Mani-Talk: 'No English. No Hindi. How?'

Published: June 28, 2014 19:04 IST
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(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha)

The title is the immortal response of K Kamraj, President of the Indian National Congress in January 1966, when his colleagues begged him to succeed Lal Bahadur Shastri as Prime Minister of India after Shastri died suddenly in Tashkent. It comes to mind now when, in conformity with its hidden, ulterior, Sangh-driven agenda, the Modi government has floated a feeler designed eventually to abolish English and establish Hindi as the sole official language of the Indian government: "No English. Only Hindi. Now"!

For the moment, the howl from Tamil Nadu has stalled the effort, but Moditva still has 4 years and eleven months to run. Without the utmost vigilance, we may be left with J&K in the North seceding over the deletion of Article 370 and Tamil Nadu in the far south doing the same over the imposition of Hindi. Nothing less than the continued unity and integrity of the nation is at stake.

Given that not more that 10-15 per cent of our population was adult when the language issue last reared its ugly head in the period 1959-67, it is perhaps necessary to revisit those days to see how the extremists at both ends of the spectrum were thwarted by the wisdom and patriotism of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, while the principal protagonists of the two opposite views, Atal Behari Vajpayee and C.N. Annadurai, allowed logic, good sense and moderation to inform reasoned debate in and outside Parliament in the midst of anger and violence in the streets. There is little historical recall and even less imagination in the current corridors of power. Hence this little historical recap by one who was moving from his late teens to his early twenties as the drama played out.

In the first flush of freedom, the Constituent Assembly had agreed that English would be phased out over what then seemed a long period of fifteen years, that is, by 1965, but subject to flexibility over the time-line as the successful propagation of Hindi would, as a practical matter, have to precede any total switchover from English. Therefore, Parliament, said the Constitution, would by law decide when to effect the switch. With the deadline approaching, the pro-Hindi lobby stepped up its pressure to the growing alarm of the non-Hindi speaking peoples. Following the submission of a number of reports by high-level Commissions composed of very eminent persons, debate was initiated in both Houses of Parliament in September 1959. To read those debates today is to be filled with profound sorrow. For the extraordinarily high level of debate, and the dignity and decorum on display, have quite disappeared as the House now is adjourned day after day in the midst of bedlam, sometimes for an entire session. But then it was different. The records show Parliament conducting itself as forum for discussion, not demonstration.

The submission of a Joint Parliamentary Committee report on the issue in 1959 kicked off a major and heated public debate on the issue. It appeared to have been settled when the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, intervened in the Lok Saba on 7 August 1959 to make a three-part suggestion. One, there must be no "imposition" of Hindi. Two, English might continue as an associated additional or alternate language "for an indefinite period". Third, that he would leave the decision on when to give up English "not to the Hindi-knowing people, but to the non-Hindi-knowing people."

This assurance was then incorporated in the Official Languages Act, 1963, but did not satisfy the upcoming DMK led by the redoubtable C.N. Annadurai, known universally as 'Anna' or 'Elder Brother'. In May 1963, Anna had stressed in Parliament, "I speak for English not because I am enamored of it, but because it is the most convenient tool, it is the most convenient medium which distributes advantages or disadvantages evenly." He added, "If the British were to remain here and say, take it (English), then we will have to resist it. But now there is no question of imposition of English by the British". Instead, in independent India, "the consequence of the imposition of Hindi as the official language will create a definite, permanent and sickening advantage to the Hindi-speaking States". Moreover, he wanted Nehru's three-part assurance to be incorporated in the Constitution, holding that a mere law passed by a majority vote in a Parliament heavily dominated by the Congress could just as easily be changed.

Nor, at the other end of the spectrum, was there satisfaction that Hindi-speaking provinces were obliged indefinitely to receive and respond in English to correspondence from the Centre or other states. As Vajpayee put it, "English will not be forced on Hindi provinces" and added, "We do not want to impose Hindi but we will not allow English to be imposed." (Rajya Sabha, 22/2/65). Later, he argued, "If Tamil is used in Madras, Marathi in Bombay, Bengali in Calcutta, will English keep hanging on in New Delhi like Trishanku?" (RS, 12/12/67).

For the first fifteen years of the Republic, argument was heated in Parliament and the media but the streets were spared agitation and violence. Then, since the DMK felt that Hindi "zealots" were determined to use the fifteenth year of the Republic to ram through Hindi as the sole official language, they declared Republic Day, 1965 as a "Day of Mourning". The Congress government in Madras cracked down on the DMK leadership. Arresting one and all, it opened the way to a student take-over of the movement, with two young men resorting to the hitherto unknown tactic of setting themselves on fire in protest. The situation was defused only by Indira Gandhi courageously rushing to the middle of the melee in Madras, much to the annoyance of Lal Bahadur Shastri, but with that one move, and the reassuring words she spoke to the Tamils, raging violence was ended and the debate brought back to the floor of the Houses of Parliament.

When Parliament reconvened for the Budget session in February 1965, just as the riots were petering out in consequence of Indira Gandhi's bold initiative, Vajpayee clarified that he was "against forcing Hindi on any non-Hindi province" and added, "The decision to bring Indian languages is a revolutionary decision, but if it endangers the national unity the non-Hindi States may continue English". (Modi, please note). That set the stage for reflecting on further amending the 1963 Act to respond to continuing Tamil concerns. (Cooperative federalism at its best: will Modi please take note?) Government brought the required amendment to the House in December 1967, with Indira Gandhi intervening to warn, "Language is becoming a wall dividing people from each other, a source of conflict. If this debate creates discord, then neither Hindi nor any other language will be promoted". (Modi, please also note!) Underlining that "there are seven states that do not want Hindi to be imposed on them," she urged that "the passage of this Bill [Official Languages (Amendment) Act, 1967] is necessary to remove all apprehensions from the minds of the people of the South and of the non-Hindi-speaking regions"(LS, 5/12/67).

Thus, was a compromise reached that has endured for the better part of four decades. To unravel that concord, as the Modi government's blunder in its first month in office indicated, is, indeed, to endanger the national unity. Moreover, it will not do for the Moditva Union government to concentrate on propagating Hindi alone. It will have to answer the question posed by Era Sezhiyan to Vajpayee in 1967 when Vajpayee argued that there were Hindi Prachar Sabhas in all South Indian states: "Is there one Tamil Prachar Sabha in UP? Is there one Malayalam Prachar Sabha in Madhya Pradesh?" Answer!

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