Jawaharlal Nehru on Language Conflict in India

Ali. R. Fatihi

Language is the dominant feature in determining nationality or ethnicity. In the emerging world order, when rise of ethno- nationalism is posing a major challenge to the nation state, political assertion of language and religious identities has assumed importance. Acknowledging the emotive power of language, the leaders of the new Indian nation attempted to unite the many regions of India with a common, universal language. Politicians knew that the implementation of new Language Policies would be politically sensitive. The language controversies that accompanied the first years of Indian independence had pushed the country to the brink of instability. Despite Nehru's intuitive understanding and handling of the complex language issue we couldn’t lay a solid foundation for Indian unity by robbing the language crisis of its potential for causing disorder. Today, language problems are no longer seen as forces of national disintegration however, its explosive nature can not be denied. The three major language issues facing Nehru as leader of independent India were: the linguistic states movement, the national language debate and Hindi Urdu controversy.

The present paper attempts to analyses Nehru’s views on Hindi Urdu controversy.

 What guided Nehru in his call for the linguistic states was his predominant concern for the unity and integrity of the country. In order to understand Nehru’s proposals for the linguistic states within the framework of constitutional democracy it is necessary to problematize Nehru’s notion of the linguistic states, which for him reconcile the tension between cultural pluralism and political democracy, as well as between social heterogeneity, multilingualism, and political authority. However, the focus on the conflict between linguistic majority and minority communities remained under emphasized in his characterization of the linguistic states, which in the last 58 years have been overburdened with the problems of linguistic minorities.

The Congress has long committed itself to the creation of linguistic states. The Nehru committee in 1928 declared: ‘If a province has to educate itself and do its daily work through the medium of its own language, it must necessarily be a linguistic area.”  Nevertheless, with the advent of independence, Jawahar Lal Nehru changed his mind. For example, in 1948 the Dar commission appointed by the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly recommended that provinces should be created on the basis of administrative convenience, and not language. This resulted in wide spread protests and agitations. For example, in 1952 a follower of Mahatma Gandhi Potti Sriramalu demanded the formation of an Andhra state for Telugu speaking population, and began fast unto death His death on October20,1952, shook the Telugu speaking Andhrites, forcing Nehru to surrender. On December 18,1952, the cabinet decided to allow the formation of the first linguistic state in India. Nehru thought that the demand for the creation of linguistic provinces was primarily based on the idea of nationality defined in terms of the differences of languages and cultures among people of different regions.  For him, any reorganisation of states in India on the linguistic basis has to be accommodated within the broader framework of the federal structure of the government. In many of his writings he cautioned about the dangerous separatist tendencies that could potentially result in the creation of nations and nationalities founded on the basis of race and language exclusively.

With the linguistic movement gaining ground in India, Nehru recognised and emphasised the immediacy and urgency to meet with the demands for linguistic states from different parts of the country now than to have a break up of the country like the Turkish empire. Hence Nehru appointed another three-member commission headed by Sayyid Fazal Ali. H.N Kunzuru and K.M. Pannikar were the other members of the committee. On September 30,1955, the committee presented its report and conceded the demands for linguistic states. Nehru spoke in Rajya Sabha supporting the formation of Maharashtra state on the linguistic basis in 1955-56. However, Nehru was in no mood to accept the demand of Akali Dal for a separate Punjabi Suba. The past experience warned Nehru that Akalis can never be trusted, hence the Fazal Ali commission instead of granting this demand made the state bigger by merging Punjab, PEPSU, and Himachal Pradesh. The Akalis were very upset by this move. Master Tara Singh vehemently criticized Nehru for his language policies. However, the Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon tackled the Punjabi Suba agitation firmly and won Nehru’s admiration.

The issue of National Language or Official Language
The problem of “Official and National Language” “Rashtray Bhasha” was the subject of acute controversy for Nehru. Though it did not have an assured dominance over the other languages in India, Hindi seemed the clearest choice from the beginning. English, despite its prominence and somewhat even distribution throughout the nation, was unacceptable for several reasons. As the language of the colonial power which had just been ousted, English was, to many a "symbol of slavery" (Nayar 1967, p.12). English also had few speakers-only about one percent of India's population. Hindi claimed the greatest number of speakers of all the Indian languages, and it was closely related to several of the other most widely spoken ones. Though it was unrelated to the south Indian languages, it was also thought that Hindi would not be entirely foreign to south Indians because of the strong Sanskrit influence it shared with the four main Dravidian languages. Whether or not this thinking was correct, Hindi was chosen as the official language amidst Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's assurance that it would never be imposed on people in non-Hindi areas.

 Back in 1949, the Constituent Assembly had chosen Hindi as the sole official language. The Constitution, which ratified this, came into operation on 26 January 1950. However, non-Hindi speaking States were given a 15-year "grace period", when English would be used along with Hindi in communication between the Centre and the States. That period was to end on January 26, 1965. The Constitution of India was framed with the provision that the official language of the Union would be Hindi in Deva Nagari script with international numerals (Das Gupta 1970, p. 136;)Many actions were taken to aid the ascendancy of Hindi. A plan was adopted to phase out English over a fifteen years period and replace it with Hindi.

Even though Hindi was perhaps the most natural choice, there were many blocks to its achieving success as the national language. One of these was the high position of English-a position it has retained until today despite the plan to phase it out of all government communications by 1965. The desire to have an Indian language replace English was actually part of nationalist thinking since the 1920's (Nayar 1969, p. 98). However, because of English's importance internationally and the many advantages conferred upon those who could speak it, the study of English continued with even greater vigor than before, whereas Hindi suffered in many regions where people perceived little need for it. This ensured that a large section of the educated population who went into government services needed to use English in performing their jobs. Accordingly, English has merely shared its position as an official language with Hindi rather than relinquishing the role entirely.

 In 1956, the Academy of Tamil Culture passed a resolution urging that "English should continue to be the official language of the Union and the language for communication between the Union and the State Governments and between one State Government and another'. The signatories included Annadurai, E. V. Ramaswami `Periyar', and C. Rajagopalachari. On Rajaji's part this represented a certain change of mind; for he had once been a vigorous proponent of the `rashtrabhasha' himself. However, the organisation of the campaign was the work of the DMK, which through the 1950s organised many protest meetings against the imposition of Hindi. Jawaharlal Nehru, was sensitive to the sentiments of the South. In 1963, Nehru piloted the passing of an Official Languages Act, which provided that from 1965 English `may' still be used along with Hindi in official communication. That caveat `may' have proved to be problematic; for while Nehru clarified that it meant `shall', other Congressmen thought it actually meant `may not'.

As January 26, 1965 approached, the opponents of Hindi geared up for action. The new Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, himself felt strongly for Hindi, as were his senior colleagues Morarji Desai and Gulzarilal Nanda. Ten days before January 26, Annadurai wrote to Shastri saying that his party would observe the day of the change over as a `day of mourning'. But he added an interesting rider; in the form of a request to postpone the day of imposition by a week. Then, said Annadurai, the DMK could enthusiastically join the rest of the nation in celebrating Republic Day, thus to show that they were as patriotic as anybody else. You can speak Tamil or English and yet be a good Indian, argued Anna. No, answered New Delhi, the only good patriots are those who speak (and write) Hindi. Shastri and his Government stood by the decision to make Hindi official on 26 January. And, in consequence, all hell broke loose. The day before this deadline, students in Madras picketed with cries of "Hindi Imperialism" and "Hindi never, English ever!", beginning a two-month long period of agitation and repression. The bulk of the protests were collective: strikes, bandhs, processions, boycotts and dharnas. But there was one form of protest that was individual and disturbingly so: the taking of one's life. On Republic Day itself, two men set themselves on fire in Madras. One left a letter saying he wanted to sacrifice himself at the altar of Tamil. Three days later, a 20-year-old man in Tiruchi killed himself by consuming insecticide. He too left a note saying his suicide was in the cause of Tamil. These `martyrdoms', in turn, sparked dozens of more strikes, processions, boycotts and dharnas.  During this time, sixty-six people died-two of which were members of the DMK who committed suicide by self-immolation on the street. At the same time, pro-Hindi groups in the north staged demonstrations which attacked "English imperialism" and urged the Union government to go ahead with the shift to Hindi. Because of the general lack of awareness of the ruling Congress party, the violence in Madras served an important function, according to Jyotirindra Das Gupta. In Language Conflict and National Development, he says.

As in many Indian agitations, the Madras agitation made visible what the official leaders had consistently refused to see. Violence brought into the open what was seething underneath and thereby opened a way to the seeking of a solution of the problem. (Das Gupta 1970, p. 240).

To remove any `misapprehension' and `misunderstanding', then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri said he would fully honour Nehru's assurance that English would be used as long as the people wanted. Then he made four assurances of his own:

`First, every State will have complete and unfettered freedom to continue to transact its own business in the language of its own choice, which may be the regional language or English.

Second, communications from one State to another will either be in English or will be accompanied by an authentic English translation.

Third, the non-Hindi States will be free to correspond with the Central Government in English and no change will be made in this arrangement without the consent of the non-Hindi States.

Fourth, in the transaction of business at the Central level English will continue to be used'.

Later, Shastri added a crucial fifth assurance — that the All India Civil Services Examination would continue to be conducted in English rather than (as the zealots wished) in the medium of Hindi alone.

The Prime Minister's speech served both to calm down the anti-Hindi movement and to maintain the unity of the nation. But it came too late to save his party's reputation in the Tamil land. For the protests of January-February 1965 helped establish the DMK as the coming party in Madras politics. Two years later, under Annadurai's leadership, it comfortably won the Assembly elections. The Congress was wiped out; ever since, it has remained a feeble force in the state. Not for the first (or indeed last) time, linguistic chauvinism has carried with it a massive political cost.

Hindi Urdu Controversy
After Independence Urdu, was under tremendous pressure. On the suggestion of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the All India Congress Committee decided in favour of HINDUSTANI. By adopting the name of HINDUSTANI, the All India Congress Committee tried to do away with the differences that separated Urdu and Hindi. Only seventy or eighty years before the independence, Urdu was spoken and written by Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs equally. The movement for Hindi was started much later and new literary style came into being which was known as Hindi. In the early days of independence Urdu and Hindi were being projected as two separate names. Those who have a liking for Sanskrit literature generally used words of Sanskrit origin and those who had Persian education commonly used words of Persian origin. The congress decided in favour of Hindustani only because in Hindustani both the Sanskritized and Persianized styles were included. Both Gandhiji and Congress advocated the case of Hindustani. Gandhiji toured all over the country and everywhere he spoke in Hindustani. His Hindustani was neither literary Urdu nor literary Hindi but an inter-mixture of both. In connection with the constitution the question of official came up before the Congress party. In the meeting Maulana Abul Kalam Azad emphasized the Gandhian view with a hope that at least the older congressmen would not forsake their previous stand and would continue to adhere to the Gandhiian principles. But he was greatly disappointed when he realized that with few exceptions all had retracted their steps. In the party meeting this question was thrashed out for several days without arriving at any conclusion. The question of fixing a time limit for the retention of English and enforcement of the new change was the focus of the greater part of these discussions. Several fresh resolutions relating to language were also introduced. One resolution was to retain the word “Hindi” in the constitution with the interpretation that Hindi includes that styles of language which is commonly known as Urdu. The aim of resolution was to create that expansive spirit in Hindi, which is associated with the name of “Hindustani”. At least the question was left to the Drafting Committee with the request to prepare a fresh draft of this part for the consideration of the congress party. The majority of members of the Drafting Committee had a particular type of preconceived nation about the inter relationship of Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani. Most of these members could not agree to adopt Hindustani in place of Hindi, nor were they prepared to accept any such interpretation, which can widen the scope of Hindi. In these circumstances Maulana Abul Kalam Azad could not associate himself with the Committee afresh. Certain amendments were made which introduced several alterations in the original draft. However, in the final draft “Hindi” was adopted in place of “Hindustani”. The facts and fair play demanded that Urdu should have been given official recognition at least in its birthplace Uttar Pradesh. But it was not done and Hindi in one script had been accepted as the official language.

 Nehru felt the need to ensure that if language policy is explosive, we bring in as many linguistic bomb disposal experts as possible. We need to create conditions for linguistic peace. In one of his essays he says:

“We have had during recent months a revival of the old controversy between Hindi and Urdu, and high excitement has accompanied it and charges and counter charges have been flung about. A subject eminently suited for calm and scholarly consideration and academic debate has been dragged down to the level of market place and communal passions have centered round it.” (in Z.A. Ahmad 1941 National Language for India Kitabistan Allahabad)

On February 15, 1954, a delegation led by Dr. Zakir Hussain and comprising members like Pandit Hriday Nath Kunzru and Kishen Chander, presented to the President a memorandum signed by 27,00,000 persons. On the basis of the Article 347 of the Constitution which empowers the President (that is, Government of India) to direct a State to recognise a language as an official language if so demanded by "a substantial proportion" of its population, Maulana Azad, the Education Minister, asked the Prime Minister to act on it, Nehru replied rudely, on March 12, 1954, accusing him of creating a "constitutional crisis". What he feared was a political crisis - Uttar Pradesh would have ignored the directive (SWJN, Second Series; Volume 25, page 91).

Three years later, Nehru poured out his heart to Lal Bahadur Shastri in a letter dated January 7, 1957. Muslims faced "frustration" and "in sheer despair were drifting away from the Congress and often going to the Communist or other like parties". Muslims told Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed "no one seemed to care for them or to come to them not even their representatives in Parliament or the Assembly.... What Bakshi said has been for long my own impression that I have been much worried about it. But I did not know what to do. There are certain matters of considerable psychological importance, even though in practice they might not be so important. One of these major matters is the question of Urdu. There can be no doubt that this has affected Muslims, more especially in the U.P. and Bihar, very acutely. Then there is the question of employment in government services. It has become increasingly difficult for them to get employment in the Army or the Police. I do not know what the position is in the Railways and the Posts & Telegraph Services. But I rather think that the number of new Muslim entrants is very few even there.... Congress leaders as well as the organisation have lost touch with the Muslim world - the candidates who are put up... [are ones] who have lost touch with their own community or some other feeble Muslims who do not count for much" - This letter, though a longish one, is vague and nebulous. Faced with a problem he could well have solved, he "did not know what to do".

Inaugurating the three-day All India Urdu conference under the auspices of Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu (Hind) Prime Minister Pandit Nehru consoled the protagonists of Urdu and expressed his views on future of Urdu and Rights of linguistic minorities in these words:

“This approach to ensure the growth of a language is wrong. To think that the progress of one language will retard the growth of another is equally wrong. I say our approach should be not to oppose any language but to persuade others to learn the language they did not known.

So far as the growth of Urdu is concerned, personally I am not much worried about it. It will undoubtedly flourish and develop gradually. Any language which has vitality and liveliness and without doubt Urdu has will flourish. It can not be suppressed.

In the past passions had been roused in the name of language. It was thought that state could either help or suppress the growth of a language. It was not so. Sometimes state suppression of a language had the reverse effect. No language could depend on outside help for its growth. Of course, state help cleared the way for progress and vitality. Urdu too, if it has these qualities, I think it has very much of them will have its own place. It is one of the fourteen languages recognised by the constitution and it or any other will not be suppressed”.
(Nehru’s speech at the all India Urdu conference, Delhi, 15-17 February 1958)

As a matter of fact, Nehru was no appeaser of Muslims and there was simply no Muslim vote bank. Muslims could hardly support the Jan Sangh. But as the Opposition parties took up the cause of Urdu, Nehru wrote to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Sampurnanand, who hated Urdu, on May 19, 1958, that for the Congress it had now become a question "not only of doing the right thing and the just thing, but also the politically correct thing" (Gopal, Volume 3, page 27). Of course, nothing was done. Nehru’s policy on Urdu (The Government of India’s (GOI) policy on Urdu) was made clear in a text of Home Ministry's ’Press notes released on July 14, 1958.

A number of representations have been received from the Anjuman Tarraqui-e-Urdu (Hind) urging that Urdu should officially be recognised in various territories where it is prevalent among considerable section of the population. In particular, various proposals have been made for the encouragement of Urdu and grant of facilities for instructions and examinations in the Urdu language. As it appears from these representations, as well as from other sources, that there is considerable misunderstanding on this issue; it is desirable that this misunderstanding should be removed and the position of Urdu as laid down in the constitution and in various announcements made by the Government and by the Provincial Education Minister’s Conference, be restated and clarified.

Urdu and Hindi are very closely allied and may be considered as basically the same language. But it is true that Urdu has certain distinctive features, apart from the script in which it is usually written, and differs not only in literary style but also to some extent in its vocabulary from Hindi. Urdu has grown up in India as a variation of Hindi being influenced by various cultural currents that came to India from other countries. But it is essentially a language of our country and its homeland is India. The constitutions have recognised this basic fact by including Urdu among the natal languages mentioned in the Eighths Schedule of the Constitution. Thus, Urdu is officially and constitutionally recognised as one of our national languages, and the various provisions that apply to these languages, apply to Urdu also.

While Urdu is spoken by and is considered as their mother tongue by a very considerable number of persons in India, more especially in North India, it is not a language used by the majority of people is any State in India or any large region within a State. In the State of Jammu & Kashmir, it is recognised as one of state languages, the principal one being kashmiri. In the Telangana area of Andhra Pradesh, it has also been recognised as an additional language for that region, although the principal language of the state is Telugu. In Northern India, more especially in Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar the use of the Urdu language has been widespread, though it is confined to a minority chiefly living in towns. In the past the Principal cultural centers of the Urdu language have been Delhi City and Lucknow.

As a language of India which has literary distinction and vitality. It should be encouraged, in addition to other reasons, from the literary point of view. In regard to facilities for instruction and examination, the Provincial Education Minister’s conference has laid down certain rules for its use with which Government are in full agreement.

In areas and regions where the Urdu language is prevalent, the following facilities should be especially provided.

Facilities should be provided for instruction and examination in the Urdu language at the primary stage to all children whose mother tongue is declared by the parent or guardian to be Urdu.

Arrangements should be made for the training of teachers and for providing suitable textbooks in Urdu.

Facilities for instruction in Urdu should also be provided in the secondary stage of education.

Documents in Urdu should be accepted by all courts and offices without the necessity of translations or transliteration in any other language or script and petitions and representation in Urdu should be accepted.

Important laws, rules and regulations and notifications should be issued in the Urdu language also in areas where this language is prevalent and which may be specified for this purpose. It is not necessary that laws every law should be passed by the legislature in Urdu or that every law should be issued in Urdu. But in order to give publicity to important laws as well as rules and regulations and notifications, these are a substance of them should be issued in Urdu language in specified areas. In the same way, where any border areas between two state is considered bilingual; it is necessary to give publicity to important Government announcement in both the languages.

Hindi has not only been given pride of place in our constitution, but is also the state language of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well as some other states in India. There can be no question of any rivalry between Hindi and Urdu. Hindi necessarily occupies the dominant position. But in accordance with the provision of the constitution and desirability of encouraging and important language of India spoken and used by considerable number of people it is desirable to encourage and facilitate the use of Urdu by those who have been in the habit of using it.
(Home Ministry’s Press Note of 14.7.1958)

Thus, caught up in a complex political tangle Urdu seems to have lost most of its ground. The non-Muslim Urdu speakers drifted away from Urdu to a point of total estrangement. As a result of two-nation theory, two linguistic attitudes seem to have received encouragement. The first linguistic attitude was that Hindi should now be completely Sanskritized and altogether purified of its Persian and Arabic admixture. The second was that Urdu no longer had any standing in this country and could be dismissed out of hand as a mere dialect of Hindi. One stock argument advanced for deliberate sanskritization of Hindi seems to be that this would emotionally integrate this large multilingual country, in as much as Sanskrit is the base of all the Indo-Aryan languages

These attitudes were the by-products of communalization of language that Nehru could not restrain. However, the vigor, the courage, and the statesmanship that was exhibited by Pandit Nehru in resolving the linguistic crises must be appreciated.

Robert D. King, Nehru and the Language Politics of India’ OUP
Mohan Ram, Hindi Against India.
Z.A. Ahmad 1944 National Language for India, Allahabad Kitabistan
M.J. Akbar 1988 Nehru The Making of India, New Delhi Viking

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Oct 24, 2019

Ali. R. Fatihi [email protected]

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