.
  • Simultaneously, English, as a second language, has been spreading fast, including in the Hindi-speaking areas. A witness of this is the number of private English-medium schools, however poor in staff and other facilities, which now dot the countryside from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The standards of spoken and written English have fallen but the English-knowing classes have multiplied manifold.
  • Both English and Hindi are likely to grow as link languages just as regional languages are more and more occupying the official, educational and media space. The proof of the growth of Hindi, English and regional languages lies in the rapid growth of newspapers in all of them.
  • In fact, English is not only likely to survive in India for all times to come, but it remains and is likely to grow as a language of communication between the intelligentsia all over the country, as a library language, and as the second language of the universities.
  • Hindi, on the other hand, has so far failed to perform any of the three roles. Of course, the ideal of making Hindi the link language of the country remains. But the way in which the enthusiastic protagonists of Hindi promoted Hindi’s cause, they pushed back the chances of this happening for a long time to come.

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