Dominated by the Congress, India’s Constituent Assembly usually witnessed little disagreement. There was one exception, however: language. It was the last major issue discussed by the Constituent Assembly and rocked the body. Should English or Hindi be India’s official language?
Hindi plants a flag
Like all questions of identity, the matter was really a cover for economic interests. North India had the largest share of members in the assembly and wanted to use this demographic advantage to stamp its authority on the new India. On the other side of the ring were the three coastal Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras. They were each smaller than the Hindi camp but they were the old elite. Independence meant a shift in power away from them to North India. Replacing English, the language of the British Raj, with Hindi as India’s official language would cement this shift. Bengalis, who had once dominated the Raj’s bureaucracy, for example, would simply not be able to get into independent India’s civil service if Hindi was the only language used to select candidates. The divide was neatly – and belligerently – summed up by Constituent Assembly member Algu Rai from present-day Uttar Pradesh:
“Fortunately or unfortunately our brethren who live in those coastal regions where the English landed for the first time have acquired considerable proficiency in English. It is they who feel the greatest embarrassment when Hindi is mentioned as the national language.”
After a year of bitter quarrels, a compromise was reached: Hindi would join English as India’s official language for the time being. And after 15 years, English would be dropped altogether.
While the latter never happened – Tamils agitated violently in the 1965, resulting in English continuing till this day – the event marked the rise of Hindi to the high table.
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