The process of making the Indian constitution was long and detailed, and among the many issues that were debated was the question of whether Hindi should be our ‘national language’, and whether we need one national language at all. The debate reached its peak in 1949.
Among the speakers who decimated the claims of Hindi speakers that their language should have supremacy over all other languages in India, is Shri TA Ramalingam Chettiar, a Parliamentarian from the then Madras. Read the excerpts from his passionate speech:
September 13, 1949
Mr. President, Sir, this is a very difficult question for us from the South to solve. It probably means life and death for the South.
I have been told by friends of the North that if they were to yield on the question of numerals (editor's note: the Constituent Assembly was also debating whether to use Roman numerals or Devanagari ones), they will be twitted by their voters and that they will find their life difficult when they go for elections. What will it be like when we, giving up our own languages, adopt the language of the North, go back to our provinces and face our electorates?
We have got languages which are better cultivated and which have greater literature than Hindi in our areas. If we are going to accept Hindi, it is not on account of the excellence of the language. It is merely on account of the existence of a large number of people speaking Hindi. Being practical, we do not claim that our languages which are better cultivated, which have got better literature, which are ancient, which have been there for millenniums, should be adopted.
(On the President’s objection to comparing the literatures of different languages)
The claim of Hindi is not based on its literature, its antiquity or anything like that. Such being the position, I want the Hindi speaking brethren sitting here to consider whether they are justified in making the claim for everything they want and putting us, coming from the South, in the false position which we will occupy if we are going to accept all their claims.
On account of the realities of the situation, we have accepted Hindi in Nagari script as the official language. I, however, said that you cannot use the word ‘national language’, because Hindi is no more national to us than, English or any other language. We have got our own languages which are national languages and for which we have got the same love as the Hindi speaking people have got for their language.
You are going to say that you ought to change over tomorrow, if you are to claim that it ought to be adopted as the official language today or tomorrow, I think it would not be accepted by the people. It would lead not only to frustration and disappointment, but something worse. If there is the feeling of having obtained liberty and freedom, there is very little of it felt in the South. Coming here to the capital in the northern-most part of the country, and feeling ourselves as strangers in this laud, we do not feel that we are a nation to whom the whole thing belongs.
Unless steps are taken to make the people in the South feel that they have something to do with the country, I do not think the South is going to be satisfied at all.
If you are going to leave a feeling that you are going to impose it on other people, it will lead to very bitter results. I do not want to say anything by way of telling my friends in the North that things will go wrong, but at the same time, I think it is necessary for them to realise that, after all when we want to live together and form a united nation, there should be mutual adjustment and no question of forcing things on people who may or may not want it.
After all, what is it that we have asked for?
We asked for time for preparation. It was agreed to by the leaders on the other side. They said that they will allow fifteen years for preparation. What does the draft say? The draft goes back upon it. In the first clause it says, for fifteen years English will continue. In, the second clause, it says there will be appointed a Commission or a Committee after five years and the Committee will recommend for what purposes Hindi can be introduced and the President may issue orders- accordingly.
What does it mean? At least with reference to these matters to which order will be issued, the term of fifteen years has been cut down to five. Then you say, after ten years, you are going to appoint another Commission and that Commission is to report and on that report, orders will be passed. What does this mean?
It is only giving a hope in the first portion of the section and taking away that hope and giving us mere stones in the latter portion of the draft. I do not know who is responsible for the draft. I have no doubt that Mr. Gopalaswami Ayyangar has come out to propose it. But, I for instance cannot at all accept it unless the fifteen years’ period is made real and not merely chimerical by the introduction of these Committees and Commissions and changes which are expected after the fifth year and the tenth year.
The South is the only part of the country probably which does not feel that it is going to come into line with the other provinces soon, especially my part of the country where Tamil is the language spoken. We have been priding ourselves that we have had nothing to do with Sanskrit. We do not claim that Tamil is derived from Sanskrit, or is based on Sanskrit in any way.
We have been trying to keep our vocabulary as pure as possible without the admixture of Sanskrit. Now, we have to go back upon all that. We have to take words from Sanskrit; we have to change our whole course of action. What it means to the people who have been brought up in their own language, who have been priding themselves that their language has been independent of Sanskrit, and that that is the only language which can stand against Sanskrit.
We are to prepare ourselves first with reluctance to give up our old position and take to a study of Hindi or Sanskrit. You will have first to educate the people, I mean make them reconcile themselves to the new order of things. Then, they will have to take to the study of Hindi, to enable them to take their place here among those whose mother tongue is Hindi. You are permanently handicapping us.
Those whose mother tongue is Hindi they learn only Hindi. But, we in the South, we have got to study not only Hindi but also our own mother tongue; we cannot give up our mother tongue. You in the North will have to realise what sacrifice we are making. After all, what do we ask for in return?
Do not complicate matters by having not only the script, but also the numerals. The numerals are being used for purposes of accounts, for purposes of statistics and other things. You say that our accounts will have to be kept hereafter in the Hindi numerals if you are going to produce them before the Income-tax authorities.
It is a matter of convenience and it is a matter on which people both in India and outside are concerned; statistics have to go outside, things have to be put in the accounts and sciences in a particular numeral. If you are going to say you have to adopt Hindi numeral, what are you going to do for other purpose? If you are to study anything from outside whether science, banking or anything else, everything will appear in other books only in the international numerals.
What is the objection to international numerals? It is only on the ground that we ought to have 100% Hindi, because you have agreed to adopt the Hindi language in the Hindi script, you better adopt the Hindi numerals also.
You do not care what results from that. After all, the whole world is adopting international numerals. Why should you fight shy because you want to dominate the whole of India? It is not even the things that are said-we have given up our language in favour of Hindi-but the way in which the Hindi speaking people treat us and the way in which they want to demand things that is more galling. That is the way in which it is said- 'of course you ought to accept'.
I appeal to the North Indian people not to take up that attitude, to have a feeling that we are all living together in a common country. It is only then that India can proceed and be successful and form a united nation.
Unless you weld the nation and you make everybody feel that they have got a share in the country and it is their country, unless you do that, if you go on keeping the spirit of domination of one part over the other, I am sure the result is not going to be for the progress or for the safety of the country. Sir, with these words I appeal again to the Hindi speaking people to give up their attitude of domination and of dictation and to adjust themselves.
Tiruppur Angappa Ramalingam Chettiar was an Indian lawyer, politician, Member of Parliament and businessman from Tamil Nadu. This speech was made during the Constituent Assembly debates on Hindi.