Behind the Bharatiya Janata Party’s renewed push to make Hindi a national language after coming back to power for a second time after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections lies a dangerous desire to disenfranchise South India, a region that has proved a spoiler to the BJP’s political ambition to rule over every state of India, of its legitimate political representation and clout.
It is this fear that led to such a severe reaction to his proposal when home minister Amit Shah recently advocated the use of Hindi as a national language, with a slogan viscerally appealing to the BJP’s worldview but contradicting India’s diversity — “one nation, one language”. There was an outpouring of linguistic pride and cultural sentiments in south India.
The South has serious apprehensions about Mr Shah’s intentions, his momentary backtrack notwithstanding. The BJP’s present numbers in the parliament have nurtured in its leadership a superiority complex. They are convinced they can get away despite showing scant regard for the basic tenets of democratic polity and trying to level all dissent to the ground.
Citing a promise made in the BJP’s election manifesto, Mr Shah has bulldozed his way to watering down Article 370, instead of evolving a political consensus, or even trying to create a harmonious context towards building a common meeting ground. People fear this behaviour on his part was not an exception, but a deeper attitude that would reflect in his future actions.
For, the southern states are also set to lose, both economically and politically.
It is an unimpeachable fact that the southern states make significantly higher contribution to the nation’s tax kitty. The 15th Finance Commission, responsible for allocations of respective shares of tax collected among states, was constituted in November 2017 with the mandate for devolution of taxes on the basis of the 2011 population figures, instead of using the 1971 figures.
There were loud protests from the southern states when they realised that, due to demographic transition over a 40-year period, their share in India’s population has declined by four percentage points. Consequently, there has been a corresponding increase in percentage of population of the economically backward BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) states and others in North India.
Therefore, what the southern states lose, the BIMARU states would qualify to gain, which is a significantly higher share of the devolution of taxes, almost a “reward” for failing to bring down population growth, even as their contribution remained significantly lower.
This evoked a strong reaction and loud protests from the southern states last year but these were to no avail. However, next year, the north-south divide, fuelled by the impact of recommendations of the 15th Finance Commission, will once again be the focal point of attention.
Mr Shah’s statement pushing for Hindi as a common national language in this background will appear to be a continuation of that assault — to take away the South’s financial rights, and more. This latest push is apparently made in blissfully ignorance of implications of such protests. A short-sighted BJP fails to realise that this dispute over unfair revenue sharing has set the stage for a larger fight in 2026, when the Lok Sabha seats, frozen since 1971, would be due for reallocation among states and Union territories on the basis of the 2031 census.
If the reallocation of Lok Sabha seats is done today on the basis of the present (2011) population, the five southern states — Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — would to lose a minimum of 33 out of their existing total 129 Lok Sabha seats.
With the present trend of population growth, the South will only lose even more LS seats on the basis of population in 2031. In this zero sum game, what the South would lose the Hindi states would gain. Or, in other words, a region that is not letting BJP grow will be “punished” for the sake of the BJP-backing states.
Even if the total number of Lok Sabha seats were to be increased, the incremental gain will only go to northern states. The South, which has been losing financially through a decreasing share of tax devolution, and is being threatened sporadically of being stripped of its linguistic identity, is now seriously set to lose political representation at the Centre.
In 1976, the southern states had expressed the fear of being politically marginalised because of skewed population growth, with a less successful population control programme in the north. This resulted in the 42nd Constitutional Amendment, which froze political representation from each state at the 1971 census, till the 2001 census. The hope was that the northern states would catch up with the southern states by 2000. That, however, has come to naught.
The South expressed its fear in 1999 again. The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution, introduced by then chief minister M. Karunanidhi to “urge the Government of India to ensure that the number of seats in the Lok Sabha allotted to every state remains unchanged for another 50 years and to amend the Constitution of India accordingly”.
If political representation from each state is not frozen, the more populous north will get more seats at the cost of the southern states.
Stoking the north-south flames and hoping to exploit such a divide politically will be a serious challenge to national integration. The BJP leadership should focus on addressing these critical issues and start a process of consultation to build a consensus over this landmine planted in our calendar ahead. Justice to south should be the real focus, not a dangerously diversionary tactic of language wars.
Treat the push for Hindi language as a closed subject. Any attempt to stoke fire, blinded by a desire to simply implement the RSS agenda, could sow seeds for the balkanisation of India.
The time-tested “three language formula” is the right solution for India. The BJP has to step back and categorically assure the people of the southern states that there would be no attempt to impose Hindi.
The BJP government would be well advised to focus on a process of consultation instead and evolve a consensus on how to deal with the two other grievances. If it is their desire to disenfranchise the south, they will taste the Spanish ulcer that downed Napoleon Bonaparte in the south of Vindhyas.