Telugu is the 15th most-spoken mother language in the world. To put this in perspective, some of the mother languages that are behind Telugu in rank include Turkish, Italian, Persian and Dutch. Now pause for a moment and let this sink in. All of these languages that fall behind Telugu are official languages of independent states and, with the exception of Urdu, are the mother tongues of states that have a smaller population than the Telugu linguistic homeland (Telangana and Andhra Pradesh combined). Some of these are languages in which hundreds of science journals are published, including works that went on to win Nobel prizes. These lesser-ranked languages are taught compulsorily in their respective nations and this is not even a question of debate.
However, all hell breaks loose when any non-Hindi language is made mandatory in any state of the Indian Union, and the small but rich, and therefore influential, Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) school parents and authority groups protest vociferously. I stress on non-Hindi since learning the language is enforced in every education board in each and every state where Hindi is the primary state language and no parent of any CBSE school, irrespective of what the mother tongue of the child is, has ever protested this fact.
Somehow all concerns about ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ emanate from CBSE schools when it comes to non-Hindi languages, and never in the case of Hindi. In fact, this sort of ‘choice’ rhetoric is quite rich, for CBSE is the only board that does not give any real choice about what should be the first language of the child – it must necessarily be English. All major non-Hindi state boards give multiple choices for the first language.
Thus, it was not surprising that the declaration that Telugu be compulsory in schools in Telangana saw similar murmurs of unhappiness from some schools. But let that minor irritation not take anything away from this momentous historical event. Never has learning the language been compulsory in any part of the Telugu homeland. This changed on 14th November 2017, with a communiqué from Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao's office, which read, “The CM has instructed all the educational institutions in the state, both private and public, to teach Telugu as a compulsory subject from 1st to 12th standard." This move was further cemented on 21st November 2017 in a review meeting of the Telangana government, chaired by the Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Kadiyam Srihari, which assented to a sub-committee report proposing Telugu as a compulsory subject in all Telangana schools from Class I to intermediate.
In the last 300 years, the Telugu linguistic nationality never had supreme state power and official language rights in its own homeland. With the passage of the Andhra Pradesh Official Language Act in 1966, the latter was partially remedied, but barely so. It doesn’t have that power now either, given the Union and Concurrent lists control much of the affairs of Andhra and Telangana. The life of a Telugu person, therefore, is controlled by the subjects that fall under the Union and State Governments. This ensures that a Telugu person does not receive most of the communication necessary for his or her life in his native tongue, because the Union government does not speak to him/her in Telugu. It speaks to the Telugu person in Hindi and English; progressively more in the former than the latter.
While the Telangana government’s decision to make Telugu obligatory in schools is a belated but necessary step, those who oppose this and yet think that the Union government’s Hindi imposition is somehow ‘normal’, should really get themselves acquainted with the political and constitutional reality. It is enshrined in our Constitution that no one can be discriminated on the basis of language – this makes all the attempts of Hindi imposition by the Union Government on non-Hindi people unconstitutional. But, more fundamentally, the Indian Union itself was not formed on the basis of language.
However, most non-Hindi states were, in fact, formed on the basis of language – once what would constitute the India Union at large was decided, the states were formed more or less on the basis of language. In fact, most non-Hindi states were sovereign political units much before the ‘idea of India’ existed. In the linguistic reorganization of states, Telugu has a very special place. It was the first state carved out on a linguistic basis from the erstwhile polylingual Madras province. Again, Telugu is one of the two non-Hindi languages (the other being Bengali) that is the primary state official language of more than one state.
The bifurcation of the Telugu national homeland into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana was seen as a crack in the Telugu unity. Thus, it is extremely significant that it was Telangana, and not Andhra Pradesh, that took the lead in making Telugu compulsory in all schools. With this act, Telangana had, consciously or otherwise, thrown the gauntlet down and it was only a matter of time before Andhra Pradesh passed the same rule – so it was not seen as being left behind when it came to standing up for Telugu. On 24th November 2017, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu signed an official document, setting off the process that ultimately aims at making Telugu compulsory in all schools in the state till Class 12. United Telugu cooperation is thus back in play, albeit in a competitive sense.
This points to a shift in the Telugu homeland rhetoric and none other than the Vice President of India, M Venkaiah Naidu, a native Telugu speaker himself, has reacted to it. Given that he never had a strong base in his birthplace, he has used this opportunity to voice his support for these Telugu-prioritization initiatives in an effort to position himself as a Telugu patriarch of sorts. The Telugu people, although, have denied him any such status and he owes his political elevation to other factors. He has long been an ardent supporter of Hindi imposition – as non-Hindi leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are expected to be. But it has been particularly egregious in his case – probably he is zealous to present himself as trustworthy and more loyal to the BJP’s Hindi-heartland base and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Nagpur headquarters.
One loses count of the number of times he has oft-repeated the false and unconstitutional propaganda that Hindi is the ‘national language’ or ‘rashtrabhasha’ when it isn’t so. As part of his flash-in-the-pan Telugu advocacy, he said that those having jobs in Andhra Pradesh must know Telugu. This is a pretty amazing statement because only recently he said that all non-Hindi students must learn Hindi to be ‘acceptable’ at the ‘national level’. What is this ‘national level’ that he refers to? Is Andhra Pradesh not part of this nation he speaks of? Does he imagine a ‘nation’ that is 5-feet above non-Hindi-speaking states and is a product of Union government-controlled offices, institutions, mines, ports, airports, highways, CBSE and Kendriya Vidyalaya schools? It is this Hindi-centric cow-belt’s hegemony-seeking viewpoint that has made compulsory Telugu possible. It is an aspiration as well as a response at the same time.
Telangana and Andhra Pradesh join a growing list of states where the primary state language has been made obligatory in school. Between 2014 and 2017, official announcements have been made making Bengali compulsory in the schools of West Bengal, Kannada necessary in the schools of Karnataka and Malayalam has been enforced in Kerala schools. What is important to note here is that they are all non-BJP states, representing a very wide political range – from states’ rights ideology parties like the Trinamool Congress to a strong states’ rights advocate in a weakening Delhi party like the Congress’ Siddaramaiah in Karnataka to a universalist ideology party with a strong local base in the Communist Party India (Marxist) in Kerala.
What these states have started doing in this short period between 2014 and 2017 is something that they haven’t done since 1947. Thus, one must look at the emergent realities of the 2014–2017 period to understand that this answers the questions of why language in particular and why now. Across the non-Hindi states, there is a realization that soft linguistic nationalism has the potential to effectively counter the BJP’s Hindi–Hindu nationalism. It is one of the last remaining strongholds against the all-round Hindi imposition, communalization of politics, and the unprecedented attacks on, the erosion of and the interference in state rights, with NEET, the Goods and Services Tax and Niti Aayog being just a few examples. It is this combination of factors that had led to this moment.
In some ways, language-identity fights are essentially a proxy war to protect the federal structure of the Indian Union. If state rights erode, there is no Indian Union – for the linguistic homelands predate the Indian Union. The battle to preserve state rights is a fight to preserve the unity and integrity of the Indian Union itself.
Views expressed are the author's own.