Hindi, English or Nothing: Politics of India’s National Languages

Sorry for disappearing for so long. I have been working on another very exciting project to popularize history that I hope to share with you guys soon. In the meantime, this post is a by-product of my struggles of re-educating myself of my own mother tongue.

Demographics at play

Demographics at play

Before the middle of nineteenth century, Hindi had no patrons in India. The language was essentially a collection of dialects spoken in large swathes North India, but it held no formal recognition. Mughal Empire used Persian as the official language, which the British Raj had continued to a certain extent. Parallel to it were the native courts, which used Sanskrit. Sanskrit was an exclusive domain of the Brahmins, incomprehensible to both British and common Indians. Brahmins were happy hold back its spread to ensure their own continued influence.

The first political patrons for Hindi emerged from the Hindu-Muslim antagonism that was building up in the country in late 1800s. These promoters of the language saw Hindi as a tool to counteract the influence of Muslims who spoke and read Urdu. The initial attempt was spread Hindi as far as possible, in effort to claim most population and regions as Hindi speaking. Since Hindi was such a vague, ill-defined group of dialects, an easy way to do this was claim other languages as Hindi. The direct victims of this strategy became border regions like Rajasthan, Bihar, Himachal and Uttarakhand. Many linguist experts maintain that Rajasthani, Bihari and Pahari should be a different language group. But all this was swept aside in a campaign to spread Hindi. So, for instance, in 1881 Bihar Government adopted Hindi as the sole official language of the state, ignoring, not only Urdu but also Maithili, Bhojpuri etc. A lot of government work and education programmes were transferred to Hindi medium. Over the decades, this situation ensured that most Biharis, regardless of their mother tongue, end up becoming Hindi speakers. Such efforts continued across North India, with much success, except in Punjab, where Sikhs, with the force of their religion, were able to consolidate a counteracting force.

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The almost-split of Congress and anti-Climax of 1931

1926 General Strike

British Government was forced to use tanks in London to contain the strike

In May 1926, 1.7 million British workers went to strike. It was the only general strike in the British history. The strike lasted nine days and was ultimately a bust. Nevertheless, it made the government immensely unpopular. Fearing defeat at the hands of the Labour Party in the next election (still three year away), the Conservatives began preparations for losing power in 1929.

A part of this preparation related to India. The Government of India Act 1919, the law through which British ruled India, was set to expire in ten years and was supposed to be reviewed and renewed in 1929. That meant that the review would have been carried out by a leftist Labour Party Government which had always been favourable to Indian nationalist cause. The Conservatives feared that in a wave of idealism, the socialists may end up giving Indian nationalists too much. To pre-empt this, the Conservative Government hastened the review process and sent a Commission of British Parliamentarians under Sir John Simon to India in early 1928.

The timing of the Simon Commission put it smack in the middle of growing divisions within the Congress Party. At the time, the party was witnessing ideological struggle between its moderate and the extremist wings. On one hand were the old leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Motilal Nehru, who wanted to get autonomy while keeping India within the British Empire. On the other were young, emerging leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted much more. As we will see, the Simon Commission ended up impacting these divisions in very strange ways, and eventually resulted in the Congress Party calling for complete independence for the first time in its history. Continue reading