I have recently been reading the debates of the Constituent Assembly of India. These are a treasure-trove; invaluable to the scholar, but also well worth reading by the citizen. Among the topics debated by the Assembly were federalism, minority rights, preventive detection—topics that were contentious then, and continue to be contentious now. However, by far the most controversial subject was language: the language to be spoken in the House, the language in which the Constitution would be written, the language which would be given that singular designation, ‘national’.

On the 10th of December 1946, effectively the first day of business, R. V. Dhulekar of the United Provinces moved an amendment. When he began speaking in Hindustani, the Chairman reminded him that many members did not know the language. This was Dhulekar’s reply: ‘People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India. People who are present in this House to fashion a Constitution for India and do not know Hindustani are not worthy to be members of this Assembly. They had better leave’.

The remarks created a commotion in the House. ‘Order, order!’, yelled the Chairman, but Dhulekar then moved that ‘the Procedure Committee should frame rules in Hindustani and not in English. As an Indian I appeal that we, who are out to win freedom for our country and are fighting for it should think and speak in our own language. We have all along been talking of America, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and House of Commons. It has given me a headache. I wonder why Indians do not speak in their own language. As an Indian I feel that the proceedings of the House should be conducted in Hindustani. We are not concerned with the history of the world. We have the history of our own country of millions of past years’.

The printed proceedings continue:

‘The Chairman: Order, order!

Shri R. V. Dhulekar (speaking still in Hindustani): I request you to allow me to move my amendment.

The Chairman: Order, order! I do not permit you to proceed further. The House is with me that you are out of order.’

At this point Dhulekar finally shut up. But the issue would not go away. In one session, members urged the House to order the Government to change all car number plates from English to Hindi. More substantively, they demanded that the official version of the Constitution be in Hindi, with an unofficial version in English. This the Drafting Committee did not accept, saying that the foreign language could better articulate the technical and legal terms of the document. When a draft Constitution was placed for discussion, members asked for a discussion of each clause in Hindi. To adopt a document written in English, they said, would be ‘insulting’.

Under the British, English had emerged as the language of higher education and administration. Would it remain in this position after the British left? The politicians of the North thought that it should be replaced by Hindi. The politicians and people of the South preferred that English continue as the vehicle of inter-provincial communication.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself was exercised early by the question. In an essay of the late thirties he expressed his admiration for the major provincial languages. Without ‘infringing in the least on their domain’, said Nehru, there must still be an all-India language of communication. English was too far removed from the masses; so he opted instead for Hindustani, which he defined as a ‘golden mean’ between Hindu and Urdu.

Like Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi thought that Hindustani could unite North with South and Hindu with Muslim. It, rather than English, should be the rashtrabhasha, or national language. As he saw it, ‘Urdu diction is used by Muslims in writing. Hindi diction is used by Sanskrit pundits. Hindustani is the sweet mingling of the two’. In 1945 he engaged in a lively exchange with Purushottamdas Tandon, a man who fought hard, not to say heroically, to rid Hindi of its foreign elements. Tandon was Vice President of the All India Hindi Literature Conference, which held that Hindi with the Devanagari script alone should be the national language. Gandhi, who had long been a member of the Conference, was dismayed by its chauvinist drift. Since he believed that both the Nagari and Urdu scripts should be used, perhaps it was time to resign his membership. Tandon tried to dissuade him, but, as Gandhi put it, ‘How can I ride two horses? Who will understand me when I say that rashtrabhasha=Hindi and rashtrabhasha=Hindi+Urdu=Hindustani?’

Partition more-or-less killed the case for Hindustani. The move to further Sanskritize Hindi gathered pace. One can see this at work in the Constituent Assembly, where early references were to Hindustani, but later references all to Hindi. After the division of the country the promoters of Hindi became even more fanatical. As Granville Austin observes, ‘The Hindi-wallahs were ready to risk splitting the Assembly and the country in their unreasoning pursuit of uniformity’. Their crusade provoked some of the most heated debates in the House. Hindustani would not have been acceptable to South Indians; Hindi, even less so. Whenever a member spoke in Hindi another member would ask for a translation into English. When the case was made for Hindi to be the sole national language, it was bitterly opposed. Representative are these remarks of T. T. Krishnamachari of Madras:

‘We disliked the English language in the past. I disliked it because I was forced to learn Shakespeare and Milton, for which I had no taste at all… [I]f we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi… I would perhaps not be able to do it because of my age, and perhaps I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me. … This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary will also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the Centre. I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of people of the South for the reason that there are already elements in South India who want separation…., and my honourable friends in U. P. do not help us in any way by flogging their idea [of] “Hindi Imperialism” to the maximum extent possible. Sir, it is up to my friends in U. P. to have a whole-India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs….’

The Assembly finally arrived at a compromise; that ‘the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in the Devanagari script’; but for ‘fifteen years from the commencement of the Constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement’. Till 1965, at any rate, the proceedings of the courts, the services, and the all-India bureaucracy would be conducted in English.

In 1965 attempts were made to introduce Hindi by force, sparking widespread protests in Tamil Nadu. In 1967, the DMK rode to power in Tamil Nadu on the back of these protests. Wisely, the Union Government extended the use of English in inter-state communication. But from time to time the chauvinists of Hindi try to press their case. In his previous term as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav wrote a letter in his language to the Chief Minister of Kerala, E. K. Nayanar. Mr Nayanar replied in his language. It was a brilliant riposte: for while Hindi was not widely spoken in Thiruvanathapuram, in Lucknow Malayalam was not known at all.

Published in The Hindu, 18/1/2004