India is one of the most heterogeneous and diverse countries in the world. Because its demographic structure is so ethnically and culturally dynamic, so is its linguistic profile. With more than 122 major languages being spoken across the country by millions of people, it is evident that as much as linguistic ties have the capacity to unite, they have also been the crux of several major conflicts that India has encountered since Independence. There have been continued disagreements nationally about the relative importance of one language over the others. This language has generally been Hindi, which has invoked the ire of the Southern and the Eastern states who have felt that such a boost allowed to one language would sabotage the significance of the others that they speak.
In 2019, Amit Shah evoked controversy, when he emphasized upon the ability of Hindi to “unite” India and be the representative of the country internationally. He declared that though the country consists of different languages, it is Hindi, which is the most widely spoken and which should be the most encouraged. This view was repeated by J.P. Nadda and several other eminent leaders and earned the indignation of several politicians from Dravidian political parties who saw this as a subordination of the states’ identity by the Centre and the Central Indian Hindi-belt and stressed that India is more than just Hindi. In 2020, with the introduction of the National Education Policy (NEP), controversy arose again, as MK Stalin, President of the DMK party, pressured the Centre to “halt the implementation” of such a “unilateral” move by the Central government that used the three-language formula to demoralise the dignity of the Tamil language. He underlined that a “one size fits all approach” in linguistic terms is unsuitable for India, and there needs to be a consultative process that will consider the perspectives of all sections of the population.
The purpose of this article to analyse why India does not have a national language. In aid of this, it will summarise a historical overview of the various debates over language that have occurred in India since Independence. It will also study the differences between a national and an official language to understand why India does not have the former.
Debates Over Language
When comprehending the debates surrounding language in India, it is most natural to begin at the Constituent Assembly Debates, because it is in those recording of deliberations and discussions of the Constituent Assembly (from December 9, 1946 to January 24, 1950) that it is possible to delineate the intentions of the framers of the Constitution and the makers of the Indian nation. The most effusive discussions occurring on language was on 13th September, 1949. The issue at hand was the matter of the national language versus the official language of India, with proponents of Hindi, Hindustani, Sanskrit, Bengali and English expressing their varied opinions. While there was a general consensus that English would be continued as the national language for the next fifteen years for administrative ease, there was a disagreement about which language would replace it. The amendment that English should continue to be the official language for the next 15 years after which it would be replaced by Hindi in Devanagari script – the main theme that drove the debates – was introduced by N Gopalaswami Ayyangar.
A member of the Drafting Committee, he emphasised that this agreement was hard-won, and any changes might lead the entire consensus to crumble. The most vociferous defence of Hindi came from RV Dhulekar, who was overjoyed that Hindi had become the official and the national language as a “consummation of a historical process” from Swami Ram Das, Tulsi Das, Swami Dayanand and Mahatma Gandhi in Congress, by “winning the race among languages” through its power and strength. His amalgamation of the notions of national and official languages did cause some unease in the Assembly. However, he was clear about the fact that Hindi was the country’s “universal language” and those who disagreed with him might belong to another nation, but he belonged to the “Indian nation, the Hindi nation, the Hindu nation, the Hindustani nation”, where only Hindi must enjoy that position of primacy, and Sanskrit must only be seen as an ” international language”. Seth Govindas stressed “one language and one script” should be the focus of the Assembly where Hindi should replace English as soon as possible. Though there had been an agreement that India would be a secular nation, in a democracy, the majority was most important; and there should not be the continued presence of heterogeneous cultures that would drown the singular “ancient history” of Indian culture. Lakshminarayan Sahu contended that though various individuals from around the country could argue for the primacy of whichever language they speak, it was necessary that the Assembly “move forward in the interests of the whole nation” and choose Hindi regardless of the inconvenience it might cause. Pdt. Ravishankar Shukla referred to Keshub Chandra Sen (1874) who believed that Indian unity was only possible through one vernacular language, and Hindi’s prevalence everywhere ensured that it be the common language throughout India. Anticipating the protests that might come from his “friends from the South”, he argued that they should learn Hindi at the earliest or otherwise “be left behind”. Though Syama Prakash Mookerjee did not support the style in which the advocates of Hindi aggressively demanded the primacy of the language (which had irked a large majority), but he did believe that Hindi was “understood by the largest single majority in this country today”. The decision to make Hindi the official language should not be enforced in the Assembly. It should be allowed to spontaneously become the national language through public consent and by allowing it to absorb the various specificities of other languages, without fixating on one pure version of Hindi. Dr. BR Ambedkar also believed that it should be the “duty” of all Indians to accept Hindi as “their language” so that Indians may unite and construct a “common culture”.
Those who believed that Hindustani should be the official language drew their ideological strength from Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that its rich cultural heritage would bring together North and South India, and Muslims and Hindus, and thus it should be the ‘rashtra bhasha’. The proponents of Hindustani found it surprising that the proponents of Hindi would refuse to compromise and accept Hindustani (which was a combination of Hindi, Persian and Urdu), but still expect the rest of the Assembly to learn Hindi. This was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s opinion, that the refusal of the Assembly to accept Hindustani because it meant that Urdu would also have to be accommodated was because “…From one end to the other, narrow-mindedness reigned supreme”, though Urdu was also an Indian language that was born in India and was the language of many Indians, both Hindus and Muslims. English could only be replaced if a common Indian language was found, and the eschewing of Hindustani reflected a mindset that had “buried the glory and advancement of ancient India in the darkness of gloom”.
Though Sardar Hukam Singh had previously unreservedly supported Hindi as the lingua franca of the new Indian nation, the “fanaticism and intolerance” of its proponents had disenchanted him and made him believe that Hindustani in the Roman script would resolve the differences and difficulties that the South would face with Hindi. G Durgabai felt similarly shocked by “the height of language tyranny and intolerance” by which Hindi and the Devanagari script were being defended, where a provincial language was being enforced upon an embittered non-Hindi speaking people to give it a supposed national character. Qazi Syed Karimuddin emphasized that the decision to push aside Hindustani by “banning the Urdu script” would alienate the Muslims, deny them their rights, and prevent them from free expression subordinated by the majority. When Md. Hifzur Rahman had questioned Dhulekar on why Hindustani was not being considered the national language when so many spoke it “from Bihar right up to Frontier” and opined that the decision to forswear Hindustani was a matter of “political bigotry”, Dhulekar asserted that the bulk of the Indian Muslim population was “not with them”. They were separate, desired separate electorates, and thus did not deserve the Congress’ “appeasement policy” when they had not helped in the struggle for independence.
Those who proposed English did so because of the administrative simplicity it would allow if continued, and also because it was already spoken by numerous. Naziruddin Ahmed believed that the declaration of a national language should be deferred, and English should be continued until a language emerges that is capable of expressing all “scientific, mathematical, literary, historical, philosophical, political…” ideas. SV Krishnamoorthy Rao also believed the decision should be postponed and English should remain until a “dispassionate” and sober atmosphere is created where a consensus may be reached. In any case, the question of Hindi or Hindustani was a north Indian question as many south Indians felt that Hindi was inferior to several Southern languages.
NV Gadgil, Algu Rai Shastri, Kuladhar Chaliha and Pdt. Lakshmi Kanta Maitra was of the opinion that the language to replace English should not be the provincial Hindi, but the “mother language” Sanskrit.
They believed that Sanskrit would resolve the divisions in Congress between Ayyangar’s proposal and the “austere whole-hogger Hindi group with everything Hindi”. Disagreeing with Dhulekar’s view that Sanskrit is solely an international language, he stressed that though it is a language of the world, it is fundamentally a language of India that is understood even in the South. It is because of Sanskrit’s heritage transcending borders that the “rich heritage of Indian culture” has been admired and respected internationally. Thus, if India is to “shape her destiny”, it must be through Sanskrit (which indeed is also the root for Hindi’s vocabulary).
To Satish Kumar Samanta, Bengali should be the national and official language of India because of its richness, powerful history, strong vocabulary, adeptness to scientific terminology, and the fact that it is taught even in foreign universities in USA, Paris, Munich and Moscow. He brought forth the instance of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, his international acclaim and respect, and the fact that he wrote primarily in Bengali, which was also for the basis of his renowned institution, Visva Bharati in Santiniketan. Bengali contains within itself, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Portuguese, French, Prakrit and English; and is also the language of the national song Bande Mataram by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.
However, there were also those who believed that the monopolisation of any one language as the national language would needlessly divide the nation. Frank Anthony cautioned that the Hindi that was being referred to, was different from the common tongue, and the “fanatical purge” that is being imposed upon the public to speak a Sanskritised Hindu unintelligible to them would negate the “principle of equality of opportunity”. PT Chacko stressed that a national language must evolve organically, and the issues at hand should instead be other problems facing the nation like “rampant unemployment”, the ” Kashmir problem” and the “problem of Communism” in the North and South, respectively. Shankarrao Deo warned of the menacing implications of the cry for “one culture” appealed to the “Chief of the RSS Organization” and the Congress, because the “vividhata” (diversity) of India demands that there be different cultures that mean different things to different people; and if national language entailed a single language for the whole country, he would not support it.
Jawaharlal Nehru recognised that while Gandhi mentioned Hindustani, he was referring to Hindi, which represented the “composite language” of the broad “composite culture” of India. He believed that though English was useful, a nation could not progress based on a foreign language, and the official language should be the language of the public and not of the elite. He felt however, that the way Hindi seemed to be enforced upon the country was “authoritarian” and not democratic, with the belief that the Hindi-speaking belt is the “centre of gravity” while others are on the “fringes” of India; which was a “dangerous approach”.
Finally, after much debate and deliberation, the Assembly decided to incorporate the Munshi-Ayyangar formula in Part XVIII, Chapter I of the Constitution, that would provide for Hindi in Devanagari script to the official language of the Union government, with the provision that the use of English would be continued for the next 15 years, which could extended by the Parliament. This, for the time being, somewhat assuaged the hesitation of the members who had opposed Hindi as the official language.
Demarcation of State Boundary on Linguistic Basis
The state boundaries drawn by the British were arbitrary, purely for the administrative convenience of the Raj, and thus were unsuitable to the new Indian nation. In 1920 and 1927 therefore, the Provincial Congress Committees declared that the states needed to be reorganized, and the most suitable basis of that would be linguistic, since it seemed less controversial than reorganization on the basis of caste or religion. However, after the tumultuous Constituent Assembly Debates and the history of the Partition and Independence, the Congress felt that the reorganization of states on “linguistic basis” was no longer uncontroversial and may not be feasible to execute. The Linguistic Provinces Commission or the Dhar Commission was founded on 17th June 1948 by the President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, and was constituted of SK Dhar, Jagat Narain Lal, and Panna Lal. It submitted its report on 10th December 1948, which stated the “formation of provinces” on principally linguistic considerations was “not in the larger interests of the Indian nation”, and that Madras, Bombay, Central Provinces and Berar should be reorganized on the basis of geographical borders, economic self-sufficiency and administrative expediency. The JVP Committee was instituted afterwards, to review the recommendations of the Dhar Commission, and consisted of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. In its report on 1st April 1949, it opined that though it felt that it was not the appropriate time for the reorganization and formation of new provinces on the basis of language, if “public sentiment is insistent and overwhelming”, the Congress would have to assent (with some restrictions) to be answerable to the interests of “India as a whole”. Dr. BR Ambedkar was a strong proponent of the linguistic reorganization of states and submitted a Memorandum to the Dhar Commission which supported the formation of Maharashtra with its Marathi-majority population. This was opposed by KM Munshi who believed that linguism implies the “psychological exclusion” and discrimination of peripheral linguistic groups and was contrary to the principles of equal fundamental rights. However, the demand for linguistically-organized states had gathered momentum, with Potti Sreeramalu (1952) demanding that a Telugu-majority Andhra Pradesh be formed out of Madras in a fast-unto-death. Eventually, the States Reorganization Commission was formed on 22nd December 1953 to operationalise the reorganization of states on the basis of language, comprised by Fazal Ali, KM Panikkar and HN Kunzru. The States Reorganization Act was implemented in 1956, which reorganized India into 14 states and 6 Union Territories.
The Official Languages Act was passed in 1963 to operationalise the Munshi-Ayyangar formula. On the matter of continuation of the use of English as the official language, the Act was to come into effect in 1965 after the end of the 15 year period as discussed in the Constituent Assembly Debates. Jawaharlal Nehru had specified that English “may” be continued to be used, but the ambiguity regarding the same chagrined those who had opposed Hindi being anointed the official language. As 1965 neared, and the inevitability that Hindi would replace English as the official language became evident, there were protests across the country. These conflicts around the status of the official and national language fomented into a movement against the imposition of Hindi language upon states that did not speak it innately. This was also precipitated by the increasing popularity of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a Tamil Nadu-based powerful regional party which protested against domination of the Hindi-speaking population over the South. CN Annadurai declared 26th January 1965 as a “day of mourning”, and protests, strikes, hartals and self-immolations erupted across Tamil Nadu, exacerbated by Union Ministers C Subramaniam and OV Alagesan resigning in protest and perturbing the Centre. Lal Bahadur Shastri could not quell the rebellion though he would have preferred the transition to Hindi, and compromises had to be made that were instituted as amendments to the Act in 1967. The protesting states were reassured that any state could continue to use English or a Scheduled Language of their preference in Centre-state, inter-state and judicial communications. English would continue to be used by the Centre for official communication, and the Civil Services Examinations would continue to be carried out in English as well as in Hindi.
National language vs Official language
India has no national language, and its official language at the level of the Union is English and Hindi, while at the level of the states, it is any of the 22 Scheduled Languages recognized in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution (Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Meitei, Marathi, Nepali. Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu).
A national language concerns the shared history, imaginations and culture of a nation, while an official language underlies the sovereignty of an independent territory with a legitimate legislature. The former is the language of the public, while the latter is utilised for official communication for State purposes. The former has its foundation in the socio-cultural features of a people, while the latter evolves out of politico-geographical considerations. A national language is symbolic and concerns the identity and the very core of what defines a group of individuals, and India does not have just one identity and one culture. The existence of multiple cultures demands the existence of multiple identities, each with their own linguistic traditions. India does not have a national language because it would be contrary to the embedded diversity of the Indian population. Though official and national languages do overlap, the former is purely utilitarian and meant for administrative ease. Indeed, since the public constitutes the legitimate authority of the State, if the public speaks in multiple languages, so must the State.
- Agnihotri, R. K. (2015). Constituent Assembly Debates on Language. Economic and Political Weekly, 47-56.
- CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY DEBATES, Volume IX, December 13, 1949
- Doss, M. C. (n.d.). What History Tells Us About Discussions Around Hindi as ‘Rashtra Bhasha’.
- Johnson, M. S. (2020, October 1). Is one language enough? The Hindu.
- Misra, U. (2019, September 24). Explained: 70 years ago, here’s how the Constituent Assembly debated status of Hindi. The Indian Express.
- Noorani, A. (2010, April 23). Linguism trap. The Hindu: Frontline.
- Press Trust of India. (2020, August 8). NEP 2020 “Undermines” Tamil, Halt Its Implementation: MK Stalin. NDTV Education.
- The Official Languages Act, 1963
- The Wire Staff. (2019, September 15). Amit Shah Rekindles Controversy by Advocating For Hindi as India’s National Language. The Wire.