Hindi Imposition: Examining Gandhi’s Views on Common Language for India

Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement on making Hindi as a unifying language for the country had stirred up a fresh controversy on the issue of a “single” language. In his tweet, the minister appealed to Indians to work towards making Gandhi and Patel’s dream of one language came true. But, such an assertion about Gandhi is not fully correct. Though he wanted a common language for the country, but that language was Hindustani written in Devanagari and Persian script. The present-day Hindi, however, is markedly different from Hindustani, the admixture of Hindi and Urdu, which Gandhi had advocated.  

On the eve of Hindi Diwas, 14 September, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had pitched for making Hindi as a language that would bring all Indians together and becomes India’s identity globally. His tweet on 13 September read: “India is a country of different languages and every language has its own importance but it is very important to have a language of the whole country which should become the identity of India globally” (Hindu, Hindustan Times 2019). Understandably, it stoked an instant controversy with demands for an apology from the politicians of southern Indian states, especially from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Shah’s statement on promoting Hindi is not a new occurrence in the political history of independent India, as it had all begun with the Constituent Assembly debates where members had vociferously argued for and against Hindi-Hindustani as the common language. Although Shah clarified that he had “never asked for imposing Hindi over other regional languages and had only requested for learning Hindi as the second language after one’s mother tongue”, the controversy still lingers on (Indian Express 2019). But most importantly, he invoked Gandhi pointing out that the latter was in favour of making Hindi as the national language of India (Hindu 2019).

Given that it is the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, it is an opportune time to revisit his views on the question of a common language for India, and if he had actually favoured Hindi.

Gandhi and National Language   

To affirm that Gandhi had a clear vision on linguistic diversity of India and a need for a common language would be incorrect as his views evolved over time. But, what remained consistent was that the national language of India would be a language spoken by Hindus and Muslims of the country, which he termed as ‘‘Hindustani.’’ Gandhi’s views on language have not attracted much scholarship, barring M P Desai’s The Hindi Prachar Movement (1957), B R Saksena’s Gandhi’s Solution to the Language Problem of India (1972), C D Deshmukh’s Hindustani: Rashtrabhasha or Lingua Franca, and Peter Brock’s 1995 work Mahatma Gandhi As A Linguistic Nationalist.

Gandhi was in favour of a national language, but what remains unclear and needs further investigation is what he meant by a “national language,” whether it was a lingua franca, a link language or a language of the nation. This is because he used the terms “national”, “link”, and “common” language as synonyms in his writings. His enthusiasm for a national language stemmed from and reflected his vision of bringing together disparate communities under the umbrella of the Indian National Congress, which was spearheading the freedom struggle. For India to become independent, he realised that the freedom struggle had to become a mass movement. Therefore, his approach of non-violence for attaining independence, Salt March, picketing of liquor shops, Swadeshi movement, and the emphasis on one language could be interpreted as a means for unifying Indians for breaking free from the British colonial rule.  

The case for a national language occupied an important place among Gandhi’s ideals. He believed that a common language had the power to bridge the gap between communities and bring people together. As a member of the Second South African Delegation - Mother Tongue and National Language, he wrote in 1909 as: “Love and respect for our languages are essential before we call our country our own. A common language is a possibility for the future, and it is necessary for the people of one province to learn the language of others…” (Deshmukh 1972: 2).

In his presidential address at the Gujarat Educational Conference on 20 October 1917, he threw the question to the audience whether English could become the national language, and consequently enlisted five significant requirements for a language to become a national language. They were: i. it should be easy to learn for the government officials; ii. capable of serving as a medium of religious; economic and political intercourse throughout India; iii. should be the speech of the majority of the inhabitants of India; iv. easy to learn for the whole country and v. in choosing this language considerations of temporary or passing interest should not count (Gandhi 1956: 4).

He further concluded that English could not become the national language and the only language that fulfilled his preconditions were Hindi. Here, one has to be cautious as there is a tendency to dub him as a linguistic nationalist (Brock 1995), which may be true for some scholars. But it is Gandhi’s identification of what he meant by Hindi is critical for a nuanced understanding of his position on national language. In the same lecture of 1917, he argued that the language fulfilling the five-point criteria were Hindi. His explanation about what he meant by Hindi is insightful: “I call that language Hindi which Hindus and Muslims in the North [India] speak and which is written either in the Devanagari or Urdu script” (Gandhi 1956: 5). He went on to reiterate that Hindi and Urdu were not two different languages, but the same language. The difference, he believed, was falsely propagated by the educated classes, wherein the educated Hindus had Sanskritised Hindi and the educated Muslims Persianised Urdu with an intention that others could not follow them. As regards the script, he was certain that Hindus would write in Devanagari and Muslims in Urdu script (Gandhi 1956: 5).

Over the years, Gandhi continued to develop his argument about the national language until his death. However, his stance on having one national language remained unchanged. But, seeing the religious connotation of using the term Hindi for that language, he instead replaced it with Hindustani. An interesting anecdote about Gandhi, mostly ignored is his liking for Ganga–Jamuni bhasha or tehzeeb. His idea was that the distinction between Hindi and Urdu was unreal, and said: “It is unnecessary for Hindus to reject Persian words and for Muslims to reject Sanskrit words from their speech. A harmonious blend of the two will be as beautiful as the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna and last forever” (Gandhi 1956: 11). This point was reiterated by him again when he stated: “Hindi and Urdu are like the Ganga and the Yamuna. Hindustani is the Saraswati. It has not yet made its appearance, still it is there” (Brock 1995: 80).  

Gandhi’s emphatic pitch for Hindustani, which eventually led to the Indian National Congress’ amendment of its constitution to make Hindi as its language of communication in 1925 Kanpur session, saw sharp criticism from no less than Annie Besant who had served as its president. Besant remarked that the Congress had become provincial rather than a national assembly as its proceedings were being held in Hindustani. In response, Gandhi wrote: “I have attended all the Congress sessions but one, since 1915 and have studied them specially in order to study the utility of Hindustani compared to English for the conduct of its proceedings and have spoken to hundreds of delegates and visitors…..I have come to the deliberate conclusion that no language except Hindustani­ — a resultant of Hindi and Urdu—can possibly become a national medium for exchange of ideas” (Gandhi 1920).       

His indifference towards English cannot be misconstrued as hatred towards it. In fact, he termed it as a “world language” and was “necessary for acquisition of modern knowledge of the world.” However, he was certain that it could not become India’s national language (Gandhi 1956: 40).

What Gandhi’s Hindustani entailed?

Gandhi’s fixation with the term “Hindustani” referring to the language spoken by the majority of Hindus and Muslims of north India is not without any rationale. Though it is confusing to his readers and those unfamiliar with India’s linguistic geography, it is true that a number of terms have been used interchangeably to denote Hindustani over the last century. Bhasha, Hindvi, Hindi, Hindustani, Zaban-i-Dehlavi, Khari Boli, Madhyadesh ki Boli, Rekhta, Zaban-i-Urdu-i-Mualla, Urdu are to name a few. Of these, Hindi, Hindustani, and Urdu are commonly used (Tarachand 1944: III). Thus, Gandhi used Hindustani to mean the admixture of Hindi and Urdu, and thought that by promoting it in Devanagari and Persian scripts would bring the two major communities of India closer.   

Gandhi was not alone in his understanding of Hindustani as the combination of Hindi and Urdu. The Irish linguist responsible for bringing out the first Linguistic Survey of India, George Abraham Grierson, defined Hindi as “a form of Hindustani dialect of Western India, widely spoken throughout northern India.” He further elaborated that Urdu is a form of Hindustani dialect of Western India, generally written in Persian script (Grierson 1912).

Common Language Not Antithetical to Regional Sentiments: Gandhi  

Gandhi urged for the adoption of regional languages in courts from where they operated. The common language that he advocated was not in supersession of the regional languages, but in addition to them (Deshmukh 1972: 7).

At the 39th session of the Indian National Congress held in Belgaum in 1924, Gandhi said,

The official language for provincial governments, legislatures and courts, within a definite period, to be the vernacular of the province; of the Privy Council, the final court of appeal, to be Hindustani; the script to be either Devanagri or Persian. The language of the Central Government and of Central Legislatures to be also Hindustani. The language of international diplomacy to be English (Gandhi 1924).

As mentioned earlier, Gandhi was convinced that a common language could be instrumental in forging friendship among the Hindus and Muslims at a time when the country was torn apart by animosity between the two large communities due to the divide-and-rule politics being adopted by the then British administration. In line with his conviction, the Indian National Congress officially recognised Hindustani as its working language in its 1925 Kanpur Session resulting in the amendment of the Congress’ Constitution, that read:  

 This Congress resolves that Article XXXIII of the Constitution be amended as follows: “the proceedings of the Congress shall be conducted as far as possible in Hindustani. The English language or any provincial language may be used if the speaker is unable to speak Hindustani or whenever necessary. Proceedings of the Provincial Congress Committee shall ordinarily be conducted in the language of the Province concerned. Hindustani may also be used.” (Gandhi 1956: 22).

In the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan’s meet in Nagpur in 1936, Gandhi had asked linguists and scholars to consider “Hindustani” as the lingua franca for India. He was suggested that it should be called “Hindi-Hindustani” instead, which Gandhi readily accepted given that the meaning remained unchanged (Tarachand 1944). The Hindi Sahitya Sammelan’s acceptance of Hindi-Hindustani as the common language for interprovincial intercourse gave him the assurance that he had given full scope to both Hindus and Muslims to identify themselves with an effort to enrich the common language (Gandhi 1956: 78-79). However, the acceptance of Hindi-Hindustani as the common language by the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan soon took another turn, with its members pitching for the Sanskritised version of Hindi as the national language. This had not only led to his resignation from the organisation, but also resulted in him floating the Hindustani Prachar Sabha on 2 May 1942 to advance what he believed in. He said:    

If the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan people insist that they will work only for the Sanskrit-ridden Hindi, the Sammelan ceases to exist for me. The language of the villagers is one; it cannot be two. The Hindi people want me to boast Hindi and never mention a word of Urdu. But how can I, a Satyagrahi with faith in non-violence, do such a thing? (Gandhi 1956: 125).

The objective of the newly formed Hindustani Prachar Sabha was to promote and propagate Hindustani among Indians. While explaining the objective of the Sabha, he said:

[it] will work for the dissemination of the Rashtrabhasha, Hindustani, which may serve as the medium of contact and intercourse between the various provinces with different provincial languages….. Hindustani is the language spoken and understood and(sic) used for common purposes by Hindus and Muslims both in cities and villages in North India and which is written and read both in the Nagari and Persian scripts and whose literary forms are today known as Hindi and Urdu. (Gandhi 1956: 114).

Speaking of his insistence on Hindustani, he clarified that he did not want either Hindi or Urdu to disappear or destroy in the process. As a Satyagrahi, he said, he believed in universal love and wanted both languages to prosper for the good of the country (Gandhi 1956: 124).

Does India’s Unity Depend on One Language?

The fundamental issue in contemporary India is not so much about Hindi and Hindustani as the common language, which was vociferously argued for and against in the Constituent Assembly debates. Rather, conflicts emerged when the centre had tried to impose Hindi on the constituent states of India, beginning with the anti-Hindi movements that rocked the country. Therefore, any attempt towards imposition of one language across the country is bound to raise a furore. The national integrity of India cannot be claimed to be resting on the shoulder of any one language, which Gandhi had thought to be the case in the colonial and newly independent India. Given his circumstances and the period in which he was operating, Gandhi had the responsibility to bring on board all Indians irrespective of their religion and regional affiliations, thereby prioritising the cause in favour of a national language.    

As the Father of the Nation, if Gandhi’s insistence on Hindustani was not acceptable to the diverse cultural-linguistic members of the Constituent Assembly, it is unlikely that any language enforced upon Indians will be tolerated. That we did not witness any major clash on the basis of language since mid-1970s without pressing for any single language, it proves that that the edifice on which India rests remains “unity in diversity” and not forced “unity.” The clarification of Home Minister Amit Shah within four days of his earlier statement on Hindi as unifying language is a welcome step acknowledging his acceptance of the linguistic diversity in India. Furthermore, this is also testament to the fact that, for India, its cultural-linguistic diversity is fundamental to its political sovereignty, but not a hurdle.  

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