Union Home Minister, Amit Shah in his Hindi Diwas (14 September), speech urged Indians to be ‘atmanirbhar’ with languages, especially Hindi. The Union Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh cast an evangelical “responsibility of all’ Hindi speakers "to make it popular and use it as much as possible” (translated from Hindi). Predictably, these evocative speeches prompted vigorous responses from political leaders and regional language activists in several south Indian States. These exchanges were foreshadowed by earlier debates on the national language in the Constituent Assembly which deserve closer attention. 

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The Hindi-wallahs (as Granville Austin referred to them) in the Assembly included all Assembly members who proposed 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 other members were not convinced with this proposal. 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…” 

Hindi antagonists responded that if the primary function of a national language is to unite India, 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 unified different parts of India and facilitated communication although among certain class of multilingual Indians. However, English is a colonial and ‘foreign’ language. 

So, various members, were anxious about making English the national language. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad presciently observed that English was essential to the Indian Union in civilizational terms: “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.” 

Faced with the existential consequences of a hasty adoption of a national language the founders avoided declaring a ‘national language.’ Instead, they used the more ambiguous term ‘Official Language’ The Assembly effectively de-linked language from nationalism and national identity. Today Hindi and 22 other languages are included in the 8th Schedule as ‘Official Languages’. Further, Hindi was declared an ‘official language’ for the Union government.