Language Movements in India
Movement Against English as Official Language

It was in 1579 A. D. that the first Englishman, Thomas Stephens -a Jesuit Priest set his foot on the Indian soil. Twenty years later, the British East India Company was founded. The history of the English language in India, however, begins only after 1757 A.D. when the British started to capture political power from the princes and newabs and began to spread among the Indians the language that they spoke and wrote. The efforts at spreading an alien language evoked considerable opposition. A survey of the linguistic scene of India, and for that matter any region of the world, reveals that there has always been a resistence to a change-over from one language to the other. In the absence of appropriate historical accounts in this connection, it may not be possible to establish this point. However the fact that the change-over from Vedic Sanskrit to Pali, from Pali to Classical Sanskrit, from Classical Sanskrit to Apabhramsa, from Apabhramsa to Khari Boli and from Khari Boli to Modern Hindi, were neither quick nor complete for a number of years indicates that opposition to a new language is not an unusual phenomenon. This paper aims at reviewing briefly, in Chronological order, the movement against the efforts to have English as official language.

First Phase: Orientalists Vs Anglicists

The first phase of the organized movement against English commenced in the nineteenth century. Although it started in the last century, it is relevant to make a brief reference to it here.

The movement against English began with the controversy between the Orientalists and the Anglicists. It all started with the appointment of a Committee on Public Instruction in 1823 by John Adams, who was a temporary successor to Warren Hastings as the

Governor-General of India. The Orientalists group, which included Englishmen like Wilson and Elphinstone, favoured oriental learning. They felt that it would be a preposterous way of adding to the intellectual treasures of a Nation by beginning the destruction of its indigenous literature. The Anglicists led by Macauay, on the contrary, felt that neither as language of law nor as language of religion, had Sanskrit or Arabic any peculiar claim to state-encouragement. In this controversy, social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy supported the Anglicists their impelling motivation being the desire that Indian should imbibe the learning of the West. The die was ultimately cast in favour of the Anglicists. The Christian missionaries, who had started coming to India towards the end of the eighteenth century and had been disseminating the English language through their institutions, proved very handy to the Anlgicists for the promotion of English. What Jawaharlal Nehru said about the British could, perhaps, apply to the English language also. He said :

"The British came and dominated over us. Why ? Because
in spite of our ancient Sanskrit and culture they represented a
higher culture of the day-not in those fundamentals and basic
things . . .but in other things, in the culture of the age, they were
superior to us." (Constituent Assembly Debates p 1413)

It has also been said that though apparently Fort William College, Calcutta, was then engaged in translations from Persian and Braj Bhasha into Modern Indian Languages, it led to rivalry and widening of gap between Urdu and Hindi and thus made the success of the protagonists of English easier and quicker. Whatever the reasons, the fact of the matter is that by the end of the 19th century, the objective as the English way of life had come to dominate our country.

Second Phase : Political Opposition

By the first quarter of the twentieth century, the English language had come to be opposed by a completely new class of people-the politicians. Replacement of English by an indigenous language, namely Hindustani, was interwoven into the programme of Indian freedom struggle by the Indian National Congress. In 1925, the Congress, following resolution :

"The proceedings of the Congress shall be conducted, as far
as possible, in Hindustani. The English language or any
provincial language may be used if the speaker is unable to
speak Hindustani or whenever necessary. Proceedings of the

Provincial Congress Committees shall ordinarily be conducted
in the language of the province concerned. Hindustani may
also be used." (Kumaramangalam : p. 11-12)

Nothing substantial was, however, achieved as a result of this resolution. (Shiva Rao 1968 : p. 782)

In 1935, the Indian National Congress formed Ministries in some provinces of the country. In these provinces, the teaching of Hindi was encouraged : but even then nothing tangible was achieved English could not be displaced.

It is of great relevance to add here that in spite of its favoured position for more than 150 years, the 1951 census of India revealed that the knowledge of English was confined to less than 2 per cent of India's population. In this percentage, there is a substantial proportion of the educated class and the vast majority have no knowledge of the English language. Has this been due to explicit and implicit opposition to English, the language of the foreigners ?

Third Phase : Framing of Constitution

The constitution of any country imposes certain obligation on its people and provides guidelines to future policy-making for the country's governments. The Indian Constituent Assembly debated the issue of the official language from September 12, 1949 to September 14, 1949, i.e., towards the end of the Assembly's deliberations as on compromise solution could be reached earlier. When the issue was at last debated, it was only after a good deal of acrimonious debate and extension in the time allotted for the debate that some solution emerged. The Assembly adopted that from 1965 Hindi, in Devanagari script, shall be the official language of the Union and the international form of the numerals shall be used. Even the first Article-Article 343 (1) in the chapter on 'Langauge of the Union ' (Constitution of India : p. 108-111)-which did not prescribe the Devanagari numerals, is an example of a compromise formula. It is also borne out by what Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Assembly, stated while addressing the Hindi group towards the end of the controversy on the form of the numerals : The Hindi group wanted others to accept the Devanagari script and the others did so. If the others wanted the Hindi group to accept the Arabic numerals they should have no hesitation, since it is only in the script of give-and-take the national problems can be solved. Throughout the debate, there was emphasis on arriving at a compromise. The chapter on 'Language of the Union' is replete with contradictions, call them compromises if you so wish. While Article

343(1) declared unequivocally Hindi in Devanagari script as the official language of India, Article 343(3) permitted the Parliament to enact laws for the continuance of English even after the expiry of fifteen years. In terms of the Article 344(6) of the Constitution, the President of the Indian Union was empowered to issue instruction in regard to the official language on the advice of the Language Commission of 1955. This evidently meant that the verdict of the Constitution on the issue was not supreme. All this was the tug-of-war between the Hindi group and the English group regarding the official language.

During the debates in the Assembly, though claims of Hindi, English, Sanskrit and Hindustani for acceptance as official language were advanced, the real battle was waged between protagonists of English and Hindi. The former described it as "a language on which I think, we have built and achieved our freedom. (Constituent Assembly Debates : 1317). It was described as the world language. Frank Anthony, the Anglo-Indian leader, pleaded fro it as follows :

"I feel that if we do not lack courage and do not lack vision, then we will accept Hindi in the Roman script as the national language". (Constituent Assembly Debates: 1363). It is interesting to note that earlier in the debate on the matter of script Frank Anthony had observed :
"Before this unfortunate controversy was participate, I took it as axiomatic that Hindi would be the national language in this country. At that time, I say, I had no particular predilection as regards the script. I have been fortunate in that I know the Devanagari script. It is one of the simplest scripts in the world. At that time, before this unfortunate controversy was started, I would have, without qualification, accepted Hindi in the Devanagari script as the national language." (Constituent Assembly Debates : 1361).

A survey of the Constituent Assembly Debates reveals that, has not polarization
taken place on the issue of the form of the numerals, Hindi might have been accepted as the official language without much difficulty. The language controversy was, however, not yet destined to come to an end with the framing of the Constitution.

Fourth Phase : In the Annals of the Parliament

In 1959, Frank Anthony brought forward a Bill in the Lok Sabha for the inclusion of English in the English schedule of the Constitution. This Schedule lists 15 languages of India and not English. Prior to this, the Calcutta University Senate expressing its view on the 18th

July, 1958 on the language issue had adopted a resolution that English be included in the English Schedule. Opposing the move, Professor H. N. Mukherjee, a Communist leader, said :

"Perhaps no statistician can compute the loss to India on account of the waste of grey matter in our brains in our efforts to learn an obstinately alien language, an effort which in its effect did not certainly seem worthwhile.

Now, Sir, let us not delude ourselves. Neither Toru Dutt, nor Manmohan Ghosh, nor Sarojini Naidu lives in English Literature as first-rate or even second-rate poets". (Lok Sabha Debates 1959a : p. 15967.)

Though the Bill was not passed, the supporters of English extracted the following
Assurance from the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the debate on it on August 7, 1959 :

"I believe also two things. As I just said, there must be no imposition. Secondly, for an indefinite period-I do not know how long-I should have English as an associate additional language which can be used not because of facilities and all that, though there is something in that, but because I do not wish the people of the non-Hindi areas to feel that certain doors of advance are closed to them, because they are forced to correspond-the Government. I mean-in Hindi language. They correspond in English. So I would have it as n alternate language as long as people require it and the decision for that I would leave not to the Hindi knowing people, but to the non-Hindi knowing people". (Lok Sabha Debates 1959 : p. 1298-99).

This was a major victory for English. Prakash Vir Shastri, Member of the Parliament, described this assurance as unconstitutional and a blunder of the same magnitude which the Prime Minister had earlier committed by promising a referendum in Kashmir. (Lok Sabha Debates 1963 : p. 11731). It led to further demands by protagonists of English. In April 1963, the Official Languages Bill was presented to the Parliament by the then Home Minister, Lal Bahadur Sahstri, to fulfil Nehru's assurance. The Bill stipulated that". . . . the English language may, as from the appointed day, continue to be used in addition to Hindi . . . ." (Gazette of India 1963 : p. 1). While the Members debated the Bill, there were public demonstrations outside the Parliament House. Anti-police slogans were heard ; a Member of the Parliament was performing 'Havan' and bonifire of the Bill on the premises of the Parliament. Times of India, New Delhi, of April 14,

1963 reported : "Never before in the history of Parliament were such disorderly scenes witnessed . . . ." There was vehement opposition to the Billon various grounds including that the Bill was inopportune in view of the Emergency of1962 following the Chinese aggression and that it would injure the cause of national integration. S. M. Banerjee, a Member of the Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, described the Bill as premature as the official language position was clear upto 1965. Frank Anthony, a staunch supporter of English, wanted the discussion to be deferred till opinion of the States would help in rewording the Bill in favour of English to a greater degree. However, all amendments seeking deferment of the Bill were lost and the Bill was passed.

The next development was presentation of the Official Language (Amendment) Bill, 1967 in the Parliament. The amendment proposed the incorporation of the clause that English would continue as an additional official language till all the State Legislatures had agreed to its discontinuance. (Gazette of India 1968 : p. 3). The Bill evoked considerably stronger resentment than the 1963 Bill. Seth Govind Das, in protest against the Bill, returned his decoration of Padma Bhushan to the Government and said that if this Bill was implemented, then the country's affairs would continue to be conducted in the English language only. Many arguments in favour of Hindi and against the English language were advanced. It was held that the Bill conferred a veto to the opponents of Hindi. Prakash Vir Shastri stated that the 1963 Bill demonstrated Government' inefficiency whereas that of 1967 her malafides. (Lok Sabha Debates 1967: p. 6056-57). There was a protracted and agonizing controversy ; but finally the Bill was passed. As the voting took place on the Bill, the pro-Hindi Members staged a walk out from the House. However, along with this Bill, the Government had a Resolution recommended a number of promotional steps for the progressive use of Hindi in official work. At the time of voting on the Resolution, the pro-English lobby staged a walk out from the House. Thus, as time passed, the gulf between the two camps-supporters and opponents of English-widened.

It needs to be stated here that by now opposition to English was neither limited to verbal battles nor confined to the elite. It had percolated to the masses who participated in several demonstrations against English, some of which were violent. A large number of these demonstrations took place in December, 1967 on the eve of the introduction of the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill in the Parliament

as the Bill proposed to give a sort of perpetual lease to the English anguage in India. An analsis of the news items of The Hindu Madras (Tamil Nadu), of December 1967 reveals that among the agitators and demonstrators, students' violence during December 1967 on the anguage issue. 23 of these against English. In cannot be ruled out that to some extent these demonstrations represented a reaction of the Hindi enthusiasts against the demonstrations In South India on January 26, 1965 when trains and post offices were gutted and several persons immolated themselves publicly to express their resentment against Hindi. Similar things happened in the North to protest against English. A 25-feet high effigy of the Bill was burnt ; sign-boards in English language were removed, post offices were gutted in Varanasi .' a Member of the Parliament burnt a coy of the Bill on the floor of the House and two Ministers from Uttar Pradesh were arrested outside the Parliament House on account of their violent activities. This is only at brief and random sample of the numerous angry and violent acts that took place in those days on the language issue.


Thus opposition to English has not remained confined to any particular time or any isolated group. The movement against it has been a mass movement and ideologically based. The need to maintain the dignity of the nation, to make democracy work and to ensure administrative efficiency have been some of the main arguments of the supporters of Hindi. As pointed out in the beginning, change-over from one language to another is a time-consuming thing. This coupled with the unwillingness of a large number of elite to change their language-habi-helped theEnglish language to withstand all the stroms.*