Hindi Indian languages
There are 22 official languages in India (excluding English) Image Credit: Wiki Commons

New Delhi: Federal Home Minister Amit Shah’s remarks on the ability of the “Hindi language to unite the country” has drawn a strong response from political parties, especially in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, with many stressing that Hindi was among the 22 languages recognised by the Constitution of India and their stature is the same.

Speaking on Hindi Diwas (Hindi Day) in New Delhi, Shah had emphasised that it was necessary to have one language that could represent India in the world. His contention was that since Hindi was widely spoken, it could be ‘the’ language to keep India united.

But without gathering that his attack was focused on the English language, Shah has been accused of running a divisive Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) agenda and imposing Hindi on the country. The fact remains that the Home Minister has articulated the long-running stand that the Sangh has held for decades on Hindi.

History of anti-Hindi movement

The conflict of deciding on Hindi as the official language can be traced back to the pre-Independence days. In 1937, the Congress-led government in Madras Presidency under the leadership of C. Rajagopalachari introduced compulsory Hindi education in schools across the region. (Madras Presidency was later split into four states of South India — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala). This sparked massive protests and anti-Hindi demonstrations, especially by EVR Periyar, a pioneer of rationalist and anti-caste Dravidian politics in the region. The agitations lasted for three years, until the move was repealed in 1940.

Why did the question rise again?

During the framing of the Indian Constitution in 1950, the Congress government hoped to make Hindi the sole official language of the country. However, once again strong opposition arose from South India. There were violent student agitations and self-immolations, as people who spoke Dravidian languages were more comfortable in English than Hindi, the most spoken language in the country.

What happened thereafter?

Finally, a decision was taken to let English remain an associate official language, along with Hindi, for a period of 15 years. The time frame was designated for the government to carry out efforts to make Hindi the ‘common’ language all over India, so that English could then be dropped from the official language position. After all, it was a foreign language.

What happened in 1965?

When the time came to do away with English, history repeated itself. South India was still comfortable with either English or their mother tongue. Hindi again became an issue. The anti-Hindi imposition agitations grew violent. Trains were damaged and colleges were shut down.

What changed in 1967?

Since the DMK was at the forefront of the protests, it benefitted immensely from its anti-Hindi stance. The agitation slowly changed into an anti-Congress tirade. In the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, DMK leader P. Seenivasan contested against Congress heavyweight K. Kamaraj from Virudhunagar constituency and defeated him. Thus, for the first time in Madras state, DMK came to power.

How did pro-Hindi activists react?

This time on, pro-Hindi activists in North India, prominently, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Jan Sangh (popular as Jan Sangh) came out on the streets of New Delhi and blackened out English signages with tar. (The Jan Sangh was a right-wing political party that existed from 1951 to 1977. It was the political arm of RSS, a Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation. In 1977, Jan Sangh merged with several other political parties that were opposed to the Congress and formed the Janata Party. The Janata Party split in 1980 and Jan Sangh was re-created as the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], currently India’s largest political party by primary membership and representation in the Lok Sabha).

The three-language formula

In the wake of strong opposition from the southern states, the government led by prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri called an emergency session of the parliament in 1967. It was decided that English would continue as an additional official language. This time, no deadline was set. To placate the states, the Shastri-led government also decided that each state would have the liberty to choose its own official language. Hence, the three-language formula was pronounced in the National Policy Resolution. This meant the study of Hindi, English and a regional language in the states.

Agitation of 1968

The anti-Hindi activists from Madras state demanded scrapping of the three-language formula and an end to the teaching of Hindi. It abolished the use of Hindi commands in the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and banned Hindi movies and songs.

What was the result?

The three-language policy was scrapped and Hindi was eliminated from the curriculum. Only English and Tamil was taught in Madras.

What changed in 1986?

The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced the National Education Policy, which necessitated setting up of Navodaya Schools under the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya programme throughout states and union territories. This meant that children from under-privileged backgrounds could study with children from the privileged class and Hindi would also be taught.

How did Tamil Nadu react?

Members of the DMK protested and the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a resolution making English the only official language of the state. Several members, including M. Karunanidhi, were arrested and more than 20 people immolated themselves.

How was the issue resolved?

Gandhi assured that Navodaya schools would not be set up in Tamil Nadu and also that Hindi would not be imposed. Currently, Tamil Nadu is the only state in India without Navodaya schools.

What happened in 2014?

After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government introduced Hindi language on train tickets and on signboards at stations and highways in the South. The South Indian states once again cried foul about Hindi being imposed by the Centre. J. Jayalalithaa, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, hotly contested the move, saying: “It was against letter and spirit of the Official Languages Act.”

In 2019, Hindi was used in signages and name boards at the Bengaluru Metro Rail Stations and in services including nationalised banks. Agitations began in Karnataka and the billboards were blackened.

Present status

English continues to remain an associate official language even today.

Does India have any national language?


What is the difference between a national language and an official language?

A national language is a language that is symbolic of a country, usually for historic, cultural and ethnic reasons. An official language is only designated for communication at the official level.

Number of languages officially recognised in the Indian Constitution

22 (excluding English).

Why do problems arise for Hindi?

While a considerable number of Hindi-speaking populace lives in most states, especially in Central and North India, their number is almost negligible in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

What goes in favour of Hindi?

While in its official form, Hindi is spoken by 15 per cent of the population; allied languages and dialects derived from Hindi are spoken by nearly 45 per cent of India. That’s the reason why there have been deliberations to make Hindi the sole national language.

Languages Indians speak























What they say?

Amit Shah, federal minister of Home Affairs

“To preserve our ancient philosophy, our culture and the memory of our freedom struggle, it is important that we strengthen our local languages and that there is at least one language, Hindi, that the nation knows. If Hindi is taken out of our freedom struggle, the entire soul of the struggle is lost.”

Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister, Kerala

“India’s strength is its ability to embrace diversity. Sangh Parivar [RSS] must relinquish divisive policies. They must realise that people can see through the ploy that this is an attempt to divert attention from the real problems.”

M.K. Stalin, president, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

“The Centre is being autocratic in imposing Hindi. It is time for unity in Opposition ranks to make a strong protest against the government on such issues.”

Siddaramaiah, former chief minister, Karnataka

“The lie that Hindi is a national language should stop. Let it be known to all that it is just like Kannada, one among the 22 official languages of India.”

Jairam Ramesh, Congress leader

“We may have one nation-one tax, but one nation-one language will never be a reality. We are one nation, we are many languages.”

Asaduddin Owaisi, president, AIMIM

“Hindi is not every Indian’s ‘mother tongue’. Could you try appreciating the diversity and beauty of the many mother tongues that dot this land?”

Mamata Banerjee, chief minister, West Bengal

“We may learn many languages, but we shouldn’t forget our mother language.”

Sitaram Yechury, leader, Communist Party of India

“All the languages listed in the 8th schedule of the Constitution are our national language of communication, but any effort to impose Hindi will only lead to a negative reaction as it happened in the past.”

Ram Vilas Paswan, chief, Lok Janshakti Party

“The government should do away with the mandatory use of English, which has become the more popular medium of official work at the cost of Hindi and other regional languages.”

Kamal Haasan, film actor and politician

“No Shah, Sultan or Samrat can suddenly break the promise. We respect all languages, but our mother language will always be Tamil.