Is the BJP’s politics of language inclusive?

On June 24th 2017, The Indian Express reported a speech of former Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, M Venkaiah Naidu, where he stressed the importance of Hindi as our “Rashtrabhasha” (National Language). Naidu was speaking at an event in Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad where he presented the Ashram with 100 volumes of collected works of Mahatma Gandhi in English. Naidu was emphasizing on the fact that these volumes needed to be translated into other Indian languages. Not surprisingly, Naidu’s statement created an uproar in some circles as they felt his “Rashtrabhasha” comment was an attempt to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speakers.

For the record, India does not have a “Rashtrabhasha” (National Language). Article 343 of the Indian Constitution identifies Hindi in Devanagiri script as the official language of the Union of India. The official language of the Union would translate to “Rajbhasha”. If one were to give Naidu the benefit of the doubt then one could probably ascribe this to poor translation. This is not implausible, given the fact that Naidu’s mother tongue is Telugu.

Cut to mid-February this year, in the run up to the Assembly election in Karnataka. Union Minister Ananth Kumar Hegde landed himself in a controversy on language purity. Hegde, while addressing a gathering at Polytechnic college in Puttur in Dakshina Kannada district, said that barring those in Shivamogga, Uttara Kannada and Dakshina Kannada districts, people from Karnataka cannot speak proper Kannada. Hegde was castigated by his party and forced to withdraw his remarks.

Considering these statements, many seem to have genuine questions on the BJP’s views on the language debate in India. What has been the party’s stance in Parliament? Does the BJP look at Hindi as the “first among equals” in Indian Languages? These are some questions that I try to address and for that we need to go back in time. We need to go back to Tuesday, 13th September 1949 during the constituent Assembly debates.

The Constituent Assembly debates

India has been a country of many languages. If we dig into the, past, we will find that it has not been possible for anybody to force the acceptance of one language by all people in this country. Some of my friends spoke eloquently that a day ‘might come when India shall have one language and one language only’. Frankly speaking, I do not share that view ….”

This quote is a part of a speech made by Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Dr. Mukherjee was one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and was the ideological precursor to today’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The assembly was debating a carefully crafted compromise that formed the basis for Article 343 of our Constitution. The compromise was between members of the Hindi bloc led by the likes of Purushottam Das Tandon and K.M Munshi and the non-Hindi bloc led by N Gopalaswami Ayyangar. As the constituent Assembly was packed with members of the Congress party it was more of a tussle within the party. Ayyangar, a Tanjore born Tamilian, served as the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and understood the complexities involved as he had experience in drafting the Constitution for the State of Jammu and Kashmir. When presenting the draft chapter on languages, Ayyangar remarked on the challenges in effecting a compromise:

It is the result of a compromise in respect of which great sacrifices of opinion, of very greatly cherished views and interests, these have been sacrificed for the purpose of achieving this draft in a form that will be acceptable to the full House.”

The Munshi-Ayyangar compromise formula led to Article 343 being drafted which prescribes Hindi in Devanagiri script as the official language (“Rajbhasha”) of the Union of India and not the National Language (“Rashtrabhasha”). English was to be used for official purposes for an initial period of 15 years only.

Coming back to Dr. Mukherjee’s speech, where he went on to state:

Why is it that many people belonging to non-Hindi speaking provinces have become a bit nervous about Hindi? If the protagonists of Hindi will pardon me for saying so, had they not been perhaps so aggressive in their demands and enforcement of Hindi, they would have got whatever they wanted, perhaps more than ‘what they expected, by spontaneous and willing co-operation of the entire population of India.

During this time, it was the Congress that acted in a ham-handed manner of dealing with the language issue. The death of Potti Sriramulu in December 1952 led to widespread agitations in the Telugu speaking regions of Madras Presidency. Sriramulu had died while fasting for a separate state for Telugu people to be carved out of Madras Presidency. This further led to the formation of states on Linguistic lines. In the early 1960s, at the end of the 15-year period from the date of the Constitution coming into effect, English was to cease being used as the official language of the Union. The response of the Government of India, under Congress rule, caused widespread agitations in Tamil Nadu including a case of self-immolation. The Congress Party never returned to power in the southern state of TN after the 1967 election.

The Eighth Schedule – the BJP’s stellar role in including more languages

Languages spoken in India broadly belong to four groups or families (I use them interchangeably though the relationship is hierarchical): Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit and the associated languages that developed from it), Dravidian (Tamil and the languages originating from it), Munda (Tribal Languages such as Santhali that form a part of the Austroasiatic family of Languages), and Tibeto-Burman (Languages such as Nepali, Manipuri and Bodo).

The Indian Constitution currently has 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule. Languages in the Eighth schedule, apart from being used as official languages of the states, would also be developed and enriched independently. They would also contribute in developing Hindi. The initial constitution had 14 languages in the Eighth schedule that were to be included in the Committee of Parliament on Official Language. This included Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. The initial languages were either from the Indo-Aryan or Dravidian groups.

On June 22nd 1962, Jana Sangh’s U.M Trivedi brought in a Private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha to include Sindhi in the Eighth Schedule. On August 17th 1962, Atal Bihari Vajpayee introduced it in the Rajya Sabha. In a debate on the floor of the house, when asked if Sindhi were to be written in Urdu script, Vajpayee replied

Question of script will be settled by Sindhi people. We should not interfere in this question. If they wish, they may retain their own script or adopt Devanagiri. But, for us, Hindi speaking people, it won’t be good to express our opinion in this matter …

In April 1967, after sustained pressure, Sindhi was added to the Eight Schedule through the Twenty-first amendment of the Constitution. The bill was introduced by the Congress Party’s Yashwantrao Chavan, then Minister of Home Affairs.

The 1990s saw more pressure mounting on the Congress in the form of Private Member Bills. Dil Kumari Bhandari of the Sikkim Sangram Parishad moved a bill to include Meitei and Nepali.  In August 1992, Shankarrao Chavan introduced the Seventy-first Amendment of the Constitution to add Meitei (Manipuri), Nepali and Konkani. This led to the introduction of the Tibeto-Burman language group into our constitution.

Both the Twenty-first and Seventy-first amendments saw a push for adding new languages from outside government through Private Member bills.

In December 2003, the Ninety-second Amendment of the constitution was passed by the Parliament. It was shepherded by L.K. Advani. Through this amendment Bodo, Santhali, Maithili and Dogri were added into the Eighth schedule of the constitution. The party’s commitment to the country’s linguistic minorities saw the first Munda language, i.e. Santhali, being added to the list of scheduled languages.

Special Directives – Article 351

As Karnataka goes to polls, there have been allegations that the BJP led Union Government is further alienating non-Hindi speakers by imposing Hindi. This was based on the signages in Bangalore Metro carrying Hindi along with Kannada and English. It is here that one needs to look at Article 351 of the constitution. The Union Government cannot shy away from the Special Directive of Article 351 that entrusts the responsibility of the Union to promote the spread of Hindi and to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression and to secure its enrichment. To aid in this, the Department of Official Language was set up in June 1975 as an independent Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Given this background, one would need to ask if the Hindi signages were installed at the expense of Kannada or English or if they were meant to co-exist with these two languages. The primary angst would be if Hindi is being promoted at the expense of other Indian languages. Surely, Hindi can exist in signages along with Kannada and English.

Ideally, in today’s world, Article 351 should be repealed and each Indian language (at a minimum the languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule) should be promoted equally and considered as official languages of the Union. However, Governments of the day need to balance pressures from various stakeholders around such emotive issues. It would be difficult for any national party to consider correcting the skew towards Hindi. However, it would also be hypocritical to paint the BJP as Hindi chauvinists considering their past record in promoting other linguistic minority languages.

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