After considerable deliberations the Constituent Assembly agreed that the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in the Devanagari script; but for 15 years from the commencement of the Constitution, that is, from 26 January 1950, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union—that is, till 25 January 1965. The Official Languages Act of 1963 stipulated that English “may” be used along with Hindi in official communications after 1965. That left it ambiguous. Was it optional? Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister stood by the decision to make Hindi official with effect from 26 January 1965, and all hell broke loose in the South. Ultimately, Shastri had to back out.

The question is not Hindi or English, the question is why the matter was allowed to drift for 15 years under Nehru? Why a dialogue was not established among all the stake-holders and why what would happen post 26 January 1965 not thrashed out many years in advance allowing for a smooth transition, or for maintenance of the status quo? If indeed all were not agreeable on Hindi, then it should have been announced well in advance that the status quo would continue till as long as all were not agreed.

Nehru’s drift and lack of clarity eventually led to massive agitations and violence and bad blood among people, which were quite avoidable. Shastri too should have been careful not to go along with a decision taken long ago that was not acceptable to a large section.

If it was thought that English is a useful global language, then, as a matter of policy, it should have been made compulsory for all from class-I itself. Government should have pumped in money to ensure there were facilities available in all schools to teach English, apart from the regional language and Hindi. Doing so would have ensured a level-playing field for all students. With all children knowing English, the “English Language Aristocracy” would have been dead. However, this was not done. The brown sahibs managed to create an “English Language Aristocracy” after independence. How to corner good positions, jobs and privileges? Make them conditional upon knowledge of English. Restrict English to chosen schools and colleges, and restrict access to those institutions to only the privileged.

This is not to say that the medium of instruction should have been English. It should have been in the mother tongue in the schools, and optionally also in English or Hindi—with no privileges attached to learning in English or Hindi. But, it should have been compulsory for all to learn English—and good English. That way, English would have been just a foreign language everyone knew. If English became a factor in getting jobs, like in IT or BPO or KPO, then with all students knowing it, it would not have given an edge to the less deserving.

A miniscule English-speaking elite, a miniscule set of Hindi diehards and a non-visionary, incompetent leadership messed up the language issue. A vast majority of people in the South knew neither Hindi nor English, so where was the question of their preferring either? Why should Hindi diehards have tried to impose Hindi? It is a democratic nation, and a consensus should have been evolved; and till that was ensured, nothing should have been done to force any language. If a period of 15 years was found insufficient, it should have been extended well in advance of its expiry, lest there be any uncertainty.

Further, why shouldn’t an ancient nation like India have its own national language known to all for easy communication, without in anyway ignoring the regional languages or English or affecting the job-prospects? Who cares what language is so chosen? What is important is that there should have been at least one common language. It could have been Hindi or Hindustani, with liberal borrowing of words from other regional languages and English; or it could have been simplified Sanskrit or Tamil or Telugu or Bengali or any other or a new hybrid language, with borrowings from all!

In sharp contrast to India, it is admirable what Israel did. Upon formation of Israel in 1948, many Jews scattered all over the world came over. They spoke different languages. To ensure a unifying language, many linguists, backed by the State, set about reviving Hebrew, Israel’s ancient language, which had fallen in decrepitude. Now, all Israelis speak Hebrew. It has given them an identity, and has greatly helped unify Israel. Most also know English, as it is taught from the primary school itself.
Language Commission setup in 1955 examined the progress in Hindi to replace English as the union language by 26 January 1965 as provided in the constitution, reiterated the constitutional obligation, made various recommendations, but left the decision to the government. A Parliamentary Committee, with GB Pant (the then Home Minister) as the Chairman, was appointed in 1957 to scrutinize the commission’s recommendations. Its unanimous (but for one dissent) recommendation was that Hindi should be the principal language from 26 January 1965, and English a subsidiary one, with no target date for the switch over. Pant sent the draft-report of the Parliamentary Committee to Nehru. Here are the extracts from Kuldip Nayar’s ‘Beyond the Lines’ on what transpired:
“The use of the word ‘subsidiary’ for English infuriated Nehru, who argued that the word, subsidiary, meant English was the language of ‘vassals’. [Various substitute words were suggested by Pant]… Nehru disagreed with Pant and worse, he was quite indignant and reportedly made some harsh comments. Finally, the word subsidiary was substituted by ‘additional’. Pant told me, ‘Mark my words, Hindi will not come to the country’. He was dejected. That very evening, Pant had his first heart attack…”

Actually, Nehru wanted to carry on with the language he was comfortable in, and it is doubtful if he really cared for things Indian or Indian languages or culture. What is noteworthy is that most of the freedom fighters, irrespective of the language-region they came from, favoured Hindi or Hindustani as a common link-language and national language. Yet, the matter was allowed to become controversial under the watch of Nehru after independence.

Lokmanya Tilak fervently advocated Hindi as the national language, holding the same as a vital concomitant of nationalism. Gandhi had praised Tilak for his discourse on Hindi as the national language at the Calcutta Congress. In London, Veer Savarkar had proposed the resolution on Swaraj not in English, but in what he called the “India’s lingua franca”—Hindi. At the Ahmedabad Congress Session in December 1921, Gandhi had proposed three things: Hindi as India’s lingua franca, tricolour as national flag, and khadi as the official wear for the Congress members.

Back in December 1925, at the Kanpur Session of the Congress presided by Ms Sarojini Naidu, Hindustani was recommended as the language for Congress Sessions.
Wrote Gandhi in Harijan of 9 July 1938:
“…The medium of a foreign language through which higher education has been imparted in India has caused incalculable intellectual and moral injury to the nation. We are too near our own times to judge the enormity of the damage done. And we who have received such education have both to be victims and judges—an almost impossible feat…
…Up to the age of 12 all the knowledge I gained was through Gujarati, my mother tongue. I knew then something of arithmetic, history and geography. Then I entered a high school. For the first three years the mother tongue was still the medium. But the schoolmaster’s business was to drive English into the pupil’s head. Therefore more than half of our time was given to learning English and mastering its arbitrary spelling and pronunciation. It was a painful discovery to have to learn a language that was not pronounced as it was written. It was a strange experience to have to learn the spelling by heart… The pillory began with the fourth year. Everything had to be learnt through English—geometry, algebra, chemistry, astronomy, history, geography. The tyranny of English was so great that even Sanskrit or Persian had to be learnt through English, not through the mother tongue. If any boy spoke in the class in Gujarati which he understood, he was punished…
…I know now that what I took four years to learn of arithmetic, geometry, algebra, chemistry and astronomy I should have learnt easily in one year if I had not to learn them through English but Gujarati. My grasp of the subjects would have been easier and clearer…”

After the December-1926 Gauhati Session of the Congress, Gandhi went on yet another tour of the country, and among other things, expressed in his speeches that “he felt humiliated to speak in English and therefore wanted every Indian to learn Hindustani. He even went further and advocated adoption of the Devnagari script for all the Indian languages. Once again, he found South India most enthusiastic in its response to him, and he addressed about two dozen public meetings in Madras city alone.”

After the Congress session in October 1934, Gandhi traversed the country and continued his crusade urging everyone to learn simple Hindi:
“We must give up English as an inter-provincial language and introduce into Hindi–Hindustani words from other provincial languages. A common Devanagari script would help as a common script had helped the development of the European languages.”
After independence, once when Gandhi was addressing a meeting at Birla House in Delhi in Hindustani, a few in the audience said they were unable to follow, to which Gandhi said: “Now we are independent, I shall not speak in English. You have to understand rashtrabhasha if you wish to serve the people.”

According to the then Home Secretary BN Jha the efforts to make Hindi the link-language failed thanks mainly to Nehru and his colleagues. Two big opportunities were lost—one when all chief ministers were agreed in 1961 for Devanagari script for all Indian languages, at the recommendation of President Dr Rajendra Prasad; and the second when a proposal based on parliamentary committee’s report was put up in the Cabinet meeting by the Home Minister Pant, to which Nehru had violently responded, “What is all this nonsense? It is not possible to have scientific and technological terms in Hindi,” even though Pant’s proposal did not cover the latter aspect—Nehru was only expressing his dislike for Hindi.

Wrote BN Sharma:
“How is it that after almost five decades of freedom we have not been able to shake off the burden of English and adopt our own national language. That Hindi is the only language spoken by the largest number of people in the largest number of states is an indisputable fact. If a Tamilian or a Keralite can learn English with ease why can he not learn Hindi, whose Sanskrit base is a common source of many words in his own language. Nehru, the Western Oriental Gentleman (WOG) never really made any sincere effort nor did he muster enough political will to implement Hindi…  He [Nehru] used specious arguments, such as lack of
scientific vocabulary [How have France, Germany, Japan, China, Korea, and many other European and Asian countries managed very well in their own mother tongue?], difficulty in international communications and diversity of local Indian languages as an excuse to stonewall the adoption of Hindi.”

No nation is worth its spirit and soul which does not have its own vehicle of cultural articulation that its national language provides.

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