It was a pleasant Sunday morning on 26th January 1964. A young man called Chinnasami made his way to the Tiruchirapalli railway station with cans of petrol. Before a crowd of astonished onlookers, the young man doused himself with petrol and set himself ablaze, screaming Hindi ozhiga! Tamizh vazhga! (Down with Hindi! Long live Tamil)
Chinnasami was perhaps the first, but not the last to lay down his life for his mother tongue in that turbulent period, whose repercussions are felt to this day.
A Constitutional Time Bomb
With independence in sight, the British government formed the Constituent Assembly of India to frame a new constitution for India in 1946. The first meeting of the assembly was to be on 9th December.
The very first day it became evident that the choice of official language of the republic was going to be a vexed issue when R.V. Dhulekar of the United Provinces (predecessor to the present day Uttar Pradesh) moved an amendment, speaking in Hindi. The Chairman Dr. Sinha reminded Dhulekar that many members did not know the language, to which Mr. Dhulekar replied saying
People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India…
Dhulekar’s outburst was just the beginning. The demand for adopting Hindi as the national language remained vociferous throughout the lifetime of the Constituent assembly (whose last meeting was on 24th January 1950), much to the consternation of members from southern India, where Hindi was hardly spoken. One of the members, T.T. Krishnamachari of Madras famously said
…this kind of intolerance makes us fear that…a strong centre will also mean enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the centre…
After much debate, the assembly arrived at a compromise. Articles 120 and 346 of the constitution, read together, provided for the use of Hindi and English for transacting business in the parliament as well as between the parliament and the states. Article 120(2) provided for the omission of English after 15 years from the date on which the constitution would come into force- which would be 26th January 1965. With remarkable foresight, Dr. Ambedkar and his team added the words “unless parliament by law otherwise provides” in the text of Article 120(2), providing an escape clause if need be.
The compromise ensured the passing of the constitution, but the language issue had only been differed, not resolved. It was only going to be a matter of time before it would come back to haunt the country.
The Tamil Question
Tamil is an ancient language which, unlike the vast majority of Indian languages, does not trace its ancestry to Sanskrit. The language has a script, vocabulary and syntax that’s vastly different from nearly all other Indian languages. Besides, Tamil speakers have a literature and history very different from most of the country, as most political developments that affected the rest of India never affected that region.
Not surprisingly, Hindi was hardly understood, much less spoken in the then Madras presidency. To expect that a people proud of their language and culture would accept an unknown language as their official language was at best unrealistic. The founding fathers should have known from personal experience how troublesome the language issue was going to be- the imposition of Hindi had led to anti-Hindi agitations in the Madras Presidency in the late 30s.
Official Languages Act
To give effect to the provisions of the constitution, the Government of India passed the Official Languages Act, 1963. Read together, Sections 2 and 3 of the act provided that English may continue to be used in addition to Hindi for all official purposes. The ambiguous wording of the act left scope for interpretation. As anyone familiar with legal language would know, the word ‘may’ can be interpreted to mean that the provision of law can be optional or mandatory (unlike the word ‘shall’, which leaves no scope for ambiguity).
The most sensible thing to do, given popular sentiment, was to preserve the status quo. Unfortunately, the leaders in Delhi decided not to exercise the option given by the Official Languages Act. With effect from 26th January 1965, all state legislatures would be bound to use Hindi exclusively as their official language.
A New Force in Tamil Politics
In 1949, a breakaway faction of the Dravida Kazhagam (Dravidian association/ movement) under the leadership of C.N. Annadurai had formed a new party named Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (association for the progress of the dravida people) or DMK as it still is popularly known. Through the 1950s, it remained no more than a fringe presence in the political landscape in Tamil Nadu.
However, riding on the twin waves of anti-brahminism and anti-Hindi, the party had come to assume a far greater presence by the early 60s, as the deadline of 30th January 1965 rapidly approached. Party leader Annadurai, whose energy and oratory had been the driving force behind the party’s rise insisted that Hindi was no more than a regional language. When confronted with the fact that it was the most commonly spoken language in the country, he famously replied
If we had to accept the principle of numerical superiority while selecting our national bird, the choice would have fallen not on the peacock but on the common crow.
In the 1962 state legislative assembly elections the party had won 50 seats in the then 206 seat assembly, with a vote share of 27.1%- a huge jump from its performance in the previous elections. By the early 60s, DMK was second only to the all powerful Congress party in the Madras Presidency, with a huge following across the state.
The party called for a day of mourning on 26th January 1965 in protest against the expiry of constitutional protection for English. The demand was emphatically rejected by the Congress government. On 24th January, the DMK announced that it would defy the government ban on demonstrations on Republic Day.
The state was set for a conflict between the Congress government in the state and the rising star in the political landscape.
Congress offices in the city of Madurai were stoned and Congress workers beaten by mobs of irate students. Hindi books were burnt in Madras. The government acted swiftly, arresting Annadurai and over hundred other DMK leaders, effectively depriving the party of its head.
But the students were not finished yet. A student movement called “Tamilnad Anti-Hindi Agitation Council’ had come into existence, manned by students who feared that exclusive use of Hindi would effectively shut them out of the civil services. This largely apolitical body (almost completely independent of the DMK) took the fight forward.
On 27th January, the police raided hostels in a number of colleges in Madras and arrested student leaders. It was alleged that a number of students were indiscriminately beaten. Whether true or not, the rumours only served further inflame public opinion. By second week of February, the movement had ceased to be a mere student agitation, spreading across the state. Trains were being stopped by protesting mobs and there were lathi charges in multiple locations. on 10th February, 24 people were killed in police firing, while two police sub-inspectors were burnt alive by irate mobs.
Shastri Douses the Flame
On 11th February C. Subramaniam (Minister of Food) and another junior minister O. Alagesan, resigned from their posts in protest against the prime minister’s language policy. Confronted by a rebellion at home, Shastri finally bowed to the inevitable. The same evening he spoke on all India Radio, clarifying that Nehru’s assurance about continuing the use of English would be honoured. He went on to clarify that
- Every state would have complete and unfettered freedom to continue transacting business in the regional language or English
- Communications between states would be either in English or accompanied by an authentic English translation
- Non Hindi speaking states would be free to correspond with the centre in English
- In the transaction of business at the centre, English would continue to be used
- The all-India civil services examinations would continue to be conducted in Hindi and English
- Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, riding on the anti-Hindi wave, won with an outright majority in the 1967 state assembly elections with 137 seats, becoming the first ever party other than the Congress to win a state election with a clear majority
- Annadurai became the first non-Congress Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1967, serving in that capacity until his untimely death in February 1969
- The Congress, which lost power in 1967, never came back to power in Tamil Nadu
- As recently as June 2014, responding to concerns by DMK, AIADMK and communist parties, the central government was forced to clarify that the new circular on use of Hindi did not amount to imposition of Hindi
- English still remains the language of official communication besides Hindi
- Hindi remains one of the 22 official languages recognised by the constitution of India, but not the national language
- The concept of self-immolation, virtually unknown until then, became a fairly common means of political protest in India
- Ramchandra Guha, India After Gandhi, Picador India, 2007
- Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India (1891-1970), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997
- Statistical Report on General Election, 1962 to the Legislative Assembly of Madras, Election Commission of India
- Duncan B. Forrester, The Madras Anti-Hindi Agitation, 1965: Political Protest and its Effects on Language Policy in India, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 1/2 (Spring – Summer, 1966)
- Ramchandra Guha, Hindi Against India, The Hindu (16th January 2005)