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 Syndicate: Kingmakers of India

After my last post “How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split” some of the readers pressed upon me to write a deeper explanation for the phenomenon known as the Syndicate. Hence this post:

The Congress Syndicate

By the end of 1963, Nehru was dying. For the first time in sixteen years since independence, New Delhi was rife with speculation about the question – “After Nehru, who?” To answer this question, four men met at the Tirupathi Temple in the beginning of October, 1963. These were K Kamaraj, the former Chief Minister of Madras, Sanjiva Reddy, an Andhra leader, Nijalingappa, the Chief Minister of Mysore and Atulya Ghosh, the president of Bengal Congress Committee. Together, these men controlled the power of the Congress party in non-Hindi states. Soon, along with a Maharashtra leader SK Patil, they will be come to known as the Syndicate.

Ostensibly, the leaders were at Tirupathi to offer worship at the shrine, but secretly they were together to discuss the future of the country and how to shape it after Nehru. The two questions in front of them were who shall be the next Prime Minister and who will become the next president of the Congress Party, a post that would be tremendously important after Nehru’s death. It wasn’t so much that they agreed on who should fill these posts as who should not – Morarji Desai. Desai was the most prominent leader in the party after Nehru and most likely to succeed him. However, his very prominence was a threat to the Syndicate. Had he become the Prime Minister, his domination would have been complete, leaving the Syndicate members to the fringes. The Syndicate wanted someone more malleable, someone they could control.

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How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split

Shastri's body brought home

Shastri’s body brought home

On the grey winter afternoon of 11 January 1966, a huge crowd of Indian Government officials, politicians, military officers, heads of states of other nations and common public thronged the Palam Airport in New Delhi. They were awaiting a small Soviet aircraft bringing in the dead body of India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. India had woken up to Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent, Uzbekistan only hours ago. A sense of uncertainty over India’s political future surrounded the airport thicker than the Delhi fog. Many had come to the airport to mourn Shastri’s death, many for appearance sake. But at least one person was there for a clearer purpose. Clad in white khadi, was an astrologer, much consulted by top-level Congress politicians. He was there to predict who will be the next Prime Minister.

Unlike with Nehru, no one had anticipated Shastri’s death and there had been no discussion over the issue of his succession. Only two hours after his death, the President had sworn in the home minister, Gulzari Lal Nanda as the acting Prime Minister in the middle of night. But Nanda was considered a light-weight, unlikely to be able to turn his job permanent. Nevertheless, within twenty-four hours he threw his hat in the ring to be considered as the next Prime Minister. So did many others. Within two days of Shastri’s death, the list of politicians circling around the throne had grown considerably, including the defence minister YB Chavan, Mahashtrian politician SK Patil and the future President of India Sanjiva Reddy. But the strongest candidate was Morarji Desai.

Desai had already had already had bitter experience in his ambition to be India’s Prime Minister. In early 1960s, Desai was a centre of power within the Congress Party. A right-leaning, pro-business conservative leader, he had emerged as the opposing pole within the party to left-leaning, liberal Nehru. As the finance minister in Nehru’s Government, he had become so influential as to be considered by many as his natural successor, to the extent that in some of his foreign visits he got the treatment reserved for visiting heads of state. Had Nehru not eased him out of the Cabinet in 1963, he would have most likely become the next Prime Minister automatically. Instead, in 1964, when Nehru passed away, it was the unimpressive Shastri who got the chair, a shy, placating man who was so unimposing that his greatest achievement at the time seemed to be that he had “hardly ever made an enemy during his entire career”.

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