Language can be a volatile issue in a multilingual country like India. So, it was perhaps inevitable that Home Minister Amit Shah would come under fire from all political quarters after saying that Hindi should become the country’s national language.

Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing Hindu nationalist groups have long pushed for the introduction of Hindi as the national language, the timing of Shah’s remarks is curious. The BJP is well aware of the sensitivity of the national language issue, and that is why many suspect this has been done to divert public attention from the more troubling issues of an economic slump and unemployment, as pointed out by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

On Saturday, Shah tweeted in Hindi: “It was necessary to have a common language that becomes the mark of identity of the country. Today, if one language can do the work of uniting the country, then it is the most spoken language, Hindi.”

“There is so much influence of English on us that we cannot talk in Hindi without its help,” he said later at a school event on Hindi Diwas, the annual day when Hindi is celebrated as the language of the north.

Currently, Hindi and English serve as India’s official languages. Around 43% of the 1.3 billion Indians speak Hindi, as per the 2011 Census, and that figure includes people whose mother tongue is perhaps Bhojpuri, Maithili or other dialects of Hindi. The language is dominantly spoken in the northern part of the country,

Anti-Hindi sentiments

Opposition parties have slammed Shah for trying to promote “One nation, one language”, saying it subverts India’s multilingual and multicultural identity. But the strongest condemnation came from Tamil Nadu, which has a history of aggressive anti-Hindi protests that have brought successive governments to their knees.

MK Stalin, chief of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) political party in the southern state, has already announced a protest against ‘Hindi imposition’ on September 20. The founder of another party, Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), renowned Tamil actor Kamal Hassan, also released a video warning of an inevitable battle over languages if Hindi is introduced as the national language.

Sentiment against Hindi is so strong in the south of the country that the BJP’s own representatives in the region are also against it. Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa joined the opposition’s chorus saying: “All official languages in our country are equal. However, as far as Karnataka is concerned, Kannada is the principal language.”

And the leader of BJP ally AIADMK and Tamil Nadu state minister K Pandiarajan said: “If the Center imposes Hindi unilaterally, there will only be reaction and no support.”

The clamor for a singular lingua franca has grown stronger over the years but it faces sustained resistance from India’s southern states. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka use languages belonging to the Dravidian family which are starkly different to the Indo-Aryan roots of Hindi.

The Congress party also warned the Narendra Modi-led government not to stir up “emotive and sensitive issues”.

Language debate

The issue of a national language has raged since independence from the British in 1947. It was one of the most debated topics in the Constituent Assembly elected to draft the Indian Constitution in 1949. The assembly could not reach a consensus on an official language as there were three factions: one was in favor of Hindi, the second wanted regional languages alongside English, while the third rooted for Hindusthani, a then popularly spoken language that is a mix of Hindi and Urdu.

It was eventually decided that Hindi in Devnagari script should be the official language of the Union of India, with regional languages the official tongue for the states. The same was laid down in Article 343 of the Indian Constitution. A provision was included for a transitional period for continuing of English and its progressive replacement by Hindi or the regional languages over time.

However, peace was never completely achieved on this matter. Anti-Hindi protests have raged in Tamil Nadu since 1937. This opposition spilled over into Kerala and Karnataka but was centered in Tamil Nadu, which saw its politics shaped around the Tamil identity.

In the aftermath of the anti-Hindi agitation in the 1950s and the death of a Gandhian activist demanding a state for Telugu speakers, then prime minister Nehru appointed the States Reorganization Commission (SRC), which recommended making language the basis for drawing state boundaries. This was carried out three years later.

However, it gave way to fresh demands for re-divisions. Maharashtra and Gujarat were bifurcated in 1960 from Bombay state on the basis of language following huge protests. And in 1966, the state of Haryana with majority Hindi speakers was carved out of Punjab state and the tradition followed. Thus, the dominant languages of India were given territorial recognition and they became official languages of the states. These languages were also incorporated in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

In 1965, another wave of these protests took place in Tamil Nadu with riots amid reports that Hindi would replace English as the official language. The then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri handled the situation by assuring that the government would continue to use English alongside regional languages and also for tests for central administrative services.

After, the Official Languages Act of 1968 allowed continued use of English as an official language beyond the transitional period of 15 years from January 26, 1950, as provided by the Constitution. The Act also allowed greater use of Hindi by saying that translations in Hindi should be provided for all national laws, ordinances and regulations issued under the Constitution or Central Acts.

Hindi and Hindutva

Congress, as part of its anti-colonial struggle, had shown a preference for Hindustani over English. And the leader of India’s biggest independence movement, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, had founded the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha to popularize Hindi in the southern states.

However, the approach at that time was different and incorporated a robust dialog. The rise of Hindutva has given way to “selective promotion of Sanskritized Hindi in opposition to Hindustani and Urdu,” Anirudh Deshpande wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly, an Indian academic journal.

The promotion of Hindi is a big issue for the Hindu nationalist BJP and its parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which yearns for a Hindu nation with Hindi as its national language.

The demand was articulated by many BJP and RSS stalwarts including former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In a collection of his essays, he wrote: ‘State of the Nation’, against the use of English as the official language and for education in Hindi. “English will not be imposed on Hindi provinces,” he said. And, English is not among the 22 scheduled languages mentioned in the Constitution.

In 2017, when Present Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu was a Union Minister, he said: “Hindi is our national language, our identity and we should be proud of it.” His comment spurred controversy for being both incorrect and trying to impose Hindi. Earlier that year, Naidu had defended a move by the parliamentary committee on official language proposing to make use of Hindi mandatory both in speech and writing for lawmakers and Union ministers, who could read and write the language.

In June this year, a draft national education policy of the Narendra Modi government stirred up protests as it proposed mandatory teaching of Hindi alongside English and the regional languages in non-Hindi speaking states. The government later made it non-mandatory.

There are even concerns within the Hindi-speaking states that the official Hindi, which is a standard version based on the Khariboli dialect, will subsume closely related sister languages such as Bihari, Magadhi, Maithili, etc.

Given this, many believe Shah is simply stirring the pot – to distract people from the BJP’s lackluster management of the economy.