On Saturday, while marking Hindi Day, Home Minister Amit Shah rushed headlong into a hornet’s nest as he proposed that Hindi be declared India’s national language. The second-most powerful man in the cabinet declared (in Hindi) that “it was essential for India to have one language” and it was “Hindi that would unite the country given that it was the county’s most-spoken language”.

Currently, India has no national language. State governments use the language of their state while the Union government uses English and Hindi.

Shah’s statement was not unexpected. Even since its inception, the Hindutva movement has pitched for Hindi to be India’s national language, given its conception of India as a European-style unitary nation. Vinayak Savarkar, a foundational thinker for Hindu nationalism, was clear when speaking in 1939 that Hindi would be the “national tongue of Hindudom”.

However, this line of thinking is not confined to Hindu nationalism. A number of other thinkers and politicians have pitched for a national language to tame the linguistic diversity of the subcontinent. However, there can be a good case made that Indian unity owes itself to the country acknowledging its linguistic diversity and treating it as a core aspect of the nation rather than seeing it as a threat. In this, the creation of a linguistic federation – practically unique in the world – was critical.

Under the Raj

Under the British Raj, India’s princely states and provinces had no linguistic character and were random assemblages of people put together either by historical accident or for the convenience of empire.

After World War I, however, as a new mass mass politics developed, the Congress increasingly moved towards seeing language communities as political units. Some of it was to do with the fact that this was the standard in Europe while some to do with the fact that linguistic unity made the task of political mobilisation easier.

In 1920, a Congress firmly under the control of the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi, officially asked the British government to reorganise provinces on the lines of language. The Congress itself put this principle into practice, organising its provincial committees not by the actual provinces of British India but according to major language communities. The Congress manifesto for the 1945-’46 elections – which eventually elected the Constituent Assembly – promised that states would be reorganised on linguistic lines.

Post 1947

Once power was transferred to the Congress in 1947, however, the party dithered on its stand. While it had opposed British India’s hodgepodge provinces before 1947, once the Congress controlled the Centre, it suddenly saw merit it them. At the time, Jawaharlal Nehru argued that creating states on linguistic lines would endanger Indian unity, coming as it did right after Partition. While Amit Shah and Nehru would not agree on much, it seems they both saw India’s linguistic diversity as a threat to Indian unity. In this Nehru was backed up by other national leaders in the Congress such as Vallabhbhai Patel, who saw linguistic provinces being contrary to the idea of the strong Centre they envisaged for the new country.

Vallabhbhai Patel was among the leaders who opposed the idea of linguistic provinces. Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection [Public domain]

Echoing the British Raj, the Dar Commission, appointed by the Constituent Assembly in 1948, rejected the creation of linguistic provinces in favour of what it argued was “administrative convenience”. Another committee formed by the Congress party in the same year and consisting of three heavyweights – Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhai Sitaramayya – also rejected the principal of linguistic states arguing that the pre-Independence Congress had “not considered all the implications and consequences that arose from this practical application”.

“Language was not only a binding force but also a separating one,”it said. “The primary, consideration must be the security, unity and economic prosperity of India and every separatist and disruptive tendency should be rigorously discouraged.”

Forcing Nehru’s hand

In 1953, a Gandhian activist Potti Sriramalu not only went on a fast to demand a state for Telugu speakers and, unusually for this mode of protest, he actually died. His death sparked off a wave of violence resulting in the hurried creation of Andhra Pradesh in 1953. Stung by this, the Congress decided to reconsider its backtracking on the principle of linguistic states and appointed the states reorganising commission to study the matter.

The result of this was the wholesale reorganisation of India in 1956 into a set of states that broadly followed the principle of language. In the following years, this principal would be further strengthened, with Bombay state being partitioned into Marathi- and Gujarati-speaking areas. In 1966, a Punjabi-speaking Punjab was formed with the Hindi-speaking areas of the erstwhile East Punjab state being reconstituted into Haryana. In the present-day, every major language group in India has its own state.

A somewhat unusual attempt to merge Bihar (which then also consisted of Jharkhand) and West Bengal in 1956, fell through, indicating that the old British-style chopping and changing state boundaries without reference to their populations would not be possible anymore. The Congress chief minster of West Bengal scrapped the idea after suffering a loss in two parliamentary bye-elections.

In Pakistan

India’s rulers had given into the linguistic principle with much reluctance. In Pakistan, also born in the midnight of August 15, 1947, there was even more unwillingness to let language populism take root. Matters in Pakistan were doubly complicated by its bizarre geography, with two wings on either side of India. Pakistan’s east wing was almost completely Bengali while its west wing had Punjabis, Sindhis, Urdu speakers, Balochis and Pathans. As if that wasn’t enough, East Pakistan had more people while political and military power was in the west.

Such a complicated system should have ideally meant even more space for linguistic ethnicities to exercise power within the new state of Pakistan. However, in practice, the country’s new leaders decide to go the other way. In a fateful speech in Dhaka in 1948, the country’s founder Mohamed Ali Jinnah peremptorily declared, “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language”.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah announces the creation of Pakistan over All India Radio, June 3, 1947.

Like Amit Shah, Jinnah thought that a national language ensured stability: “Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function.” (The similarities don’t end there: both Jinnah and Shah are Gujaratis who spoke Hindi-Urdu quite poorly, even while promoting the language.)

Pakistan continued on this path. It not only rejected the concept of linguistic provinces, in 1954 it merged the four provinces of West Pakistan, as part of a scheme called “One Unit”. “There will be no Bengalis, no Punjabis, no Sindhis, no Pathans, no Balochis, no Bahawalpuris, no Khairpuris,” declared the Pakistani prime minister. “The disappearance of these groups will strengthen the integrity of Pakistan.”

This attempt at creating a unitary identity, did not work. In fact, it backfired. In 1971, the Bengalis seceded from Pakistan. Moreover, this unitary centralisation greatly angered Sindhis, with One Unit spurring the creation of a Sindhi nationalism that has often flirted with secessionism.

Unity in linguistic diversity

Meanwhile in India, the reservations of its founding fathers has proved to be completely false. The pressures from below that forced Indian leaders to create linguistic states were in, hindsight, a positive force for India’s unity. While Pakistan tried to stamp out linguistic identity, its neighbour interwove linguistic and Indian nationalism. The Indian Union was built on its states and there was, for the most part, no conflict with one’s linguistic identity and one’s identity as an Indian.

With the hindsight of history, it is clear that European-style unitary nationalism is actually a force of division on the subcontinent. What unites India is its linguistic diversity and sufficient devolution of power to states built on the lines of language. What will divide India is pushing any one language as superior to other Indian languages, as was done for Urdu in Pakistan. Amit Shah has it backwards.