Chronicling language status
September 14, is observed as the Hindi language Day. It was on this date in 1949 that the Constituent Assembly adopted Hindi with the Devanagari script as the official language of the Indian Union, marking the end of a long and animated debate. Part XVII of the Constitution comprising Articles 343 to 351 deals with this subject. The Article 343 (1) declares the official language of the Union shall be Hindi written in the Devanagari script. But a reading of the Articles 343 (2) onwards reveals the uphill and tumultuous terrain the official language issue had to navigate in a multilingual nation like India, where additionally, all government institutions are dominated by laws, rules and regulations set down in English.
It can at best be described as a compromise. All proceedings of the Supreme Court, High Courts, authoritative texts of all Bills and Acts introduced or passed in the Parliament or state Assemblies, all orders/rules/laws and regulations passed under the Constitution have to be in English (as was applicable in colonial India). Until the passage of the 58th Constitution Amendment Act on February 17, 1987, no updated version of the Constitution could be issued in Hindi containing the amendments. For various reasons, the performance of Hindi as an official language is far from satisfactory. That is why Hindi falls significantly short of replacing English within the government even after 70 years of our Independence from colonial rule. Surprisingly, our Constitution makers had allotted merely 15 years for this task.
The concept of an official language (Raj Bhasha) pertains to various organs of the state viz. legislature, executive, judiciary, armed forces etc. However, the nation is much larger than just its government institutions. The mass mobilisation that Mahatma Gandhi had initiated in India carved a niche for itself outside of prevalent institutions. Gandhi's disapproval to the Nation being dependent only on its institutions is explicit in his Non-Cooperation movement and in his opposition to the Congress participating in elections under the Government of India Act, 1919. Gandhi was aware of the gulf between the state apparatus in colonial India and her teeming millions. He wanted to address the Indian Nation, rather than India, the state. One of the ways Gandhi did it was to use the language of the masses, rather than the language of the oppressors.
The language question was an integral part of Gandhi's Swadeshi campaign. He understood that people could be involved in the mission for Swaraj only through their own, unique languages. Therefore, after his return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi insisted on a greater usage of Hindi along with other regional languages. His article in the Pratap (Hindi) on May 28, 1917, advocated for recognising Hindi as the national language.
Therein he stated that most Indians, who knew neither Hindi nor English, would find the former easier to learn. He said that it was only on account of cowardice that Indians had not started conducting their national businesses in Hindi. If Indians would shed that cowardice, and cultivate faith in Hindi, then even the work of the national and provincial councils could be conducted in our own language. It was in this article that Gandhi first mooted the idea of sending Hindi missionaries to South India. His idea crystallised in the form of Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, which was established in 1923. Gandhi's long speech at the Second Gujarat Educational Conference, at Bharuch on October 20, 1917, is considered to be a classic. There, he paid tributes by highlighting the pioneering efforts of Swami Dayanand Saraswati in popularising Hindi.
Swami Dayanand (1824-1883), like Gandhi, hailed from Gujarat. He used Sanskrit as the medium to resolve religious disputation and preaching. He never bothered to learn Hindi even while spending decades in the Himalayas and northern India. But in 1873, while visiting Calcutta, he came across Keshub Chunder Sen of the acclaimed Brahmo Samaj. Sen advised him to use Hindi instead of Sanskrit to increase his reach amongst the masses. Interestingly, neither Swami Dayanand nor Keshub Chunder Sen was native Hindi speakers. Paying attention to the friendly advice, he mastered Hindi thoroughly within a short period of time. He scripted his magnum opus, Satyarth Prakash (1875), in Hindi. The Arya Samaj founded by him acted as a powerful agency to popularise Hindi. Thus, Gandhi took up the baton for Hindi when Swami Dayanand had left it. Whereas Dayanand's mission was religious, Gandhi's was primarily nationalistic. Gandhi viewed Hindi as a tool to 'decolonise' the Indian mind. His mission to popularise Hindi found many eager takers in southern India.
G Durgabai (1909-1981), who later became a member of the Constituent Assembly, ran a popular Balika Hindi Pathshala at Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh) as a teenage girl. The Balika Hindi Pathshala was visited by C R Das, Kasturba Gandhi, Maulana Shaukat Ali, Jamnalal Bajaj and C F Andrews. They could hardly believe that the Pathshala which imparted knowledge of Hindi to a few hundred women was run by a teenager.
But the situation regarding imparting the Hindi language had changed in South India by the time Durgabai reached the Constituent Assembly. She felt that the zealous propaganda in favour of Hindi by native Hindi speakers had alienated others. What the volunteers had achieved, a group of misguided zealots threatened to undo. Thus, she says in her speech on September 14, 1949, "I am shocked to see this agitation against that enthusiasm of ours with which we took to Hindi in the early years of this century. This overdone and misused propaganda on their part is responsible and would be responsible for losing the support of people who know and are supporters of Hindi like me".
The dilemma captured by G Durgabati in her speech has not lost relevance even today after 70 years of our freedom. Non-Hindi speakers would be more amenable to Hindi through voluntary efforts rather than by enforcing upon them the legal status of the language. An increased literary and cultural interaction between Hindi and other Indian languages would assist the cause of propagating the Hindi language. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's charisma has helped further the case of Hindi in an unobtrusive manner. The aim should now be to reach out to the maximum number of people through the medium of a language they can associate with more intimately.
(The writer is a columnist based in New Delhi. The views are strictly personal.)