Battling the Demoness Hindi
On 23 January 1968, the Madras government decreed that the central government’s three-language formula would no longer be in effect in schools under its jurisdiction; henceforth, students were not required to study Hindi. As of that date, Hindi, the putative official language of India, was deprived of pedagogical and political privilege in the state. This legislation followed the resumption of anti-Hindi protests in December 1967 that involved considerable loss of lives and property. These protests were launched in response to the Official Languages Amendment Bill passed by the Indian Parliament on 16 December, which strengthened the position of Hindi relative to English and overturned an earlier resolution specifically stating that a compulsory knowledge of Hindi was not mandatory for central government employment. Perceiving a direct threat to their fortunes and futures, college students in Tamilnadu mounted fierce anti-Hindi demonstrations all over the state, the more radical among them demanding immediate secession from the nation. These protests were not just directed at the central government but also threatened the very stability of the newly elected DMK government in the state. The DMK may have promised to protect Tamil from Hindi and risen to power on the strength of its anti-Hindi leadership. Nonetheless, if the protests had not been so ferocious, it might not have been compelled to legislate against Hindi in Tamilnadu (Barnett 1976: 240-49; Ramanujam 1971: 28-40).
In successfully passing the anti-Hindi legislation, the DMK did reinforce its image as Tamil’s guardian. All the same, the circumstances under which Hindi was legislated against suggest that the state had, once again, succumbed reluctantly to Tamilizing itself. Indeed, even earlier, from the 1930s through the 1950s, the Congress-led state government had often been compelled by local pressures to take a position in opposition to the dictates of the party’s high command in New Delhi. Soon after independence, when the central government urged all states to promote the compulsory study of Hindi in preparation for its installation as the sole official language of the union in 1965, a vigorous series of protests in 1948-49 led the Madras government to make it an optional subject. Through the 1950s, the Madras government kept the pressure on the central government to retain English alongside Hindi as official language, its education minister P. Subbarayan even appending a lengthy dissenting note to the report of the Official Language Commission in 1956 (Subbarayan 1956). Caught between the central government’s demands and pressures at home, the Madras state’s Hindi policy from the 1930s through 1968 was dogged by contradictions, retractions, and ultimately failure.
The 1968 anti-Hindi legislation followed a half century of intense opposition to the language. The specific occasion which sparked off the first wave of protests was an April 1938 order by the Congress government of C. Rajagopalachari ordering the compulsory study of Hindi in 125 secondary schools in the Madras Presidency. The government justified its action thus:
The attainment by our Province of its rightful place in the national life of India requires that our educated youth should possess a working knowledge of the most widely spoken language in India. Government have therefore decided upon the introduction of Hindustani in the secondary school curriculum of our province. Government desire to make it clear that Hindi is not to be introduced in any elementary school whatsoever, the mother tongue being the only language taught in such schools. Hindi is to be introduced only in secondary schools and there too only in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd forms, that is to say in the 6th, 7th and 8th years of school life. It will not therefore interfere in any way with the teaching of the mother tongue in the secondary schools.…Hindi will be compulsory only in the sense that attendance in such classes will be compulsory and pupils cannot take Hindi as a substitute for Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada, but must learn Hindi only in addition to one of these languages.
Despite the government’s insistence that the “mother tongue” was in no way endangered by the Hindi policy, this is exactly how it was interpreted by many devotees of Tamil. Between late 1937 and early 1940, they spearheaded numerous anti-Hindi demonstrations which led to the incarceration of close to 1,200 and to the death of two young men. Although this particular order was withdrawn in February 1940, the Congress continued to promote Hindi in Madras schools into the 1950s, even in the face of mounting resistance. Throughout this period, the anti-Hindi cause was clearly linked to the DK and DMK’s separatist demand for a sovereign Dravidian or Tamil nation. No longer content with protest marches and making speeches, protesters tarred Hindi names on official name boards, picketed stores run by North Indians, burned facsimiles of the Indian map and the Constitution (itself characterized as the material manifestation of Hindi imperialism), obstructed train services, and so on. Following the 1963 constitutional amendment that banned political parties with separatist agendas, overt demands for secession were muted in Madras, although not entirely absent. Instead, the focus was on reversing the provisions of the Constitution which decreed that on 26 January 1965, English would be replaced by Hindi as the sole official language of India. In the most dramatic phase of the anti-Hindi movement, launched in 1963, hundreds were arrested; schools and colleges were closed as thousands of students all over the state took to protest marches; several hundred students went on hunger fasts; and the effigy of the “demoness” Hindi, as well as Hindi books, was burned. There was extensive damage to government and private property; and many lives were lost. Not least, it was at this time that tamiḻppaṟṟu acquired its most celebrated martyrs with the self-immolation of Chinnasami and others.
In numerous respects, these waves of anti-Hindi protests have critically shaped the contours of party politics in modern Tamilnadu, arguably more so than the anticolonial agitations against the British. A steady stream of anti-Hindi demonology from the 1930s clearly identified and vilified the putative enemies of Tamil. These included Hindi-speaking North Indians/Aryans, Tamil Brahmans, and the state government in the clutches of these Brahmans. But above all, this demonology discredited the Tamilnadu Congress party, despite numerous differences within its own ranks on the Hindi issue. Over the decades, the party found it difficult to shake loose the reputation it acquired as the “enemy” and “slayer” of Tamiḻttāy, as a front for Brahman and Bania (North Indian merchant) interests, and as a stooge in the hands of “Hindi imperialists” of the North. Caught between coping with the dictates of its high command in New Delhi and stemming the growing popularity of the Dravidian movement in Madras, the Tamilnadu Congress became a victim of its attempts to broker Tamil interests in the national arena. By the same token, all of the party’s rivals—the Justice Party, the DK, the DMK, the Tamil Arasu Kazhagam, the We Tamils, and others—were able to promote themselves as protectors of Tamil and as true representatives of Tamil interests, precisely by opposing the Congress’s Hindi policy. These parties spearheaded the Hindi protests in the state, providing popular and organizational ballast to tamiḻppaṟṟu’s arguments against the language even as they reaped rich political rewards in the process. To this day, one of the surest ways to gain political and electoral support in Tamilnadu is to raise the anti-Hindi standard, and it is telling that since 1967, the Congress has never returned to power in the state.
All the same, growing numbers of Tamil speakers have in recent years taken to studying the language, and Hindi propagation societies are doing a thriving business in Tamilnadu today. Indeed, except for a brief few months when the angry sentiments against the language spilled over into antagonism towards Hindi movies and songs, the latter have a popularity in Tamilnadu quite incommensurate with Hindi’s pedagogical and political status in the state. It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume there has been no popular support for Hindi in Tamilnadu. Well before the state took up its cause in the late 1930s, various civic organizations began promoting Hindi in the Presidency. While the need for a common language other than English was voiced in Madras newspapers by the turn of this century, with both Hindi/Hindustani and Sanskrit being proffered as early candidates, concerted efforts to spread Hindi date to the founding of the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha (Institution for the Propagation of Hindi in South India) in 1918 by Gandhi. The Sabha ran schools, trained teachers, conducted examinations, and awarded numerous diplomas of proficiency, though well into the 1930s the Tamil-speaking area lagged behind others in the Presidency in its enthusiasm for Hindi (Nambi Arooran 1980: 186-91). The Sabha’s endeavors received a boost when the Indian National Congress decreed in 1925 that all its proceedings, hitherto carried out in English, “shall be conducted as far as possible in Hindustani” and provided funds for the promotion of the language (Nayar 1969: 59-60). Through the 1920s and 1930s, the Sabha, as well as other organizations such as the Hindustani Seva Dal and the Hindustani Hitashi Mandal, petitioned the state to join in the promotion of Hindi in the Presidency and succeeded in convincing many Congress-led local governments to introduce the compulsory study of Hindi in schools in the 1930s (Irschick 1986: 212-14; Nambi Arooran 1980: 188-94). So Rajagopalachari’s decision to make the study of Hindi mandatory was not a total innovation. Nevertheless, the extension of state patronage to what had hitherto largely been a civic and Congress party activity completely changed the stakes in the Hindi game, especially in the face of complaints of Tamil’s devotees that the state was not doing much to promote the study of Tamil.
All the same, it would also be a mistake to argue, as the Congress did, that popular hostility towards Hindi was an illusion. For example, Rajagopalachari declared in 1938 that the opposition to Hindi did not stem from devotion to Tamil but was mounted by those “cursed with the prejudices of anti-Aryanism” and “with the hatred of Congress” (Nambi Arooran 1980: 195). Through the 1950s and early 1960s, other Congress leaders continued to insist that the DK and the DMK had duped the hapless Tamil masses by stirring up anti-Hindi sentiments in order to garner power for themselves. Yet, ironically, if there is one effort that succeeded—more so than any other undertaken by Tamil’s devotees and pro-Tamil politicians—in making tamiḻppaṟṟu visible among a general populace, it was the Hindi policy of the central and state governments. As I have already noted, the anti-Hindi movement took Tamil devotional ideas out of the narrow elite and literary circles in which they had hitherto circulated. For the first time in the 1930s, the idea that Tamil might be endangered caught on among those who were not necessarily its ardent devotees; consequently, the hitherto scholarly, elite male ranks of Tamil’s devotees swelled over the years with the addition of the street poet, the petty shopkeeper, the small time pamphleteer, the college going student, and the woman. By the 1960s, even the English-speaking middle class, which had hitherto stayed out of both Tamil devotional activities and the anti-Hindi movement, was galvanized (Barnett 1976; Rocher 1963).
Equally ironically, it is the battle against Hindi, rather than any sustained activity on behalf of Tamil, which spurred the devotional community to unite in harmony, setting aside differences and dissensions. Regardless of their disagreements over the meaning of Tamil, proponents of neo-Shaivism, contestatory classicism, and Dravidianism came together in response to the threat posed by Hindi by the late 1930s. Devotees of Indianist persuasion still kept their distance from this emerging consensus, but this was to change by the late 1940s, as is apparent from the attendance at a large anti-Hindi conference held in Madras city in July 1948. Convened under the aegis of the Dravidian movement, the conference featured devotees like Bharatidasan, Annadurai, Maraimalai Adigal, Kalyanasundaram, and Sivagnanam, all-speaking on the same platform against Hindi. The presence of Bharatidasan, Annadurai, and Maraimalai Adigal was not unusual, since they had been writing and-speaking passionately against the government’s Hindi policy for more than a decade. But Kalyanasundaram and Sivagnanam had built their literary and political reputations as Congress nationalists in the 1920s and 1930s, during which time they had both supported the cause of Hindi. Sivagnanam (1974: 268) recalls attending Hindi classes when he was in prison in the 1940s, although he confesses that he never did become proficient in the language. Similarly, in 1925 so concerned was Kalyanasundaram with the slow progress of Hindi in the Presidency that he called upon Tamil youth to join the Hindustani Seva Dal and help in its dissemination (Nambi Arooran 1980: 189). A native of Tiruvarur, Kalyanasundaram grew up in a poor family in Madras city where, after finishing the tenth grade, he clerked for a while and taught Tamil in local schools from 1910. At great cost to his own material welfare, he became involved in nationalist politics beginning in 1917, and he was a member of the Tamilnadu Congress as well as the Madras Presidency Association, the party formed by “non-Brahman” nationalists to counter the Justice Party. A devout Gandhian and reformed Shaivite, Kalyanasundaram was the editor of key nationalist newspapers like Tēcapaktaṉ (1917-20) and Navacakti (1920-40) through which he popularized a style of writing Tamil, especially for use in politics, that was simple but refined; it was free of foreign words, both English and Sanskrit. Kalyanasundaram’s tamiḻppaṟṟu in those early decades was clearly Indianist; although he was a close friend of both Maraimalai Adigal and E. V. Ramasami, his devotion to Tamil did not lead him into antagonism towards Sanskrit or Hindi. Neither was he anti-Brahman nor a supporter of the Dravidianist separatist agenda. Yet by the 1940s, Kalyanasundaram was certainly marching to a different tune. To the delight of many a Dravidianist, he came out publicly in support of the Dravidian movement and its demand for a separate Tamilnadu, declaring that in this lay the hope for a truly socialist community (Kalyanasundaranar 1949). By the 1930s, Kalyanasundaram had already become disillusioned with the Congress and its promotion of upper-caste, upper-class interests. This led him to increasing involvement in the labor movement, a cause he had adopted as early as 1918 (Kalyanasundaranar 1982). The Congress’s aggressive pursuit of the Hindi policy only convinced him that not only was that party inimical to Tamil interests but so too was the language that it promoted with such enthusiasm. Thus in 1948, the same Kalyanasundaram who had worked to popularize Hindi in the 1920s dismissed it now as a language that was impoverished and that promoted the subservience of women and “Shudras.” “Tamil,” he declared, “has the capacity to change a monkey into a man; Hindi, on the other hand, can make monkeys out of men.”
While the battle against Hindi diluted the Indianist passions of devotees like Kalyanasundaram, Sivagnanam, Suddhananda Bharati, and others, it also drew into the fray Tamil schoolteachers and scholars who, for the first time, took to the streets, courted arrest, and served prison sentences. Prior to the 1930s, few Tamil scholars had been driven to political activism by their passion for Tamil. The anti-Hindi movement changed this, however. Although Maraimalai Adigal himself did not go to prison, two of his daughters-in-law and his son, Tirunavukarasu, joined the picket lines in Madras and served prison sentences in 1938-39. Not surprisingly, when scholars and teachers like Somasundara Bharati, K. Appadurai, Mudiyarasan, and Ilakuvan took part in protest meetings, or courted arrest or were sent off to prison, they received much publicity in the opposition press, for this clearly disproved the government’s claim that the anti-Hindi movement was the mischief wrought by politicians and their uneducated “rabble” followers.
The anti-Hindi movement also made Muslim participation in Tamil devotional activities more visible (Abdul Karim 1982: 250-61; More 1993). From the turn of this century, devotees who were Muslims by faith wrote eulogistic essays and verses on Tamil, an early example being Abdul Kadir Rowther’s long poem in praise of the various Tamil academies of Madurai (Rowther 1907). Rowther himself was one of three Muslim poets who were members of the Madurai Tamil Sangam in its first years, and he won the admiration of his fellow devout for “his deep devotion to Tamil, his unbounded sympathy for every thing Tamil” (Rowther 1907: 1). P. Dawood Sha, another Tamil enthusiast, who received a gold medal from the Madurai Tamil Sangam, was editor in the 1920s of the journal Dar ul Islam, which promoted pure Tamil and criticized Muslim theologians for their poor command of the language (More 1993: 88). Also of particular interest is an essay published in the nationalist journal Āṉantapōtiṉi by A. Mohamed Ibrahim of Papanasam, in which the author praised Tamil and Tamiḻttāy by invoking the various premodern Shaiva hymns on the language (Ibrahim 1920). Later in the century, the poet K. M. Sharif (1914-94) received much praise for many of his verses on Tamil, and for his passionate editorials in the 1940s and 1950s in journals like Tamiḻ Muḻakkam and Cāṭṭai. In these editorials, Sharif, a member for a while of Sivagnanam’s Tamil Arasu Kazhagam, promoted many of the latter’s causes: the use of Tamil in schools and government, the creation of a Tamilnadu whose borders conformed to those described in the ancient Canḳam poems, the glories of ancient Tamil culture, and so on (Sharif 1990, 1992).
In a recent essay, J. B. P. More traces the growing collaboration during the 1920s and 1930s between the Tamil-speaking Muslim leadership of the Madras Presidency and Ramasami’s Self-Respect movement. This collaboration was based on the latter’s rejection of Hinduism and Brahmanism, its support of lower caste conversion to Islam, and its vision of a Dravidian society which would honor Muslims. In turn, the Tamil Muslim leadership drew upon the support of the Dravidian movement in its own efforts to counter the domination of a Urdu-speaking Muslim elite in the Presidency. Whereas many among the latter supported Hindustani on the grounds that “the language is one [although] the scripts are two,” Tamil-speaking Muslim leaders joined forces with the Dravidian movement in opposing Hindi. So one of them, Khalifullah, declared in the Legislative Assembly: “I may at once say that I am a Rowther myself; my mother tongue is Tamil and not Urdu. I am not ashamed of it; I am proud of it” (quoted in More 1993: 98). More documents the extensive participation of Tamil-speaking Muslims in various anti-Hindi protests and rallies in different cities and towns of the Presidency, and he rightly notes that it was “the language agitation which finally led Tamil Muslims to affirm their distinct Tamil identity,” even at the cost of parting ways with their putative coreligionists who nonetheless spoke a different tongue, Urdu (1993: 102). Instead, they chose to join forces with Tamil-speaking “non-Brahmans” and “fellow” Dravidians. Clearly, in this case language bonds and ethnic ties triumphed over religious affinity.
Further, it was in the context of these anti-Hindi protests that various new technologies for demonstrating and disseminating tamiḻppaṟṟu were deployed, beyond the elite literary journal and the scholarly publication. These included subversive acts, such as writing on Hindi exams slogans like “Down with Hindi” and “Long Live Tamil” (Nayar 1969: 199); the public and dramatic burning of facsimiles of the Constitution or the map of India; the tarring over of Hindi names and the Devanagari script on official billboards; and the self-immolations and suicides of young men. In the early years, as the Congress itself took delight in reminding everyone, the protesters appropriated many of the strategies that Indian nationalists had developed in their anticolonial struggles against the British: the peaceful picketing of schools where Hindi was taught and of government buildings and official residences, black flag demonstrations, and public processions and meetings. The Gandhian strategy of fasting was also appropriated, although with not much success or support, as we will see. In big cities and small towns alike, hundreds of anti-Hindi protest meetings were held, frequently attracting thousands. Such meetings often opened and closed with the singing of a pro-Tamil song or hymn and concluded with the staging of plays that propagated the message(s) of Tamil devotion and the Dravidian movement.
As popular as public meetings were protest marches, sometimes drawing thousands, marked by the reciting of slogans and the singing of pro-Tamil and anti-Hindi songs and ditties. Protesters walked through city streets carrying the Tamil banner (which bore the symbols of the fish, the bow, and the tiger for the ancient Tamil dynasties of the Chera, the Pandya, and the Chola); they would also carry colorful placards emblazoned with anti-Hindi and pro-Tamil slogans; and they distributed handbills publicizing the evils of Hindi and the wonders of Tamil. The most spectacular of these protest marches was the one undertaken by the tamiḻar paṭai, the “Tamilian Brigade,” in August-September 1938. Jointly organized by the Self-Respect movement and the Muslim League, the brigade of a hundred or so young men set out from Tiruchirapalli on 1 August, under the stewardship of Kumaraswami Pillai and Ramamirtham Ammal. During the next forty-two days, members of the brigade walked through 234 villages and 60 towns; and they addressed eighty-seven public meetings attended by at least half a million. Opposition newspapers carried daily news of the brigade’s progress and noted the “rousing reception” it received in various towns and villages of the Presidency on its six-hundred-mile trek. In September 1938 it finally reached Madras, where many of its members joined the picketing activities in the city and were arrested. Not the least of the consequences of the march of the anti-Hindi brigade (which, contemporaries did not fail to note, resembled Gandhi’s famous march to Dandi, and Rajagopalachari’s to Vedaranyam in 1930) was the formation in smaller towns and villages of similar brigades, which took up the cause of spreading the anti-Hindi and pro-Tamil message (Ilanceliyan 1986: 114-23; Visswanathan 1983: 211-13).
The battle against Hindi also spurred the proliferation of numerous populist organizations devoted to protect Tamil from the new threat. So, at the organizational level as well, tamiḻppaṟṟu came to be transformed during these years, as populist associations such as Tamiḻ Vaḷar Nilayam (Academy for Tamil Development), Tamiḻar Kaḻakam (Society of Tamilians), and Tamiḻar Nalvāḻvu Kaḻakam (Society for Tamilian Welfare) joined the ranks of more elite literary societies such as the Madurai Tamil Sangam, Karanthai Tamil Sangam, and the like. The founding charters of many of these organizations declared the need to cherish Tamiḻttāy and the mother tongue, to protect the Tamil people, and to oppose Hindi. The Tamiḻp Pātukāppuk Kaḻakam (Society for the Protection of Tamil), founded in Tirunelveli in 1937 by devotees associated with both the Shaiva Siddhanta Kazhagam and the Karanthai Tamil Sangam, issued a circular asking Tamil speakers to Tamilize their personal names and the names of their homes and workplaces, of streets and towns, of eating places, and so on. The circular ended with the words, “Do service to Tamil and secure freedom” (Visswanathan 1983: 197-99). Furthermore, in many towns and even in the occasional village, anti-Hindi leagues and Tamil societies and student associations sprung up. Although such organizations were invariably short lived, their very existence reminds us that the anti-Hindi movement promoted the percolation of Tamil devotional ideas down to the grassroots level. Because Tamil’s devotees had made clear that it was the Tamilian who was going to save their language from Hindi, the Everyman began to be integrated into the devotional community and its activities in a manner not done before. The Tamilian—the ordinary Tamil speaker—became the heart and soul of Tamil devotion at last, in the context of the movement against Hindi. Indeed, opposition to Hindi came to ultimately define the loyal Tamilian, for the Tamil subject is not just anyone who is devoted to Tamil but is one who is convinced that Hindi threatens the mother/language and is prepared to take to the streets to demonstrate this conviction.
Like many an oppositional practice, the anti-Hindi movement of Tamil’s devotees has had many consequences—some paradoxical, some tragic. How may we assess its success? from whose viewpoint? Their protests may have allowed Tamil’s devotees to set aside various crucial differences, if only temporarily, and heal the fissures among them; they may have aroused the interest of even the disinterested in tamiḻppaṟṟu, compelled the state to take a more sustained interest in the promotion of Tamil, and put a brake on Hindi domination. But all this has not come without its costs, the most obvious of which, of course, is that speakers of Tamil who grow up in Tamilnadu, and depend on state sponsored education, do not have the ready opportunity to learn the putative official language of India and avail themselves of the potential benefits this brings. Just as crucially, the anti-Hindi movement has re-signified the very meaning of tamiḻppaṟṟu. Increasingly in the discourse(s) of many devotees, resistance to Hindi (inti etirppu) has received more emphasis than laboring for Tamil (tamiḻppaṇi). Correspondingly, the paradigmatic Tamil devotee is not necessarily the one who has worked all her life to improve Tamil but rather the one who gave up his life in the battle against Hindi. Indeed, even those who disavow tamiḻppaṟṟu are admitted into the ranks of Tamil’s devotees because of their opposition to Hindi. Paradoxically, therefore, like all identities that are defined in opposition, the Tamilian self is (re)cast in terms of resistance to Hindi: “true” Tamilians are those who may or may not speak good Tamil or even care for it; but they are certainly those who gave up their bodies, lives, and souls in the battle against Hindi.