On the occasion of Hindi Diwas, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, in his speech that seems to call for Hindi to become India’s national language, argued for promoting Hindi across India but clarified that this would not affect other Indian languages.

The Hindi-wallahs (as Granville Austin referred to them) in the Constituent Assembly, a group of Hindi chauvinists that included the likes of Purushotam Das Tandon and Govind Das Seth, took a similar line while defending their proposals to make Hindi India’s national language. They claimed that any privileged position for Hindi did not imply the diminution of other ‘regional’ languages. Many members were not convinced. Shankar Rao Deo, a Gandhian, said-

They appeal to us in the name of unity, in the name of culture, that this country must have one language. They say unless this country has one language, there cannot be unity and one culture; and if there is no unity and one culture, then, this country has no future. in the same breath we are told that the regional languages must be enriched… I cannot understand how these two things can go together. I think we are speaking with two minds. We cannot hope to have one language for the whole country and at the same time work for the enrichment of the regional languages and assert that they must be maintained, and they must have a permanent place in the national structure or life. I have tried my best to understand how these two things can go together but failed…

In his speech, Shah also expressed concern about foreign languages overpowering Indian ones. Presumably, Shah has just one foreign language in mind – English. Some members of the Assembly were similarly apprehensive. English was axiomatically disqualified form being a candidate for India’s national language. However, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad said something that he felt most Assembly members were in denial about -

We have got to admit that so far as language is concerned North and South are two different parts. The union of North and South has been made possible only through the medium of English. If today we give up English then this linguistic relationship will cease to exist.

From Deo’s and Azad's interventions, we understand the predicament of the Constituent Assembly on the question of a national language. While the Assembly felt it was important to have a national language, it soon realised that this implied and signalled a junior role for other Indian languages.

And if the primary function of a national language was to unite India (as Shah seems to suggest), then English was a decent choice: first - different regions of India might be more inclined to adopt neutral English rather than Hindi; second - English had already performed a unity building function between different parts of India and facilitated communication albeit among certain class of multilingual Indians. But English is a colonial and ‘foreign’ language.

So how did the Constitution framers finally resolve the question?

Well, they rejected the idea of declaring a national language. When the language provisions were taken up for debate, relevant draft articles began to use the ambiguous term ‘Official Language’ and notNational Language’. The Assembly had consciously or otherwise de-linked language from nationalism and national identity

A compromise had been struck. Hindi was declared an ‘Official Language’ – thanks to the rabid Hindi-wallahs who projected enormous strength and power in the Assembly, and who could not be ignored. Hindi opposers reluctantly accepted this: at least Hindi was not declared a national language.

It is this decision of the Constituent Assembly to not adopt or declare a national language for India that Amit Shah seeks to undermine. 

After independence, Hindi has made immense in-roads into the consciousness of Indians everywhere – thanks to popular culture (read Bollywood) and inter-state migration. But this process was organic and not the result of force or imposition. However, even the slightest move to make Hindi a national language would be fanatically opposed and could take forms reminiscent of the ani-Hindi agitations that have punctuated India’s post-independent history.