The Congress, which had initially decided that among all the Indian languages, only Hindustani will be the national language, believed it could establish Hindi as the national language once it managed to overcome the opposition of the Muslims. So, the party wore various disguises from time to time to mollify them. The disputes within and outside the Congress in the North over the national language did not arise because of their love for the language; rather, it was based on communalism and religious fanaticism. These were given the colour of “linguistic affinity”.

The ones who demanded that Hindi be made the national language had this rationale: Hindi was the language of the Hindus, and India belonged to the Hindus, and hence, Hindi should be the national language. But the Muslims said: India does not belong only to Hindus. It is the land of Muslims also. Urdu is their mother tongue. So, Urdu, too, should be the national language. It was to unite these two sections of people that Gandhi chose Hindustani as the national language.

The Congress made no attempt to ascertain the opinion of the Dravidian language speakers the third section of people who were completely different from the other two and satisfy them. They fed the people with Hindu religious fanaticism to foster the freedom movement.

Initially, many Congress leaders spoke of religion, aiming to encourage Hindus to propose that India would be a Hindu country once it became free. They believed that if the religious sentiment of Hindus became dominant, it would help them propagate Hindi and suppress Muslims. The Congress hoped to take advantage of the upsurge of the freedom movement to easily win over the Hindus among Dravidians to their side on the language issue, using the religion card. However, the intense reformist propaganda of the Self-Respect Movement and the patronage of the Justice Party saved the Dravidians from falling prey to religious fanaticism.

The Congress could not succeed in wooing South Indians to take a pro-Hindi stand in the name of Hinduism. However, taking advantage of the upsurge in the freedom movement, it took care to ensure that they did not join Urdu supporters in opposing Hindi.

Some Southern Congressmen with a sense of self-respect did oppose the Congress’ language policy. However, they withdrew their opposition, fearing that it would harm the passion for freedom and help Muslims gain the upper hand. As a result, the Congress concentrated on satisfying Muslims and ignored the sentiments of South Indians.

In the elections held in 1937, the Congress captured power in most provinces, including Madras. In the Madras Presidency, a Ministry led by C Rajagopalachari assumed office. In line with the Congress plan, Rajaji tried to impose Hindi in the presidency. At a meeting held at the Ramakrishna Mutt in Chennai, he spoke about making Hindi compulsory for the first time. His speech created a sensation. The Justice Party and the Self-Respect Movement strongly condemned his move to make Hindi compulsory in schools and warned that it would ruin the lives of non-Hindi speakers. Tamil litterateurs said that the Tamil language would become extinct.

Religious-minded lovers of Tamil were afraid that Aryan culture was invading the Tamil region and conspiring to destroy Tamil culture. A popular rhyming slogan then was: Hindikku ini ingu enna velai? Kurangukku malar solayil idamundo? (Hindi does not have a place here, just as a monkey does not have a place in a flower garden).

The Karanthai Tamil Sangam raised its voice against these attempts. The Senthamizh Kazhagam in Thiruvaiyaru passed a resolution in this regard and sent it to the Madras government. A protest meeting under the leadership of Navalar Somasundara Bharathi was held in Soundarya Hall in Madras. The speeches of Annadurai, Maraimalai Adigal and KM Balasubramaniam awakened the people of Madras. District-wise meetings of the SelfRespect Movement adopted and passed condemnatory resolutions against the Madras government’s decision.

A conference of Tamils was held in Trichy on December 26, 1937, to stop the imposition of Hindi. Advocate K Subramania Pillai presided over the meeting, and Navalar Somasundara Bharathi delivered the welcome address. TV Uma Maheswaran inaugurated it, and Periyar EVR delivered a special address. The meeting passed a resolution against compulsory Hindi learning. It was also in this conference that a resolution was passed demanding Tamil Nadu’s secession from India. A three-member committee comprising Periyar EVR, Navalar Somasundara Bharathi and TV Uma Maheswaran was constituted to meet the Governor and explain to him the unanimous opposition of the people of Madras Presidency to the imposition of Hindi. The Trichy conference was the first step in the movement against Hindi. It created a stirring among the people.

The Congress government refused to accept the resolution of the conference of Tamils, describing it as the howl of an anti-Brahmin minority. To strengthen the opposition of South Indians to Hindi, another conference was convened in Kanchipuram, presided over by KV Reddy Naidu, former chief minister of the Madras Presidency. Addressing the conference, Reddy Naidu said: “Not only the Tamil, but all whose veins carry Dravidian blood will oppose the imposition of this unwanted Hindi on children who are already heavily burdened and families that live in peace. One who does not appreciate his mother tongue is a cowardly traitor to it. These traitors to the mother tongue will be called Judas Iscariot, after the one who betrayed Jesus Christ for the sake of a small amount of money. Jesus was killed because of Judas’ deceit. But Christianity lives on. Similarly, let the Dravidian languages escape from the modern-day Judas Iscariots and live on.”

As a result of this conference, those who had earlier held back now spoke up. Those sleeping were woken up. The Kanchipuram conference served as a warning signal. The Congress government ignored the opposition and condemnation expressed in democratic, peaceful ways. It made fun of the voices of protest. It mocked the warning of the educated. On April 21, 1938, the order making Hindi compulsory in schools was passed. It made learning Hindi mandatory for students in the first to third forms. In the first year of its implementation, Hindi was imposed on 125 schools 60 in Tamil Nadu, 54 in Andhra, four in Kannada-speaking areas and seven in Kerala. Congress supporters lovers of the Aryan culture supported the government’s move. The Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan, asked sarcastically, “Why only Hindi? Even Sanskrit can be imposed above the third form.”

The imposition of Hindi triggered a revolt among the Tamils. They realised that unless this was resisted, there would be no life for the maiden known as “Tamil”, nor would Tamilians hold their heads high. “Death comes only once, whether you are six years old or a hundred years old. Let us protect Mother Tamil.” With this vow, they began preparations for a do-or-die battle.

Excerpted with permission from Hindi Imperialism, Aladi Aruna, translated from the Tamil by R Vijaya Sankar, Speaking Tiger Books.