The history of anti-Hindi imposition movements in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu’s stance against the Three-Language Policy goes all the way back to the pre-Independence era.
The history of anti-Hindi imposition movements in Tamil Nadu
The history of anti-Hindi imposition movements in Tamil Nadu
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“I refer to this question of language imperialism. There are various forms of imperialism and language imperialism is one of the most powerful methods of propagating the imperialistic idea… This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary, will also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the legislature, the language of the Centre... My honourable friends in UP do not help us in any way by flogging their idea ‘Hindi Imperialism' to the maximum extent possible. Sir, it is up to my friends in UP to have a whole-India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs.”

– TT Krishnamachari, Constituent Assembly Debate, November 5, 1948

The central government released its draft National Education Policy on Friday evening, and immediately there was uproar over the Three-Language Policy suggested in the draft. The point in contention was Section 4.5.9, titled ‘Flexibility in the choice of languages’. It said: “In keeping with the principle of flexibility, students who wish to change one of the three languages they are studying may do so in Grade 6, so long as the study of three languages by students in the Hindi-speaking states would continue to include Hindi and English and one of the modern Indian languages from other parts of India, while the study of languages by students in the non-Hindi-speaking states would include the regional language, Hindi and English.”

DMK, the party which spearheaded the Anti Hindi imposition agitation in 1960s was quick to fire a warning shot. "Imposing Hindi on Tamil Nadu would be similar to throwing stones at a beehive," MK Stalin, the DMK president said. The ruling AIADMK, which fought the recent Parliamentary elections in alliance with the BJP, too made it clear that it will continue with the existing Two-Language Policy in the state.

1937: Protests against Rajaji’s policy

Tamil Nadu’s stance against the Three-Language Policy goes all the way back to the pre-Independence era. In 1937, the newly elected Congress government headed by Rajaji, issued a Government Order (GO) making Hindi compulsory in state government schools.

Periyar EV Ramasamy’s Self Respect Movement and the Justice Party protested the move, and led agitations against it. Picketing, processions and fiery speeches marked the protest that spread across the state. More than 1,100 people, including Periyar and CN Annadurai were arrested.

Two of those jailed – Natarajan from Chennai and Thalamuthu from Kumbakonam – died in prison due to illness. This inflamed the agitation further.

In October 1939, the Congress government resigned, protesting India’s involvement in the Second World War. In February 1940, Governor Erskine issued a press release withdrawing compulsory Hindi in schools. This three year protest was the first Anti Hindi imposition agitation in the state. The martyrs Thalamuthu and Natarajan are remembered by Thalamuthu Natarajan Maligai, a government building in Egmore that currently houses the CMDA offices.

When protests reached the Constituent Assembly

During the Constituent Assembly debates, the language issue raised its head once again as members debated the draft Constitution. TT Krishnamachari of Congress spoke passionately against using Hindi as a common language. It was in this debate that he uttered his oft-quoted remark: “Sir, it is up to my friends in UP to have a whole-India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs.”

After much debate, the Constituent Assembly decided on a compromise called the Munshi-Ayyangar formula (named after KM Munshi and Gopalswamy Ayyangar, members of the Constituent Assembly). It ensured that the Indian Constitution will not specify any National Language. English and Hindi will be the Official Languages of the Union for 15 years. A Language commission could be convened after five years to promote Hindi and phase out English. This compromise effectively postponed the Language question 15 years down the line.

Tamil purity movements

It was not as if Tamil Nadu fought only in the Assemblies and Parliament against the imposition of Hindi. Weeding out loan words from other languages progressed intensively. Thanith Tamil Iyakkam (Independent Tamil Movement), started by Maraimalai Adigal in 1916, was at the forefront of linguistic purity movement.

An example was fasting by two youngsters, Ilavalagan and Arangarathinam, in front of Tiruchirapalli and Madras Radio stations protesting against the use of Sanskritic ‘ākāshavānī’ for Radio. As soon as DMK came to power in 1967, Tamil Nadu radio station names were changed to Tamil Vaanoli.

Continuing English as Official Language

The Official Languages Act of 1963 was the next flash point. As the fifteen year period specified in Article 344 of Indian Constitution came closer, the Union Government enacted the Official Languages Act. CN Annadurai, as the lone representative of DMK in Rajya Sabha, spoke vehemently against the Act. He wanted an indefinite continuation of English as Official Language as it would ‘distribute advantages and disadvantages evenly’ among Hindi and non-Hindi speakers.

The Act started with “Notwithstanding the expiration of the period of fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution, the English language may, as from the appointed day, continue to be used in addition to Hindi...” Anna argued against the use of ‘may’, saying it gives an option for ‘may not’ too. He wanted ‘may’ to be replaced with ‘shall’. But the brute majority of Congress ensured that the Act was passed without any change. Anna promptly launched an agitation as he had warned, and was arrested along with his party members. At this point, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised that English would continue as an Official Language.

The 1965 protests

After the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, Tamils were apprehensive that his assurances of continuation of English as an Official Language would not be kept. It was further strengthened when the state government under Congress' M Bhaktavatsalam introduced the Three-Language Formula (English-Hindi-Tamil) in Madras Legislative Assembly.

Anti-Hindi imposition protests spread across the state, with college students at the forefront. Chinnasamy of Tiruchi was the first person to immolate himself against imposition of Hindi. This led to a spate of self-immolations against imposition of Hindi. Anna announced that Jan 26, 1965 (when the Official Languages Act came into force) will be observed as a day of mourning. When the Chief Minister M Bhaktavatsalam called it a blasphemy, Anna advanced the protest to Jan 25, 1965. Anna, along with 3,000 DMK members, were taken into preventive custody to foil the protests. A clash between agitating students and Congress workers in Madurai turned into a riot that spread to other parts of the state.

In two weeks of riots, about 70 people were killed, according to government estimates. The Congress government tried to deal with the agitation as a law and order problem and brought in para military forces. Fissures appeared within the Congress itself. Central ministers from Tamil Nadu, C Subramaniam and OV Alagesan, handed over their resignation to the Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who promptly accepted it and forwarded it to the President.

However the President, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, refused to accept Shastri’s recommendation and advised him against precipitating matters. Finally, the Prime Minister backed down and made a radio broadcast on February 11, 1965 promising to honour Nehru’s assurances. He also assured Tamils that English would continue to be used for Centre-state and intrastate communications, and that the All India Civil Services examination would continue to be conducted in English.

Repercussions for Congress

The impact of 1965 agitation was felt in 1967 elections when the Congress government lost power in Tamil Nadu. A student leader, P Seenivasan, defeated Congress stalwart and former CM K Kamaraj in his hometown. DMK led by Annadurai captured power. Many student leaders of the agitation became political leaders of the future. The anti-Hindi imposition agitation ensured that the state followed a Two-Language Policy as against the Three-Language Policy proposed by the Centre.

Anti-imposition, not anti-language

Since 1967, Tamil Nadu has charted its own course. After 50 years now, it can be said that it is one of the comparatively better governed states. It consistently is near the top in HDI charts and industrial growth charts. Giving up Hindi doesn’t seem to have impacted the state much.

Contrary to popular belief, the state does not stop anyone from learning Hindi. There are Hindi Prachar Sabhas across the state. Tamils going to North India or other states learn the local language and speak it fluently. Any language will be learned by a person if there is a need. Why force people to learn it when there is no need, is the fundamental question posed by Tamil Nadu.

Coming back to the National Policy on Education, 2019 draft, the central government swiftly got into a damage control mode. Cabinet ministers of Tamil origin, Dr S Jaishankar and Nirmala Sitaraman, tweeted in Tamil saying that it wasn’t the intention of the central government to impose any language on any state, and it is just a draft policy to solicit public opinion. HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal termed it a misunderstanding. And by Monday evening, the draft policy was amended to remove the mandatory Hindi clause.

Once again, Tamil Nadu acted as a bulwark against Hindi imposition.

Chenthil Nathan is a Truck Fleet Operator and a History enthusiast. He also translates Classical Tamil Poetry at Views expressed are the author’s own.

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