Last week, on Hindi Diwas, Union Minister Amit Shah controversially suggested that Hindi be adopted as India's national language.

Sure enough, this triggered push back from many quarters, particularly in South India. This is the latest round of political jostling over the national language question that can be traced back to the Indian freedom movement.

A strand of the political and constitutional discourse in pre-independent India felt it was necessary to adopt a national language: the Nehru Report 1928 proposed Hindustani. Gandhi and Nehru supported Hindustani because it was a hybrid of Hindi and Urdu. But why was this hybridity important or relevant for India’s national language? 

We asked this question to students at an event we organised under the National Constitution Society. After some silence followed by animated discussions, students arrived at an answer: Hindi and Urdu were considered languages spoken by and representing the Hindu and Muslim communities respectively. Therefore, adopting Hindustani as the national language could unite the two communities whose relations were strained.

Not all students were convinced by this rationale. While one argued that Hindus and Muslims in South India did not speak Hindi or Urdu, another did not agree with viewing the national language question through Hindu-Muslim relations or unity-building. Similar arguments were put forward in the Constituent Assembly.

In addition to Hindustani, Assembly members proposed Sanskrit, Hindi and even English as candidates for India’s national language. After heated, dramatic and conflict-ridden debates between various ‘language’ groups, the Assembly decided to not adopt a ‘national’ language for India.

Instead, the Constitution named 14 ‘Official Languages’ including Hindi in Schedule VIII of the Constitution. This strategy has allowed India to avoid the follies of our neighbours. They insisted on a single national language and this sparked the partition of Pakistan and a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka.


More:

1. Debate Summary: Article 343

2. Blog post: Constitution Framers Decided to De-Link Language From National Identity

3. Indian Constitution in the Classroom: Film Screening & Discussion | Does India need a National Language?

 

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