#AntiHindiImposition Across the Ages: TN Protests Explained

The draft National Education Policy (2019) which was submitted on 31 May, has recommended a total of 19 changes. Among these is a plan to institute a three-language system of learning: Compulsory Hindi and English along with the mother-tongue in non-Hindi states, and English and another Indian language in Hindi-speaking areas.

This sparked controversy across the nation, specifically in Tamil Nadu, as the three-language policy is seen as an imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speakers. The leader of the opposition in Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), put out a statement warning the Centre that such a move would spark protests, the likes of which were witnessed in 1965 and in 1937 before that.

The hashtags #TNAgainstHindiImposition and #StopHindiImposition were trending through the weekend, with the bulk of the traffic coming in from Tamil Nadu. With the online protests picking up steam, the Centre went into damage control. Nirmala Sitharaman (Finance Minister), and S Jaishankar (External Affairs Minister) – two Tamil-speaking ministers at the centre – tweeted reassurance to the public, that ‘the GoI respects all languages’ and that ‘No language will be imposed.’

The tweets were both in Tamil and English.

Historically speaking, the issue of including Hindi as a medium of education has sparked controversy and state-wide protests every time it was broached, right from 1937, to the 1965 protests, to the recent attempts at rewriting milestones along the Karnataka-TN border in Hindi and Kannada. This is what caused the downfall of the Congress in Tamil Nadu, from which it is yet to recover.

The Reactions Thus Far

So far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, the state and the people – if one goes by reactions online – are vehemently opposed to the three-language formula of education. This is what the draft said:

"“In keeping with the principle of flexibility, students who wish to change one of the three languages they are studying may do so in Grade 6, so long as the study of three languages by students in the Hindi-speaking states would continue to include Hindi and English and one of the modern Indian languages from other parts of India, while the study of languages by students in the non-Hindi-speaking states would include the regional language, Hindi and English.”" - Draft National Education Policy

The three-language formula basically made learning Hindi and English compulsory, in addition to the mother-tongue in non-Hindi speaking areas; and the inclusion of English and any other modern Indian language in Hindi-speaking areas.

Twitter erupted in protest from Tamil Nadu as soon as the draft policy was released. Allegations of this being yet another attempt to impose Hindi on the rest of the country flew thick and fast:

In a bid to salvage the issue and control the damage, the External Affairs Minister clarified to the public that this was only a ‘draft’, not yet a policy.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman too followed suit with a tweet in Tamil to specify that the Centre would not impose Hindi in any way. After the backlash, the draft has been modified as follows:

"“In keeping with the principle of flexibility, students who wish to change one or more of the three languages they are studying may do so in Grade 6 or Grade 7, so long as they are able to still demonstrate proficiency in three languages (one language at the literature level) in their modular Board Examinations some time during secondary school (see P4.9.5).”" - Draft National Education Policy - Amended

But why has Tamil Nadu had such a strong response to the draft education policy compared to the rest of the country?

To understand this, historical and political context is necessary.

Political Context – Dravidian Pride

Politically speaking, it is impossible for the DMK or the AIADMK (all other parties are but clones) to take a pro-Hindi stand. Their very inception is based on an active rejection of the imposition of the language.

By far the best example of this is the state’s response to Rajiv Gandhi’s plan to introduce Navodaya schools across India and in Tamil Nadu in 1986. It was met with statewide protests and suicides, as it was seen as an attempt to force the Tamil people to learn Hindi.

Thanks solely to the agitations in Tamil Nadu, which resonated and rippled across to Andhra and Kerala, India recognises 22 official languages today. Across many parts of the country (most vociferously in Tamil Nadu), Hindi isn't considered the 'Rashtra Bhasha’.

It was the success of the 1965 anti-Hindi agitations that propelled the then-fledgeling DMK to power, defeating (indefinitely, in retrospect) the then-ruling Congress party in 1967. The late political past-master K Karunanidhi invoked this sentiment once again in 1986, when the then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sought to introduce Navodaya schools across the country, in a bid to identify and nurture talented students. Seen as a bid to spread Hindi in the south, Karunanidhi (who was then the opposition leader) rallied over 20,000 party workers in protests. Twenty-one men committed suicide through self-immolation or by consuming poison.

Till date, Tamil Nadu is the only state without a Navodaya school. Considering the state’s impressive record in education and health (thanks to MGR’s midday meals scheme), Navodaya schools’ imperative of development and school-level learning is not really a necessity in Tamil Nadu – more than 45% of youth (18-23 years) who finish high school opt for higher education. 

Nevertheless, the lack of a link language other than English bears heavily on job prospects and tourism from northern states.

Also Read: How Hindi vs Tamil Pride Became a Political Tool to Divide

Timeline of Protests

1938: Chief Minister of Madras State C Rajagopalachari (Congress) issues a GO that makes learning Hindi compulsory in 125 schools across the state. EV Ramaswamy (Justice Party) launches statewide protest for three years. After one death and over 1,200 arrests, Hindi learning made optional. C Rajagopalachari by then had stepped down, and the state was under Governor’s rule.

1965: ‘Black Day’ for the then Madras State, which fell on 26 January 1965. It was the day Hindi was to become the sole national language (along with English, which was to be used indefinitely), at the end of the 15-year transition period that was written into the Constitution of India in 1950. “Virtual indefinite policy of bilingualism,” was ensured as a result.

1986: Rajiv Gandhi introduces ‘Navodaya Schools’ as part of the National Education Policy. DMK (the then-Opposition party) considers this Hindi imposition. Over 20,000 cadre protest, 21 commit suicide, riots erupt across the state. No Navodaya schools established in TN.

2014: Home Ministry orders all government employees to give preference to Hindi in their social networking sites. J Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) vehemently opposes the move, saying it is against the spirit of the Official Languages Act. The order was withdrawn.

2015: In August, the CBSE directed a total of 16,000 schools to implement the three-language formula. Owing to vague directives, and lack of resources, this was not properly implemented in Tamil Nadu. There were no protests around the directive, but it was actively ignored in TN.

2017: Hindi replaced English in milestones along the National Highways in Vellore and Krishnagiri districts. This sparked a rash of tweets and Facebook posts with the #StopHindiChauvinism hashtag. While the milestones still stand, no more were repainted.

Where Hindi is Not an Option

Owing to Hindi’s proximity to Sanskrit, Periyar (EV Ramaswamy) and TN’s politics that have followed his ideological footsteps, consider the language yet another ‘Brahmin’ trope that propagates caste and gender oppression. The affirmative action policies and protests in Tamil Nadu, therefore, are predicated on the opposition to all things Hindi.

In consequence, those who speak Hindi, regardless of their caste, are usually considered ‘upper caste’/class.

Over the years, owing to globalisation and a continual influx of human resources between the north and south, the animosity against the language has mellowed on the ground. The downside to the anti-Hindi protests though – in retrospect – is that students in government schools do not have access to any other language other than Tamil and English, even if they wish to learn it. The system, in this sense, is against the student. While technically, a student is free to opt to learn Hindi, the language has never been available in government schools in Tamil Nadu.

Anti-Hindi as Anti-Centre

Considering Tamil Nadu’s role in India’s political history, anti-Hindi sentiment has not been an electoral issue since 1965. But it continues to be an emotive issue. The protests, though, are as much against the BJP as they are against the imposition of the language.

From the early 50s, Tamil nationalism helped give the Tamil language a fillip. Under EV Ramaswamy and Annadurai after him, it also meant secession from India, or at the least, self-determination; in other words, complete independence from the Centre, to the extent possible.

The introduction of NEET, GST, demonetisation, the Supreme Court’s ban on Jallikattu, are all seen as the Centre’s attempts at subjugating Tamil Nadu and its people. While there have been a number of freedom fighters, activists, poets and writers who preceded and succeeded Periyar, it is his ideology and the politics he has spawned – on the basis of a rejection of Hindi – that live on in full power.

In this context, any attempt by the Centre at promoting Hindi in Tamil Nadu – and any form of acquiescence by the ruling AIADMK government – will be met with vehemence by a multitude of voices in Tamil Nadu.

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