The Hindification of India may not be viewed with the same sense of alarm as its possible saffronisation. But in Tamil Nadu, nestling deep down south, the imposition of Hindi still touches a very raw nerve and right across the board, from politicians through liberals down to the man on the street. And every time the government in New Delhi moves to impose greater linguistic inequality by promoting the use of Hindi, arguably a national language as any other of 21 languages in use in the country, the shock waves are felt most in a state where Hindi made the least inroads in close to 70 years of Independence.
The most recent recommendations of a parliamentary committee, ironically headed by a Tamil in former finance minister P. Chidambaram, to ask all dignitaries who know to speak and read Hindi to speak only in Hindi at public functions and to recommend that Hindi be compulsorily studied up to Class 10 in all CBSE and Kendriya Vidyalayas schools have given further impetus to a gathering storm over Hindi. Already, the PMK as well as the main Opposition party, DMK, had raised the political temperature by protesting against the replacement of English names with Hindi on highway signs and kilometre stones, following a decision purportedly taken when a DMK minister was looking after the highways portfolio in the Union Cabinet in UPA days.
The opposition to Hindi did not stem from hatred of the language. The Tamils saw its early imposition on their land in the days of the British Raj by Indian administrators as an affront to their Tamil pride. This is the element that Indian rulers of North Indian descent have failed to understand. Indians too served the imperial ideology that viewed India as a Hindi state with other languages only likely to destroy or disrupt its unity. This is the view that was most detested in Tamil Nadu, from the days of Rajaji in the 1930s through the rabid days of the anti-Hindi agitation in the mid 1960s right down to the decimation of parties perceived as North Indian and in their place the establishment of an unbroken rule of Dravidian parties for 50 years now.
The introduction of Hindi into governance, its status in schools as well as various other insidious forms like the celebration of a Hindi fortnight and ultimately arming those who know the language with an advantage in Central government jobs has never been taken to kindly in a state whose citizens were willing to learn Hindi if there was a need for it, like if they were in jobs outside the state. There too, the regional language took precedence more than Hindi, whose national status has been continuously questioned by the Tamils, regardless of how the Hindi speaking politician justified it – as Home Minister Rajnath Singh did in stating on the last Hindi Day, “Hindi has been accepted by us as our national language”. Tamils laugh at his use of ‘Us’ as if he were including all non-Hindi speaking people in his collective noun.
History has a different tale to tell of the promotion of Hindi as the national link language with Pandit Nehru giving assurances there would be no thrusting of the language down the throats of those unwilling to learn or speak it and the deadline of 1965 being permanently put off and the courts assiduously stressing down the ages on the fact that there is no provision in the Constitution for a single “national language”. Even so, Hindi imperialism seems to have found a rebirth after 2014. Tamil audiences at BJP meetings would politely applaud Modi’s speeches in Hindi on cue, but would still give his party nil seats in the Tamil Nadu assembly although it did contribute a couple of Parliament seats in the wake of the ‘Modi wave’.
It is not, however, as if Hindi has neither place in Tamil Nadu nor comfortable spots for North Indians in the state. Bollywood has a huge presence, its hits as much celebrated here as anywhere else in the country. Like Indian cricket, Hindi music has for long been universally enjoyed. However, a line is drawn when it comes to imposing Hindi. In the age of the social media, the opposition to Hindi finds popular space in a state which is the final frontier for the national parties unless they shamelessly piggyback on one of the Dravidian majors. The Tamil opponents of Hindi do not see the backlash movement as a strike against Hindi as much as a simple matter of Tamil pride. But try saying that to the Hindi imperialists!