In a land as diverse as India, where languages, scripts, and dialects change with every state border, the question of which language should be the lingua franca has always been complex. As we celebrate Hindi Diwas today to commemorate Hindi becoming the official language of the Union Government on September 14, 1949, it also marks the anniversary of English retaining its status as an associate language. This compromise, known as the Munshi-Ayyangar formula, aimed to satisfy both Hindi proponents and delegates from South India who favored English.
The Clash of Hindi and Urdu
The roots of this linguistic tug-of-war can be traced back to the mid-1800s when Hindi and Urdu clashed in the regions now known as the ‘Hindi belt.’ Historian Sumit Sarkar highlighted how Urdu had been the language of choice for much of North India’s population, including Hindus and Muslims. In the late 19th century, more Urdu books and newspapers were published in the United Provinces than in Hindi, reflecting its widespread use.
The British Influence
The British East India Company‘s influence in India further fueled the language debate. By the 1830s, English replaced Persian as the official language at higher levels of administration, while local vernaculars were used at lower levels. Being popular in North India, Urdu gained prominence in lower government positions. The socio-political changes of the era also led to a rapid expansion of government education, resulting in Hindi and Urdu schools. Brahmins, Rajputs, and Baniyas leaned toward Hindi, while Muslims and Kayasthas favored Urdu and Persian, making it easier for them to secure government jobs.
Prominent figures like Bhartendu Harishchandra, famously known as the father of Hindi literature and Hindi theatre, and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, an Indian scholar & politician, championed Hindi’s cause, arguing that it represented India’s original inhabitants and had been suppressed during Mughal rule. Organizations like Nagari Pracharini Sabha Banaras, Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in Allahabad, and Rashtra Bhasha Prachar Samiti emerged to promote Hindi.
In 1900, the government granted equal status to the Devanagari and Urdu scripts, but this disappointed Muslims who feared the decline of their language. The 19th-century Hindi-Urdu debate played a role in the Hindu-Muslim conflict that eventually led to the subcontinent’s partition, with Pakistan adopting Urdu as its official language and India choosing Hindi.
The Birth of a Nation and Language
The decision to make Hindi the official language of independent India aimed to unify a nation with diverse languages, scripts, and dialects. Hindi’s prevalence in North India made it seem logical, but it didn’t sit well with non-Hindi-speaking regions.
Between September 12 and 14, 1949, the Constituent Assembly debated India’s language issue. Topics included:
- Using “national language” instead of “official” language
- Choosing between Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Sanskrit, or Hindustani
- Deciding between Devanagari and Roman scripts
While some argued for “one language and one script,” others, like Naziruddin Ahmad, a prominent voice from the Muslim League within the Constituent Assembly, advocated for the continued use of English until a suitable “All India language” emerged.
T.A. Ramalingam Chettiar, an Indian lawyer and politician representing Coimbatore, emphasized the language issue’s significance for the South. He argued that Hindi was as foreign to the South as English and that imposing it could have dire consequences.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stressed that while English had benefits, no country could succeed based on a foreign language. He recalled Gandhi’s support for Hindustani, representing India’s composite culture. However, Nehru warned against imposing Hindi against the wishes of large parts of India.
The Compromise & Ensuing Protests
A compromise was eventually reached: English, along with Hindi, would be the official language for 15 years, after which Hindi would replace English for official purposes. Article 351 of the Constitution mandated the promotion and development of Hindi.
Protests erupted when the 15-year period ended, especially in non-Hindi-speaking regions like Tamil Nadu. Riots broke out, leading to the Official Languages Act, which retained English as an official language alongside Hindi.
The Ongoing Journey
Over the years, the Indian government has tried to promote Hindi as India’s unifying language, with Hindi Diwas being one of them.
According to the 2011 linguistic census, Hindi is the most widely spoken language, with 52.8 crore individuals declaring it their mother tongue. It is also the second language for nearly 11% of the population. Hindi’s share in the population has steadily increased, making it India’s predominant mother tongue.
While English is one of India’s official languages, it’s not among the 22 languages listed in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. Only a tiny fraction of the population speaks English as their mother tongue.
The language question remains complex in a country as vast and diverse as India. Still, Hindi Diwas serves as a reminder of the ongoing journey to unite this linguistic tapestry into a harmonious national fabric.