Over the years, India has been witness to movements, agitations, protests, rebellions — whichever suits the situation. All of them, however, are underlined by the fact that they arose from a place of deeply wanting a change — a change in protocol, treatment or in a near-ideal situation, mindset.
On 21 February, the occasion of International Mother Language Day, as we celebrate cultural and linguistic diversity, we must remember that there have been multiple movements related to language in the past that shape the India of today. Not only does it provide us with historical context, but it also puts into perspective its current social and socio-political treatment.
And so, here we are, outlining some of the landmark language movements that created a significant impact on the country, its citizens and certainly, on our linguistic diversity.
I. Urdu Language Movement (Began: 1850s)
Urdu had been part of India’s history long before the British rule. The language, which flourished through literature, as well as an everyday language, saw its ‘othering’ following the fall of the Mughal empire. What was once used as the court and state language was seeing opposition in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Post the War of Independence in 1857, Indian Muslims were as such facing flak from the Britishers, and getting rid of their language seemed convenient. In 1871, the Lt. General of Bengal banned Urdu in all its provinces and bolstered the spread of Hindi. The epicentre of Urdu, Uttar Pradesh, too was cleared of it when Hindi was declared its official language by Governor Anthony MacDonnel.
With Urdu advocates gaining support and power, a movement began to protect Urdu’s official status. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan played a key role. In 1900, Urdu and Hindi were both granted equal status. However, during the formation of the Constitution post-Independence in 1950, Urdu was replaced by English as an official language.
II. Anti-Hindi Movement by Tamilians (Began: 1937)
Tamil Nadu has been vehemently opposing the imposition of Hindi learning and usage in the state for decades and holds a complex history. However, the movement, in its purest form, has remained about declining the fact that people may be forced to learn Hindi and is not against the language itself.
The first protest can be dated back to 1937 when a Government Order issued the compulsory learning of Hindi in all government schools. After Periyar EV Ramasamy’s Self Respect Movement and the Justice Party protested for three years (resulting in two fatalities), the Order was withdrawn in 1940.
At the time of the formation of the Constitution, TT Krishnamachari opposed the use of Hindi pan-India and its National language privilege. After the specified 15 year period of English and Hindi’s Official status (according to the Constitution) came to an end, CN Annadurai ensured that English continued to be an Official language along with Hindi.
In 1965, protests broke out as after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, it was unsure if English would continue with its Official status, and when English-Hindi-Tamil was imposed in the Madras Legislative, the fear turned true. The protests resulted in 70 deaths.
III. Bangla Movement (Began: Close to 1947)
International Mother Language Day was born out of the celebration of the success of the Bangla movement.
Urdu was recognised as the language of Indian Muslims pre-partition and continued to hold that standard even after it. Hence, Urdu became the National language of Pakistan. Bengali, which constituted the main language in then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), on the other hand, was not considered to be Pakistan’s National or even Official language.
The Bangla movement arose from this dissatisfaction that Bengali was excluded by Pakistan, and the fact that the Constituent Assembly, too, rejected the request to include it. It gained momentum and subsequently got the military involved –– resulting in the deaths of participants and others.
Bengali was recognised as a National language in 1954, but overpowering dissonance caused the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
IV. Vishalandhra Movement (Began: 1953)
After Independence, in 1953, there existed a States Reorganisation Commission to recognise state boundaries. The Telugu-majority Telangana-Andhra region was meant to undergo a merger for unification. However, the Commission recommended to keep them separate. In the Hyderabad Legislative Assembly, the majority voted in support of the merger and resulted in the formation of the Andhra Pradesh state. Jawaharlal Nehru had formally announced this, too.
As we know now, the region was split into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh after the Telangana Movements that peaked in 2014.
V. Kannad Movement (Began: 1980s)
Similar to the Tamil movement, Kannada, too, was once in a position of being disregarded as a priority in Karnataka. Before and around the 1980s, Sanskrit would be available to learn at the high school level, and students chose it as it was a way to gain easy marks, and thus, a higher state rank. Then Chief Minister D Devaraj moved Sanskrit from a first language to a third language. The next Chief Minister, R Gundu Rao reversed this decision.
With a committee under Professor VK Gokak, many Kannadigas began to protest against this reversal. The Gokak Committee Report stated for Kannada to be the sole first language. The delay from the State to uphold this led to protests and due to it, several deaths.
Much later, people began questioning the Kannada hegemony. The Karnataka High Court judged that the child, and parents by proxy, should be able to decide which language they would like to pursue.
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