Enthronement of Tamil: Dilemmas of Rule
In December 1956, on the very eve of the 1957 general elections, the Madras legislature passed a bill instituting Tamil as the official language of the state (āṭci moḻi; lit., “language of rule”). The implications of the bill were potentially momentous for the course of tamiḻppaṟṟu, for it was declared that progressively over the next few years, all the official proceedings of the Madras government, so far dominated by English, would be entirely conducted in Tamil. Certain important caveats notwithstanding (such as the continued use of English in courts, especially at the higher levels), the bill seemed to fulfill a long cherished dream of the entire devotional community: namely, Tamil ought to reign, once again, in its own land. As one member, R. Krishnaswami Naidu, enthusiastically declared in the Legislative Assembly, “All our troubles have now ceased as Tamiḻttāy reclines in royal style on her auspicious throne.” Another member echoed this sentiment, proclaiming that “from now on, we will progress and advance.”
Embedded in these as well as in many other declarations made in the legislature in the 1950s and 1960s was the implicit recognition that until the state intervened in Tamil improvement activities that had hitherto been conducted largely by the devotional community, the language and its speakers would not really prosper. As Gajapathy Nayakar, a Tamil scholar who was also a member of the Legislative Council, declared, resorting to the logic of gender endemic to tamiḻppaṟṟu: “It is only when a man marries a woman that family life can be conducted. In the same manner, we should think of the state as man, and the language as woman. It is only out of their union that proper rule will ensue.”
And yet, over the next few years the state itself repeatedly admitted its inability to ensure the rule of Tamil in its own land and in the community of its speakers. Only a few years after he presented the Tamil as Official Language Bill with such enthusiasm in 1956, C. Subramaniam was compelled to confess: “As a first task, we restored her rightful throne back to Tamiḻttāy. We did this believing that if our Tamiḻttāy were enthroned, we would be filled with happiness, and that happiness would give us the enthusiasm to attend to our other tasks. However, even though we have now installed Tamil as our lofty language of rule, we have been unable to implement it” (C. Subramaniam 1962: 24). What accounts for the state’s helplessness in Tamilizing itself, and what does this state of helplessness imply about the cause of tamiḻppaṟṟu?
Here, it is instructive to consider the debate on the bill in the legislature in December 1956, for this itself anticipated many of the problems the state faced over the next few decades in implementing its provisions. First, this was one of the rare occasions in which the figure of Tamiḻttāy entered arenas of government and found a presence in official discourse. It is telling that Subramaniam, the education minister, offered the bill as a ritual tribute to Tamiḻttāy, declaring that members should set aside their political differences and join in her “enthronement ceremony” (muṭicūṭṭuviḻā). He was not alone in invoking her name, and the speeches made by other members were liberally sprinkled with references to the “liberation” of Tamiḻttāy and her “enthronement.” Both metaphors clearly suggested that Tamiḻttāy, the former queen of the Tamil kingdom who had been displaced from her throne by rival languages and had been reduced to the status of a lowly maid (paṇippeṇ), had now been restored to her rightful place in the hierarchy of power and command. In enabling her reinstatement, not only did the legislators fulfill their own “debt” (kaṭaṉ) as her subjects/children, but they also signaled their intention to ensure that despite the continued presence of other languages (English and Hindi, most notably) in the Tamil home/kingdom, Tamil would reign supreme. It would rule as the language of power, while the others would merely be languages of communication with the rest of India and the world.
The Official Language Act might well be the fruit of the decades of hard work put in towards Tamil’s liberation by its devotees, as Subramaniam graciously acknowledged in his opening remarks. All the same, the act would be the instrument with which the importance of Tamil would be impressed upon recalcitrant sections of the society, through the agency of the state. Ironically, therefore, at what ought to have been a moment of great triumph for its devotees, the act clearly represented the realization that love or passion for Tamil would not ensure that it prosper as much as would material and pragmatic considerations. Jobs and the exercise of power were now dependent on knowing and using the language: “If Tamil comes in as language of rule, and if we insist that it is the language everyone has to learn in colleges, how many will want to read Shakespeare and Milton?…Desire for the Canḳam poems will bloom. Tamil, too, will flourish.” Political power and material needs perhaps would secure for Tamil what love and passion had so far not accomplished.
Second, from the start, the state openly acknowledged that for the time being, the enthronement of Tamil was more symbolic than real. It was all well and good to “love” Tamil, but logistically, the rule of Tamil would take time, enthusiasm, and resources to implement. “If we decide suddenly that everything has to be in Tamil, that will only give rise to confusion,” Subramaniam informed legislators in December 1956. L. Raghava Mudaliar warned his fellow legislators that devotion to the language (moḻippaṟṟu) should not lead them to a hasty implementation of an āṭci moḻi, “official language,” that would be incomprehensible to the very people for whose benefit it was being created. It was therefore decided that the official language policy would at first be implemented, starting in 1958-59, in eight departments of government. By 1962, this was abandoned in favor of implementation in four phases (Kumaramangalam 1965: 68-73). It was acknowledged that it would be easiest to switch to Tamil as āṭci moḻi at the lowest rungs of the district administration where English had hardly penetrated. It would be most difficult to ensure the use of Tamil at the highest levels of government, in the state secretariat at Madras, and this was scheduled for only the fourth phase. It is telling that no time limit was explicitly stipulated for the unilateral use of Tamil in all spheres.
Indeed, the state’s troubles over the next few years show clearly that it took the plunge before it was ready. Subramaniam himself compared his government’s dilemma to that of someone who did not know how to swim but realized that he could only learn by throwing himself into the water. This analogy is quite revealing, for the list of tasks to be accomplished before Tamil could actually become āṭci moḻi was formidable, ranging from the technological to the ideological. For instance, Tamil could not really be used for bureaucratic communication until government offices were stocked with Tamil typewriters. This in turn depended on the standardization of the keyboard, on which there was much disagreement from the start. Further, typists had to learn to use these Tamil keyboards, and a network of training institutes, as well as economic incentives for those who underwent the training, had to be set up. The absence of skills in Tamil shorthand was also a glaring problem.
Another key requirement, of course, was the creation of a glossary of Tamil administrative terms. Here, in addition to the ongoing debate between purists and nonpurists on the relative “Tamilness” of these terms, there was the more demanding task of overcoming years of bureaucratic dependence on English, especially in higher circles of the government, and instilling in its place the new habit of using Tamil. Further, once the glossary was created, various laws and statutes had to be translated into Tamil. In certain areas, such as legal procedures, there was doubt from the very beginning whether Tamil was even capable of expressing “with precision” the language of the courts. Finally, all these measures depended on the existence of a pool of government officers and clerical staff who were equipped to use Tamil in administrative contexts. Many legislators pointed out the obvious paradox of bringing in Tamil as language of rule, even before institutionalizing its use in school and college education. But here, as late as 1963, Chief Minister Bhaktavatsalam dismissed demands for Tamil as principal medium of instruction in colleges as “not a practical proposition,…not…in the interests of national integration, not in the interests of higher education, and not in the interests of the students themselves” (quoted in Kumaramangalam 1965: 62-63). Even a casual survey of government records in the 1950s and 1960s shows that this brief treatment only touches upon the surface of the numerous dilemmas faced by the state in implementing the bill that was passed so confidently in December 1956.
So, why did the state take the plunge well-before it was remotely ready to govern in Tamil? One obvious reason is that it gave in to the continual demand for bringing in such legislation, voiced since at least the 1920s not just by Tamil’s devotees but also by Congress nationalists. In 1948, two districts had been selected for a trial run; the relative lack of success of this experiment did not deter supporters of Tamil from continuing to push their cause. Up until 1956, the reality of Madras’s multilinguality prevented any easy abandonment of English. Indeed, over the years from the 1920s, there had been repeated demands from various legislators that the “regional language” (which invariably meant Tamil) ought to be the language of the legislature, since a growing number of members of that august body did not know English (Sundaresan 1986). A. Ramalingam declared in March 1939, “I do not understand [anything] if English is spoken in this Assembly. I only understand Tamil. Our land is Tamilnadu. We ought to speak in Tamil.” Such a demand, not to mention the continual overwriting of “Madras Presidency” as “Tamilnadu,” only caused anxiety and hostility among non-Tamil-speaking legislators, which in turn mirrored the confusion that would prevail if Tamil indeed became the language of rule in a multilingual province. By late 1956, however, after the linguistic states became a political reality, the Congress government in Madras was hard pressed to defend itself successfully from the criticisms increasingly leveled against it by opposition parties for being soft on Tamil issues. Although the government resisted this accusation, there were many who pointed out that the Congress rushed through the legislation on Tamil as official language as a preelection gesture. I would also suggest that whenever the state had passed such a bill, it would have faced similar problems. For there was growing consensus that mandating the use of Tamil through legislation was the only way to ensure the Tamilization of the administration and bureaucracy. The limits of tamiḻppaṟṟu as well as of community-spurred improvement activities are clearly revealed in this realization.
Third, the state’s 1956 legislation also showed up the category of “mother tongue” for what it was: a metaphorical construct. The demand for Tamil as the language of rule drew its power from Indianist and Dravidianist assertions that the language of the people—of their homes and their mothers—ought to be the language of government. Yet there was dawning awareness that just because a language had been imbibed through one’s mother’s milk, or learned at her knee, one did not necessarily “know” the language sufficiently to administer a modern state with it. Indeed, the technologies and complexities of modern government inevitably inserted a gap between the āṭci moḻi, “official language,” and the tāymoḻi, “the mother tongue,” although they might both be named “Tamil.” So, for much of the decade following 1956, legislators and planners argued the pros and cons of ensuring that the āṭci moḻi stay as close as possible to the tāymoḻi. There were purists among the legislators (many of whom, like V. V. Ramasami and Muthukannappan, were Tamil scholars and devotees) who demanded the complete erasure of all Sanskritic and English words from the language of rule, insisting that there was little reason to ponder at length over the creation of new administrative terms, for these had existed from time immemorial since the days of the Tirukkuṟaḷ and the Cilappatikāram. Those who countered this demand maintained that an āṭci moḻi based on old Tamil would be totally incomprehensible to the people. An insistence on “pure” Tamil words was not an expression of tamiḻppaṟṟu but of tamiḻveṟi, “Tamil fanaticism,” one legislator insisted.
The Congress government itself adopted an anti-English and pro-Sanskrit stance. Only the elimination of English words was set up as part of the government’s strategy for creating the āṭci moḻi, on the grounds that Sanskritic words were comprehensible to the people, and hence were “Tamil,” after all. And even in this respect, the government was quite flexible, appropriating as “Tamil” all those English words (such as “revenue” or “police”) that had become naturalized in popular parlance. Here, the government’s position was similar to that of liberals who maintained that English words like “collector” or “radio” were so much part of the vocabulary of the Tamil speaker that these, too, were Tamil, and ought not to be eliminated in favor of some unfamiliar and panditic neologism. One cannot legislate into existence a totally new language, it was asserted. In contrast to Tamil’s devotees, who insisted that their language was their life and soul, some legislators like Allapichai declared (in English): “Language is only a vehicle of expression that we speak in.…[I]t is only a vehicle of thought to express oneself better. Such being the case, there is no meaning whatsoever in insisting upon people to speak only in Tamil.” Insisting that it was unfair to dismiss those who wished to speak English or Sanskritized Tamil or English-inflected Tamil as disloyal Tamilians, some legislators reiterated that the institution of Tamil as official language did not necessarily mean the elimination of other tongues from Tamilnadu. On the contrary, Tamil would benefit by drawing upon all languages to enrich itself (C. Subramaniam 1962: 19-20).
Thus in the debate on the āṭcimoḻi, there was an important reversal of the relationship between the language and its speaker. The devotional community had defined a Tamilian as one whose “mother tongue” was Tamil. Language defined the speaker, as the latter was rendered a subject of Tamil through tamiḻppaṟṟu. In contrast, when the state stepped in to institute the “mother tongue” as language of rule, it became clear that the speaker defined the language: “Tamil” was whatever the Tamilian spoke, be it shot through with English, Sanskrit, or any other language. Language was thus defined by the speaker: “The Tamil that the people understand is good Tamil,” in Subramaniam’s words. The subjection of the speaker to the language in the discourses of Tamil devotion was thus unsettled by the work of the state.
Finally, the debate on the institution of Tamil as official language and the subsequent attempts to implement it show that in spite of having been grandly (re)installed as “queen” of the Tamil state in 1956, Tamiḻttāy was not really sovereign in her own kingdom. As late as 1970, the government was compelled to confess that “in no department is business conducted 100 percent in Tamil,” and its devotees insist that this is true even today. Most immediately, it is the continued dependence by the state on English that limits Tamil’s sovereignty. The devotional community, including adherents of Indianism, the most anti-English of its regimes, conceded that English was necessary for the development of the sciences, for keeping up with the rest of India, and for the continued participation of the Tamilian in an international world. For its devotees, however, Tamil ought to reign supreme within the Tamil home and homeland. But the government repeatedly confessed in the 1950s and 1960s that even within the Tamil homeland, the “use of English will be unavoidable” and “that we are not able to give up English.” Ironically, the speeches made by numerous legislators in December 1956, when the “Tamil as Official Language Bill” was offered as a “ritual tribute” to Tamiḻttāy, were replete with Sanskritized Tamil and English words. Over the next few years as well, Tamil speeches delivered in the legislature continued to be dominated by Sanskrit and English, and several Tamil scholars-cum-legislators periodically submitted resolutions calling attention to the fact that in the state’s highest governing body, Tamil still did not reign. As one of them lamented, expressing his dismay in gendered terms, “Tamil is the mother, English is the companion (tōḻi). The mother needs the help of the companion. But the companion has displaced the mother and even become the lover [of the Tamilian], with whom she romps around, hand in hand.” And in the years following 1956, English continued to rule the roost, drawing strength from arguments that Tamil was not precise enough, that it was not neat and clear enough to be used for writing government notes, that complicated scientific and technical terminology could just not possibly be expressed through it, and so on.
But it is not English alone that troubles Tamil. As long as Tamilnadu is part of the Indian union, Hindi also continues to erode Tamil’s absolute sovereignty. As the official language of the nation, Hindi vies with Tamil even within its own homeland on money order and telegraph forms, on postage stamps and currency notes, as well as in military, railway, and other central government institutions that are based in the land of Tamil. Hindi has continued to be taught in schools affiliated to the central government’s education board and in schools run by minorities even after 1968 when the state government legislated out the language from its schools; and it has taken up the lion’s share of nationalized television broadcasts until recently. Further, it is knowledge of Hindi (and/or English), rather than of Tamil, that provides access to lucrative central government employment. Indeed, critics like Mohan Kumaramangalam argued in 1965 that “instead of the regional language becoming more and more dominant, the tendency in the non-Hindi areas [like Tamilnadu] was already beginning to slip back towards English, almost as if it were in defence against the advance of Hindi” (Kumaramangalam 1965: 51). In Kumaramangalam’s reckoning, a fundamental inequity had been written into the constitutional position of Indian languages through the privileging of Hindi. In the triangular battle between Hindi, English, and Tamil, it is the latter that has suffered the gravest injuries and is facing a slow death.
Kumaramangalam’s critique did not raise the possibility that Tamil might never be sovereign as long as Tamil speakers participated in the Indian union. But other critics did openly make this argument. Adithan, the founder of the We Tamils movement, wrote in his Tamiḻp Pēraracu (The Tamil empire) that not until Tamilnadu overthrew the “imperialism” of Delhi and Hindi could Tamil truly become a sovereign language of rule (Adithanar 1965: 26-30). And the parties of the Dravidian movement used such an argument through much of the 1950s and 1960s both to empower themselves and eventually to rise to power in 1967 by battling the “demoness Hindi.”