The language problem was the most divisive issue in the first twenty years of independent India, and it created the apprehension among many that the political and cultural unity of the country was in danger. People love their language; it is an integral part of their culture.
The controversy on the language issue became most virulent when it took the form of opposition to Hindi and tended to create conflict between Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi speaking regions of the country. The issue of a national language was resolved when the Constitution-makers virtually accepted all the major languages as ‘languages of India’ or India’s national languages. However, the matter could not end there, for the country’s official work could not be carried on in so many languages. There had to be one common language in which the central government would carry on its work and maintain contact with the state governments. The question arose what would be this language of all-India communication? Alternatively, what would be India’s official and link language? Only two candidates were available for the purpose: English and Hindi. The Constituent Assembly heatedly debated which one should be selected.
However, in fact, the choice had already been made in the pre-independence period by the leadership of the national movement, which was convinced that English would not continue to be the all-India medium of communication in free India.
Hindi or Hindustani, the other candidate for the status of the official or link language, had already played this role during the nationalist struggle, especially during the phase of mass mobilization. Leaders from non-Hindi speaking regions had accepted Hindi because it was considered to be the most widely spoken and understood language in the country. Lokamanya Tilak, Gandhiji, C. Rajagopalachari, Subhas Bose, and Sardar Patel were some of Hindi’s enthusiastic supporters.
Sharp differences marked the initial debates as the problem of the official language was highly politicized from the beginning. The question of Hindi or Hindustani was soon resolved, though with a great deal of acrimony. Gandhiji and Nehru both supported Hindustani, written in Devnagari or Urdu script. Though many supporters of Hindi disagreed, they had tended to accept the Gandhi-Nehru viewpoint. However, once the Partition was announced, these champions of Hindi were emboldened, especially as the protagonists of Pakistan had claimed Urdu as the language of Muslims and of Pakistan. The votaries of Hindi now branded Urdu ‘as a symbol of secession’. They demanded that Hindi in Devnagari script be made the national language. Their demand split the Congress party down the middle. In the end, the Congress Legislative Party decided for Hindi against Hindustani by 78 to 77 votes even though Nehru and Azad fought for Hindustani.
The case for Hindi basically rested on the fact that it was the language of the largest number, though not of the majority, of the people of India, it was also understood at least in the urban areas of most of northern India from Bengal to Punjab and in Maharashtra and Gujarat. The critics of Hindi talked about it being less developed than other languages as a literary language and as a language of science and politics.
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