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Cover Story: Language Imperialism/Tamil Nadu

A history of resistance: Tamil Nadu's struggle against Hindi imposition

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
CHENNAI,TAMIL NADU,30/04/2022: Dravidar Kazhagam president K. Veeramani, CPI State Secretary R. Mutharasan and others during a rally to erase Hindi letters at Egmore Railway station in protest against the Union goveernment’s attempts to impose Hindi, in Chennai on April 30.

CHENNAI,TAMIL NADU,30/04/2022: Dravidar Kazhagam president K. Veeramani, CPI State Secretary R. Mutharasan and others during a rally to erase Hindi letters at Egmore Railway station in protest against the Union goveernment’s attempts to impose Hindi, in Chennai on April 30.

Political parties across the spectrum oppose the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Anti-Hindi struggle in the State dates back to pre-Independence days.

Politicians in Tamil Nadu reacted to Home Minister Amit Shah’s assertion that Hindi be accepted as an alternative to English with disbelief. The language debate was a settled issue in Tamil Nadu, with a series of struggles dating back to pre-Independence days.

At a meeting of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) workers in January, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin made a clear distinction between learning Hindi and forcing people to adopt Hindi: “We are not against Hindi. We are against the imposition of Hindi. We Tamils have no hatred for any language…. The fire of the language struggle, ignited by Periyar [E. V. Ramasamy, the ideological guru of Dravidian politics] in Tamil Nadu in 1938 will not subside even in 2022. Learning a language is an individual’s prerogative. Those who desire one religion for the country are the ones who want to impose one language as well.”

In 2020, the Hindi imposition plan got a strong pushback from Tamil Nadu, with celebrities and prominent figures sporting T-shirts saying (Don’t know Hindi, Get Lost). ‘Hindi Teriyadu Poda.’

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) and other parties organised demonstrations against the Home Minister’s statement. The Dravidar Kazhagam said imposition of Hindi was attempted from time to time, including through the National Education Policy. Its president K. Veeramani made the point that Tamil could not be taught in the Hindi belt since thousands of people from those areas were coming to Tamil Nadu for jobs. In some places, his supporters defaced Hindi letters in protest against Amit Shah’s statement. Veeramani defended it, saying: “Let them see the writing on the wall, or the lack of it, and learn from it.”

Meanwhile, there was news that Hindi was being imposed on JIPMER (Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research), the premier Central-government-run medical college in Puducherry. Its Hindi Cell issued a circular on April 29 stating that Hindi should be used in all official work. Although Rule 11 (2) of the Official Language Rule, 1976, allows for either English or Hindi in headings and columns of registers, the institute issued a circular which said all official work will be in English and Hindi.

The circular read: “The subjects and headings of the columns in all the registers/service books/service accounts used in the office will be written in Hindi and English. In future entries in all the registers/service books/service accounts will be made as far as possible in Hindi only.” The circular was signed by the Director, JIPMER.

“This is a blatant move of Hindi imposition in institutes in non-Hindi speaking States,” said Thamizhachi Thangapandian, Member of Parliament from South Chennai. “This is antithetical to our linguistic diversity. This type of Hindi imposition needs to condemned,” she added.

The DMK, which is the main opposition in Puducherry, took up the cause and staged a demonstration in front of JIPMER. The Congress, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the CPI(M) and the Communist Party of India demanded that Chief Minister N. Rangaswamy make his stand clear.

In response to the JIPMER incident, Kanimozhi, Deputy Leader of the DMK in the Lok Sabha, asked, “Why this obsession with one language and what will this achieve? Will it solve unemployment and gender inequality or any one social evil? Why are they deepening the conflict?”

Kanimozhi has frequently spoken out against Hindi imposition. On one occasion, when she attended a Standing Committee meeting on Chemicals and Fertilizers, she requested that her name board, which was written in Hindi, be replaced with one in English. In 2019, when she was a member of the Rajya Sabha, she asked the Chair, who had commented in Hindi even as she was speaking, to speak “in a language that she could understand”. Harivansh Narayan Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha who made the remark, then expressed himself in English.

On another occasion in December 2021, after failing to pronounce ‘Atmanirbhar’ (Hindi for self-reliance), she stated that if the names of schemes were also in English, as they were during the United Progressive Alliance government, everyone would be able to understand them. The video of her attempt to pronounce ‘Atmanirbhar’ and her subsequent comment went viral, kicking off yet another debate about language.

The Union government had repeatedly assured Tamil Nadu that Hindi would not be imposed on its people. On May 6, 1963, responding to DMK leader E.V.K. Sampath, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “You are right in saying that some people have adopted a very bigoted and wrong attitude in regard to Hindi, but you need not think that their attitude is representative of most others living in the Hindu-speaking areas. I can assure you that I am not the only person who thinks like that. I am sure that the assurance I have given will be honoured in the future. Meanwhile, I agree with you that we should all work for consolidating the unity of India.” The letter was addressed to E.V.K. Sampath at Central Jail, Madras. He was arrested for the anti-Hindi agitation at the time.

T.K.S. Elangovan, DMK leader and Member of Parliament, said “it is the assurance given by a Prime Minister that is being violated”. He said Nehru had stated that what he had assured was as good as enacting a law. “Right from 1957, we have had the same stand. We have opposed Hindi imposition .The Union Home Minister has gone to the extent of saying that States will not be given finances if governments don’t accept Hindi. What is this?” he asked.

Soon after the DMK came to power for the first time in 1967, it decided on a two-language formula (Tamil and English) for the State, leaving the choice of learning any more languages to students/people. Successive governments since then have opposed Hindi imposition in the State, but have not prevented those wanting to learn Hindi from doing so. To prove their point, DMK leaders point to the smooth functioning of the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in T. Nagar in the heart of Chennai.

In 1974, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi demanded that all Central government offices in different States should function in the respective State’s official languages. In his speech in the Assembly on April 16, 1974, Karunanidhi requested the Central government to post staff who were fluent in the local language of a particular State. In fact, he was referring to the B.G. Kher-led Official Language Commission of 1956 recommendation that there needed to be some kind of “permanent bilingualism” in Central government offices located in States.

The report submitted to the government on August 6, 1956, reads: “…that is to say, they will use the Hindi language for purposes of internal working and the respective regional languages in their public dealings in respective regions…. The language policy of these agencies should be framed principally with a view of the convenience of the public… the instrumentality of these departments should not be used as a ‘lever’ to force the pace of Hindi propagation at the cost of convenience to the public.” ( , A. Ramasamy, page 11.) A Solution to the Union Official Language Problem

Both the DMK and the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), when in power have stated that the two-language formula would be the best suited for the State. Even before this, soon after the Official Languages Bill, 1963, was introduced in Parliament (stating that the official language of India will be Hindi after 1965), C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India, a Tamil and a Congressman, declared that a campaign would be launched to retain English as the official language.

The Union Language Convention organised in Chennai on April 23, 1963, resolved that “if the Prime Minister’s assurance [on Hindi not being imposed on non-Hindi-speaking States] is not implemented as an Amendment to the Constitution so as to give full effect to the expectations raised by the assurance in the minds of the people of non-Hindi areas of India, mere postponement of Hindi will serve no purpose.” The meeting added a warning: “The replacement of English by Hindi will lead to national disintegration and injure the cause of good government.” ( , A. Ramasamy, 2005). Struggle for Freedom of Languages in India

The DMK’s manifesto for the 2021 Assembly election details its plans to fight Hindi imposition and popularise Tamil. It says: “DMK will fight against Hindi imposition as it had in the past. As articulated by [then President] Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam during the parliamentary debate held in 2004, DMK will continue to urge the Union government to take necessary steps to legally declare all existing State languages as official languages of India, including Tamil. This will be an effort to accomplish the resolution made during the 1996 Trichy Conference. Until this proposal is brought to effect, DMK will urge the Central government to conduct all State-level competitive examinations, including government jobs, in the official languages of the respective States.”

Moreover, the DMK wants Tamil language to be used in Central government offices, nationalised banks and other firms in the State. For this, it said that the party will “push the Central government to bring an amendment under Article 343 of the Constitution of India”. The DMK wants Tamil to be the language of the Madras High Court and has promised to revive the Central Institute of Classical Tamil in Chennai and make it an autonomous institution. Similarly, the party wants the Central government to declare as a national textbook. Thirukkural

According to the late M.S.S. Pandian, a political scientist, the language struggle in Tamil Nadu is much bigger than the issue of a mere tool for communication. Language was a part of a much larger agitation in the State against the hierarchically oppressive structure of Hindu religion. In an article ‘Dissenters from the South’ (In , on August 15, 1997, a supplement brought out by on the occasion of the golden jubilee of Independence, page 98-99), Pandian writes: “Periyar argued that Hinduism not only gave its adherents a religious identity, but also invested them with a range of other identities which were demeaning. The most obvious of these identities were that of the sudra, Adi Dravida and women. IndiaThe Hindu

“By bringing these multiple inferior identities to the centre of Tamil politics through a critique of Hinduism, the Self-Respect Movement expanded the field of politics beyond a mere opposition to the British (which was the mainstay of the Congress politics) and initiated contestations on many fronts—caste, gender, religion, language and so on.”

It was but natural for the political incarnation of the Self-Respect Movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam, to organise women’s rights rallies and protests against social evils such as temple entry and to include the imposition of Hindi in this ambit. As such, the imposition of Hindi was equated with a social evil. The DMK, and later the AIADMK, have taken the movement forward.

In 2022, the belief that it is more than just the imposition of a language is gaining strength in the State. Those vocal on social media think that the discussion around language and religion is meant to distract people from the real issues of lack of development, unemployment and spiralling price rise.

Protest by political parties

‘Why this obsession?’

Prime Minister’s assurance

Two-language formula

AIADMK and DMK views

Language, part of a larger identity