language politics

It's Mother Language Day. Which 'mother language' did India's lawmakers want after Independence?

Recalling what four passionate speakers had to say in the Constituent Assembly on the candidates for national language.

September, 1949. The Indian Constitution is being drafted. Debates are raging in Delhi all day, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. Among the issues being discussed is the vexing question of the national language. What are the debaters saying?

On International Mother Language Day, a flashback to some of those speeches:

‘Old Johnnie Walker is still going strong!’

Tuesday, September 13, 1949

Extracts from the statement of Congressman RV Dhulekar (United Provinces), a great proponent of Hindi as the official and national language of the country, on why English should not continue for another fifteen years as the official language of India and on why the Hindustani question must be shelved for another day:

When we take into consideration the long history of the growth of this national language you will see that it is not on this ground alone that I am going to oppose that the official language of the country should not continue for fifteen years. I feel that the lease of another fifteen years will not be in the national interest….I will most calmly and with folded hands request you to consider the position, and I will say that you do not know the heart of the country. English language is not the language of the brave people. It is not the language of scientists at all. There is no word of science that the English language can claim to be its own; neither can it claim its own numerals.

You say, let this English language remain as the official language in this country for another fifteen years. I shudder at the very idea of it at the very idea that our universities and our schools and our colleges and our scientists, that all of them should, even after the attainment of Swaraj, have to continue to work in the English language. What will other people say? What will the ghost of Lord Macaulay say? He will certainly laugh at us and say, “Old Johnnie Walker is still going strong,” and he will say, “The Indians are so enamoured of the English language that they are going to keep it for another fifteen years.” And some here say, it will remain for twenty years, and some say, for fifty years, and there are still others who say, they do not know for how long it should remain as our official language.

I would like to put a straight question to these friends of mine, and it is this. In 1920 or even in 1885, there are some who are older than myself here, what were you thinking should be the language of this land? What should be our language after the attainment of swaraj? I would say that those who felt that English should be our official language, they were caught napping…You, sir, all along were thinking that swaraj will not come and so my friends there were all along working in English language.

While we small people gave up our roaring practices, the other people had their roaring practices with the English language. We also can have a roaring practice today if I go to the federal court. But we are wedded to poverty; we are wedded to the freedom of our country, to the freedom of our country from bondage and from the bondage of a foreign language. But here you say, postpone the change for fifteen years.

Then I ask, when are you going to read the Vedas and the Upanishads? When are you going to read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and when are you going to read your Lilavati and other mathematical works? When are you going to read your Tantrams? After fifteen years?...

Yesterday an appeal was made by my friend Mr Hifzur Rahman. I do not know whether he is in the House – yes, there he is – and I would like to give a word in reply. He is very much annoyed, very much perplexed to know why the people of India have forgotten Hindustani and why they have forgotten the Urdu script and the Persian script and all the paraphernalia which goes under the name of Hindustani. And he made an appeal in the name of Mahatma Gandhi that we should make Hindustani the official language of the country, writing it both in Persian and Devanagari scripts...

Certainly, if their efforts had succeeded, whatever they said, or whatever the Father of the Nation said had succeeded, no person could have been happier than myself. Do not conceive for a moment that I am a communal-minded man. When I oppose Hindustani I do so, not on account of my lack of love for those people, but because of my love and affection for them, the honest love that an honest man has for his brethren.

Today if you speak for Hindustani, it will not be heard. You will be misrepresented, you will be misunderstood and therefore my honest advice to Maulana Hifzur Rahman is that he should wait for two or three years and he will find that he will have his Urdu language, he will have his Persian script; but today let him not try to oppose this, because our nation, the nation which has undergone so many sufferings is not in a mood to hear him....

With these words, I move my amendments and support the unqualified adoption of Hindi in Devanagari script and Hindi numerals, for no other language can be the official language of India, not even for a minute.

[Note: Hindi did become the official and the national language; English did continue for fifteen years after as the associate official language in all matters of administration and other executive areas, and then, after massive protests in south India at the end of the fifteen-year period, English was allowed to remain the associate official language of the country by the Lal Bahadur Shastri administration.]


‘Dead to whom? Dead to you, because you have become dead to all sense of grandeur…’

Tuesday, September 13, 1949

Extracts from the statement of Pandit Lakshmi Kanta Maitra, educationist from West Bengal, as he proposed an amendment of a “fundamental character” – that not only should Sanskrit be included in the list of Indian languages, but that it should be made the “official language” instead of Hindi:

Sir, I must confess that I am the sponsor of an amendment which has caused considerable surprise to many an honourable Member of this House and to many people outside. It has been received, if I may say so, with mixed feelings in the country. One set of reports that I have so far received and the shoals of letters and congratulations seem to indicate that I have hit upon a right and honourable course. The other set seems to suggest that I am trying to take India several centuries back by proposing that Sanskrit should be the official and national language of India.

Let me tell you at once that I am sincerely convinced that if on the attainment of freedom, this country is to have at all anything like an official language which is also to be the national language of the country, it is undoubtedly Sanskrit…

Today in this Constituent Assembly we are going to take the most fateful decision, the decision about the official and national language of India. Sir, in the present temper of the House I am really apprehensive that whichever amendment is carried by a majority of the votes – whether Hindi in Devanagari script and with the international form of Indian numerals as proposed in the draft moved by my honourable friend Shri Gopalaswami Ayyangar on behalf of the Drafting Committee, or that moved by the other group, the austere whole-hogger Hindi group with everything Hindi – the defeated Section will be leaving this Assembly with a sense of despair, a sense of frustration born of acute bitterness that has been generated in the course of the debates on this question for weeks on end. I have therefore come forward, knowing full well that it is temerity on my part, to ask the House to accept, as the national language of India, Sanskrit and not any other language. …

Besides that, I have got another substantial amendment, namely the addition of Sanskrit in the list of the languages of the Union. It is surprising that before my amendment was tabled, none even considered the desirability of recognising Sanskrit as one of the languages of India. That is the depth to which we have fallen.

I make absolutely no apology for asking you seriously to accept Sanskrit. Who is there in this country who will deny that Sanskrit is the language of India? I am surprised that an argument was trotted out that it is not an Indian language, that it is an international language.

Yes, it is an international or rather a world language in the sense that its importance, its wealth, its position, its grandeur have made it transcend the frontiers of India and travel far beyond India, and it is because of the Sanskrit language and all the rich heritage of Indian culture that is enshrined in it that outside India we are held in deep esteem by all countries. …

If today India has got an opportunity after thousand years to shape her own destiny, I ask in all seriousness if she is going to feel ashamed to recognise the Sanskrit language – the revered grandmother of languages of the world, still alive with full vigour, full vitality? Are we going to deny here her rightful place in Free India? That is a question which I solemnly ask. I know it will be said that it is a dead language.

Yes. Dead to whom? Dead to you, because you have become dead to all sense of grandeur, you have become dead to all which is great and noble in your own culture and civilisation. You have been chasing the shadow and have never tried to grasp the substance which is contained in your great literature. If Sanskrit is dead, may I say that Sanskrit is ruling us from her grave?

Nobody can get away from Sanskrit in India. Even in your proposal to make Hindi the State language of this country, you yourself provide in the very article that language will have to draw its vocabulary freely from the Sanskrit language. You have given that indirect recognition to Sanskrit because you are otherwise helpless and powerless.

But I submit that it is not a dead language at all. Wherever I have travelled, if I have not been able to make myself understood in any other language, I have been able to make myself understood in Sanskrit. Two decades ago, when I was in Madras, in some of the big temples at Madura, Rameshwaram, Tirupati, I could not make myself understood in English or in any other language, but the moment I started talking in Sanskrit, I found that these people could well understand me and exchange their views.

I came away with the impression that at least in Madras there was the glow of culture of Sanskrit. Notwithstanding their inordinate passion – which is only natural – for their regional languages – Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada – the Southerners did study Sanskrit on a fairly wide scale.

…Our idea of Sanskrit has been very crude. We seem to think that Sanskrit is only composed of big, bombastic phrases, grandiloquent phraseology, several feet long, that it has only one style, like that of Bana’s Kadambari, or of Harshacharita or Dashakumar Charitam… Sanskrit is such a language that it can be used either for very serious subjects as philosophy, science and also for light literature, it is an easy vehicle of expression for all shades of thought.

Sir, we are proud of the great provincial languages of this country – Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and others. They constitute a variety of wealth of Indian culture and civilisation. This is not a province’s property. It is all our national property. But all these languages derive their origin from Sanskrit. That is the parent language and even in the case of the languages in the South, they have taken a large number of Sanskrit words to enrich their language. Therefore, I submit that if we could set our hearts on it, we could develop a simple, vigorous, chaste, sweet style of Sanskrit for the general purposes of our life.

I do not suggest that from here and now every one of us would be able to talk Sanskrit. My amendment is not like that. What I have proposed in my amendment is, that for a period of fifteen years English will continue to be used as the official language for the State Purposes for which it was being used before the commencement of the Constitution. At the end of fifteen years, Sanskrit will progressively replace English. That is all my amendment proposes….

[Note: Sanskrit did not of course become the official language of India but it did get included in the list of Indian languages in the Schedule 8 of the Indian Constitution. Tamil Nadu lost its appreciation for Sanskrit along with the rise of Dravida politics and became the only state in India to adopt a two-language formula for its schools, doing away with both Hindi and Sanskrit, instead of the three-language formula adopted everywhere else. Two other supporters for the case of Sanskrit were BR Ambedkar and Naziruddin Ahmed.]


‘Who are you afraid of? Who is going to take away your Hindi in its inevitable and natural growth to its full stature as the National language?’

Tuesday, September 13, 1949

Extracts from the Statement of Frank Anthony, representing the Central Provinces and Berar, and speaking in favour of the Roman script being used instead of Nagari for the official language, Hindi:

Sir, at one time, there was no doubt in my mind as to what should be the national language. Before this unfortunate controversy was precipitated, I took it as axiomatic that Hindi would be the national language in this country. At that time, I say, I had no particular predilection as regards the script. I have been fortunate in that I know the Devanagari script. It is one of the simplest scripts in the world. At that time, before this unfortunate controversy was started, I would have, without qualification, accepted Hindi in the Devanagari script as the national language.

But today, I have moved away from that. I say without offence that those friends of ours who have been ardent, if not fanatical, protagonists of Hindi have done the cause of Hindi greater disservice than anyone else. By their intransigence, by their intolerance, they may not recognise it as such, but the other non-Hindi speaking people have interpreted their actions and speeches and their attitude as fanatical intolerance, they have created, whether they like it or not, an attitude as fanatical intolerance, attitude of resistance to what should have naturally been accepted as the national language of this country...

Who are you afraid of? Who is going to take away your Hindi in its inevitable and natural growth to its full stature as the National language? Sir, I cannot help feeling that this attitude is analogous to an attitude where some Britishers wake up some morning; for some reason their memories are carried back to the bitterness of the Roman invasion and they start a movement that all words of Latin origin should be expurgated from English. There is nothing different from a movement, to expurgate words of Latin origin from English, between that movement and the movement to purge Hindi of awry word however assimilated it may have become to Hindi which has either in Urdu or a Persian origin.

...I have given this amendment of Hindi in the Roman Scrip because I feel that looking at it objectively, if we look at it also in the larger interests of the country, we should accept it. I know that in the present temper of the country, in the present mood of the House, as a concession to sentiment and reaction and retrogressive forces, we will not adopt it.

But what is there, I say it without offence, sacred in a script? Some people go about saying that this script is sacred and indulge in all kinds of hyperbole and extravaganza. If the Devanagari script is sacred to the Hindi-speaking Hindus, how can you introduce uniformity throughout India and ask other people whose mother-tongues are represented by provincial languages, to give up their script, and take to the Devanagari script.

I feel that if we do not lack courage and do not lack vision, then we will accept Hindi in the Roman Script as the national language. After all there are many reasons why it should be considered and considered favourably. Two million jawans, in the process of three or four years, during the war were made literate in Hindi through the medium of the Roman script. If we adopted the Roman script, we would strike a mighty and a decisive blow in the cause of Indian unity and national integration. I believe if we accepted the Roman script in Hindi then there would be no difficulty at all in any of the provincial language also accepting the Roman script. Immediately you would strike a blow in the cause of inter-provincial social, cultural and linguistic intercourse.

... But as I say, it requires courage and vision. It requires the need to resist sentiment and reactionary forces. I do not know whether this will be done, I feel here my friend Shankarrao Deo will not agree with me, up to a point I endorse what he said but I feel we are making undue concessions to regionalism. I know how strongly the people in the different provinces feel about their respective mother-tongue. It is inevitable.

It is natural that Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Gujarati will grow rich and to their full stature, but I can’t help feeling it is a little natural that we mouth the slogans of Indian nationality and our sense of Indian nationality up to a point where it suits us. But when we come to a point where it does not suit us, then we argue in favour of a policy which I feel, if allowed to grow, will inevitably balkanise this country.

...Only a person who is deliberately dishonest will argue that a boy who has had his primary, secondary and University education through the medium of Bengali will ever pay the slightest regard to Hindi. If we are really interested in a national language, let us all suffer an abatement of our respective vested interests. Let Madrasis, Bengalis and Gujaratis all in the cause of national integration and Hindi deliberately suffer an abatement. That is why I have moved this particular amendment.

[Note: This debate continues to this day. Bollywood works entirely on Romanised Hindi. So does much chat and phone messaging.]


‘These numerals, which are in use among all European nations today, are really a gift from India, which we had given to the world centuries ago.’

Tuesday, September 14, 1949

Extracts from the Statement of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on the Hindi versus Hindustani debate and the question of numerals:

So far as language in concerned, this has been admitted on all hands that the language spoken in Northern India can only be made the Lingua Franca, but it has got three names – Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani. Now, the point of dispute is as to what name should be given to it. Naturally, with different names are associated different forms and styles of the language; so in reality it is not a quarrel about the names but about the form or style. I want to give you a brief resume of the points of difference in these three names.

...The general framework or the setup of the language spoken all over Northern India is one and the same, but in its literary style it has got two names – a style resplendent with Persian is called Urdu and a style leaning towards Sanskrit is known as Hindi. The term “Hindustani” has developed a wider connotation: it embraces all forms of the language spoken in Northern India. It includes “Hindi” as well as “Urdu” and even more than that. It includes each and every shade of the spoken language of the North. It does not exclude any. It covers all.

...It was on my suggestion that, about a quarter of century ago, the All-India Congress Committee, when the question was before it, decided in favour of Hindustani. The object behind the decision was that in this language question we should not act with narrow-mindedness; rather we should try to extend its field. By adopting the name of “Hindustani” we had tried to do away with the differences that separated Urdu and Hindi, because when we try to speak in or write easy Hindi and easy Urdu then both becomes identical, and the distinction of Hindi and Urdu disappears.

In the new framework of this easy vehicle of expression you can coin as many new words and new phrases as you please, there would be no obstacle. Besides, by adopting the name of Hindustani we leave untouched that vast and extensive field which the people of North India have created for their language. We do not put any check or obstacle upon them from above…

It is necessary for us to maintain this extensive character of the language, rather we should let it grow wider and richer. We should not try to keep it confined in any limited sphere. We have to replace English, which is a literary and extensive language, with a national language. That can only be done by making our own language rich and extensive rather than limiting its scope and extent, if you call it “Urdu” then surely you narrow down its circle; likewise if you name it “Hindi” you limit its extent, therefore by giving it the name of “Hindustani” alone, you can widen its scope. It is the exact and right word which describes the real state of our language for the present…

My friends would pardon me if I say that I have witnessed an exhibition of this narrow-mindedness during the debates on numerals. One may differ from those who want international numerals in place of Devanagari numerals, but I fail to understand why it should create bitter passions and why it should be opposed so vehemently. After all it is a small matter.

Again and again it has been emphasised that why should we borrow anything from another country when we have our own. But this is altogether baseless. These numerals, which are in use among all European nations today, are really a gift from India, which we had given to the world centuries ago. If we are going to adopt them today we are taking back our own thing.

These Indian numerals first reached Arabia, then from Arabia they reached Europe. This is the reason why in Europe they were known as Arabic numerals, though they originated from India. This style of the numerals is the greatest scientific invention of India, which she is rightly entitled to be proud of, and today the whole world recognises it. The story of how these numerals had reached Arabia has been preserved in the pages of history…

In the eighth century A.D. during the reign of the second Abbasid Caliph, Al Mansoor, a party of the Indian Vedic physicians had reached Baghdad and had got admittance at the court of Al Mansoor. A certain physician of this party was a specialist in astronomy and he had Brahmagupta’s book Siddhanta with him, Al Mansoor, having learnt this, ordered an Arab philosopher, Ibraheem Algazari, to translate the Siddhanta into Arabic with the help of the Indian scholar. It is said that the Arabs learnt about the Indian numerals in connection with this translation, and having seen its overwhelming advantage, they at once adopted it in Arabic. Like Latin, in Arabic also there were no specific symbols for counting figures. Every number and figure was expressed in words. In cases of abbreviations, various letters were made use of, which were given certain numerals values. At that time Indian numerals put before them a very easy way of counting. They became famous as Arabic numerals. And after reaching Europe they took that form in which we find them in International numerals at present.

[Note: despite eloquent notices, it was widely accepted that the debate on Hindustani was lost with the Partition of the su-continent, which saw Urdu being established in Pakistan and Hindi in India, but Maulana Azad’s logic prevailed in the matter of numerals. After hours of further debate, the “international form of Indian numerals” was accepted as standard, with the proviso that after fifteen years, via an order by the President of India, the Devanagari numerals might be used.]


Devapriya Roy is the author of three books and one nearly abandoned PhD thesis on Bharata’s Natyashastra. She worked on developing a new language policy for the country. She tweets here.

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