The draft of the New Education Policy suggesting a three-language formula, and suggesting Hindi teaching be compulsory in non-Hindi states released recently set off an old “Hindi-imposition” storm in Tamil Nadu. As a means of damage control after the protests, the committee dropped the reference to Hindi in the draft.
Since 2014, this is the second time when the debate over Hindi has sparked controversy in the southern states, especially in Tamil Nadu. A 2014 order by the home ministry urged government officials to prioritise Hindi as a medium of communication on the social media. All Tamil parties protested against the order and termed it to be against the spirit of the Official Language Act 1963. The protests ensured the continuation of English for official purposes.
The idea that Hindi should be our first language and that it can act as a unifying agent dates long back in history. On December 10, 1946, R.V. Dhulekar, a member of the Constituent Assembly, said: “People who do not know Hindi have no right to stay in India. People who are present in the House to fashion a Constitution for India and do not know Hindi are not worthy to be members of this assembly. They better leave.”
For long, there weren’t many ardent buyers of Dhulekar’s argument, especially in the south. In Tamil Nadu, the demand for a separate nation called Dravida Nadu was born as opposition to this “one nation, one language” discourse. However, since the historic mandate of 2014 and the even bigger mandate of 2019, the issue of the National Register of Citizens has taken prominence, which may bring the genie of hyper-regionalism versus hyper-nationalism to life again.
We can take lessons from history about the efforts towards bringing about national integration from our neighbours. Pakistan declared Urdu as its sole national language in 1952, which sparked violent agitations all across East Pakistan. They strongly rejected the imposition of Urdu in the Bangla majority area. What started as a reaction to the brutal killing of the students of Dhaka University on February 21, 1952 ended with the birth of a new linguistic nation called Bangladesh in 1971. Around 100 km from what could have been Dravida Nadu, we have Sri Lanka, which became a battleground for decades due to a civil war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army on the issue of the imposition of the Sinhalese language and the undermining of the minority Tamil culture.
The nationalist idea neglects the fact that in post-independent India, one of the basis for recognising states is based on linguistic identity. This is quite problematic. States in India have largely been a successful exercise as measured on the parameters of growth and also in sustaining democracy, with some exceptions. The unrest witnessed is only in cases where the linguistic or social identity has been disregarded. Even states like Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which were formed in the last two decades, were based on the idea of distinct geographical, tribal, linguistic and social identities. Telangana, the latest addition, was carved out from Andhra Pradesh in 2014 following the same trend.
In India, there are social, economic, cultural, religious and numerous regional diversities. We doubt that these diversities have ever come in the way of the social and economic development of India. While one has always wished for unity-in-diversity, but this desire for having unity has never been imposed and whenever it has been imposed it has not been welcomed by the people in general.
The powerful Centre has to accept the fact that multiple identities and diversity can exist and flourish at the federal level, and these identities do not harm the national character. National integration aims at developing a sense of belonging, a feeling of togetherness and unity. The evidence suggests that the people of India are not averse to having nationalist symbols deemed to be necessary for the national character of India. People take a sense of belonging in uniform symbols which are really national like the national flag or the national anthem. However, at the same time, the same set of people also like to cherish their own regional, linguistic and social identities.
A Lokniti-CSDS-APU survey points out that 81 per cent of people in Karnataka agree that states should punish those who do not stand up for the national anthem while Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh stand on 74 per cent, 69 per cent and 68 per cent respectively. The states protesting against Hindi imposition do not lack the Indian national character. For instance, in the state of Tamil Nadu, the number is also as high as 62 per cent.
At the same time, a significant number of Indians cherish their regional identities more than the national identity. The same survey suggests that 46 per cent of people in Tamil Nadu would like to be identified only with their state identity while 25 per cent respondents identify themselves by their national identity, while 25 per cent people identify themselves with both identities equally. About 50.5 per cent people in Nagaland and J&K like to be identified only with their state identity.
National integration is essential, but it cannot be attempted at the cost of local cultures, identities and of course the Constitution of India. The call for a Uniform Civil Code and the abrogation of Article 370 are excellent election promises but taking these forward for national integration may not be an easy task for India as a quasi-federal country that has always believed in the longstanding concept of “unity in diversity”. Any step to impose a singular symbol of the nation as the only symbol should be properly deliberated upon. India may not like to rekindle the memory of a separate Dravida Nadu again in the name of national integration. The words spoken decades ago by T.T. Krishnamachari in the Constituent Assembly comes into mind where he asked his friends from Uttar Pradesh, the people in the Hindi lobby to choose between the India they want, the whole of India or Hindi India.
Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently the director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The views expressed here are personal.
Neel Madhav is a student of journalism at the University of Delhi and currently an intern at Lokniti-CSDS...