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Nehru’s ghosts

The many challenges that India’s first prime minister bravely faced continue to haunt us to this day, writes Meghnad Desai.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2009 21:39 IST

It was Gandhi’s idea that India should have a single national language, and that it should be Hindi/Hindustani. The idea of Hindi as the sole national language offended many in the South.

Their languages not only had different scripts — not Devnagari in which Hindi was being projected — but also completely different vocabularies which, while loosely connected to Sanskrit in some cases, had their own histories. Languages were not just cultural artefacts but also a passport to jobs, especially in government offices. Indians from the South had taken to English as their passport to any place in India before 1947. The Constitution resolved to have Hindi as the sole national language of India, but allowed for a transition period of 15 years while English shared the stature of national language.

This led to a widespread protest in the South. In April 1962, C.N. Annadurai spoke in the Lok Sabha, three years before the deadline for the adoption of Hindi, for self-determination of Dravida Nadu, the homeland of the Dravidian people. This was “a country,” he said, “a part [of which] in India now, but which I think is of a different stock, not necessarily antagonistic”. He demanded separation, though reassuring his fellow MPs that “our separation is entirely different from the Partition which has brought about Pakistan”.

He cited the view of many in Madras province that they were ruled by “northern imperialism”, and warned that “the natural unity that we found when we were opposing the British is not to be construed as a permanent affair”. Some months after he spoke, the India-China border conflict united the entire Indian nation from north to south and east to west. The government also passed a law making it illegal to argue for secession. Later, English was given an indefinite extension as a joint language with Hindi for official purposes, and individual states could also use their local language. The Hindi language issue was settled amicably.

Newly independent India also faced the problem of reconciling the various provincial ‘nations’, which historically had often been enemies of each other and nurtured old resentments. These were in addition to the over-arching Hindu–Muslim differences. The problem was to convince every citizen that they were all equal in the new free India. The 17th century Maratha warrior, Shivaji, for example, was a hero in Maharashtra, but was feared and loathed in Bengal and Gujarat for his frequent raids. Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperors, ruled India for 40 years and his rule is the last by an Indian ruler over such a large swathe of the Indian subcontinent till 1947. Yet, he is condemned as intolerant, tyrannical and almost un-Indian by the secularists. Muslim kings began to be divided into ‘good’ (in other words, tolerant of Hindus) and ‘bad’ (taking the propagation of Islam as their mission). No similar classification was made for Hindu kings since if they displayed anti-Muslim sentiments, as some Rajput kings did — the Sisodias, for example, who defied Akbar’s policy of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation — they were praised for their valour and patriotism in standing up to the Mughals. While Nehru was alive, the Hindu-Muslim cleavage was kept under control and a syncretic Indian history was constructed… But provincial quarrels were another matter…

The Partition experience was so fraught that any further redrawing of boundaries was thought unwise. A Congress committee comprising Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Congress party president Pattabhi Sitaraimayya was formed, and reiterated caution. But the demand for a Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh to be formed out of the northern parts of Madras province and Hyderabad was acknowledged. Nehru was still doubtful. He feared Balkanisation, but his hand was forced when Potti Sriramulu — an activist for the establishment of Andhra Pradesh — went on a fast and died. This led to a violent reaction which could not be resisted. Andhra was created in 1953.

The States Reorganisation Commission was appointed to propose other such linguistic states. It reported in 1955 and had several suggestions on the redrawing of boundaries to form unilingual states. Many such demands were granted. Long-time residents in a province suddenly found themselves part of a minority language group as the dominant language group won majority status. The rights of all people as Indian citizens to live and work anywhere had to be maintained by curbing attempts by majority linguistic groups to impose ‘non-tariff barriers’ on the employment or advancement of minority groups.

It is a sore point which flares up again and again even 50 years after the establishment of such states. The most contentious was the division of Bombay province between a Marathi-speaking state — Maharashtra — and a Gujarati-speaking one — Gujarat. In this case the multilingual, cosmopolitan city of Bombay was at issue. Marathi-speaking people were the largest single group, but not a majority.

There were other minorities who had significantly contributed to Bombay’s economy and culture: Gujaratis, Hindu as well as Muslim; Parsis who also spoke Gujarati, but in their own special way; Punjabis who then dominated the cinema industry; people from the southern states who had migrated in search of jobs; Sindhis who had just migrated from Sind; Christians of all denominations including Goan Catholics, Kerala Syrian Christians, Anglo-Indians; and, of course, a small enclave of foreigners settled permanently. Bombay was unique until Independence, but democracy made number counting important. There was even a proposal to make it a city state. Nehru refused a division in the mid-1950s, but had to concede when a popular agitation in Maharashtra led to a severe election loss for the Congress in the 1957 elections. The two states were inaugurated in 1960 with Bombay going to Maharashtra.

The provinces knew little about each other once you got beyond the English-speaking elite. Their arts and their histories and their literatures had to be given room to flourish, but in a way which enhanced India’s unity, not detract from it. They had cohabited in the same territorial space and, in some sense, shared a common religion or social system — such as the caste system — but there were historical memories of old wrongs and perceived or imagined differences in economic circumstances between neighbouring linguistic groups…

Democracy has been both a problem — since numbers matter and majorities batten down on minorities — and a solvent, since no linguistic community, even a majority one, is so homogenous that it can win power on its own. Alliances have to be made across linguistic groups as across castes and classes. India’s democracy bears a chaotic look because it has had to cope with such multiple class and social cleavages, as well as sub-nationalities within a Union.

Meghnad Desai is a member of the British Labour Party.

This is an edited extract from The Rediscovery of India (Penguin)

The views expressed by the author are personal