Towards knowing Gandhiji – Part 4: Views on Linguistic Pluralism in India

The Q in GandhijiThere were several reasons why MK Gandhi was successful in becoming a pivot around which the common Indian opinion spun itself to become desi khadi.  Many believe that Gandhi’s success was in parts due to his stubbornness (be it the ethically contentious idea of ahimsa, or the crazy idea of celibacy or the brilliant idea of non-cooperation), and also his instinct for radical journalism played a role. One of the questions that has troubled me immensely over the last decade concerns the future of linguistic pluralism in India. Karnataka is inhabited by Kannada peoples (Kannadigas, Tuluvas, Kodavas, Konkanis and others who have learnt to speak/read/write one of these languages while they inhabit Karnataka). The tyranny of Hindi imposition (inhibition of other languagues) by the Indian central government on Karnataka makes my blood boil. My restraint is a form of cowardice and I have no hesitation in admitting that.

In 1922 Gandhi says

Non-violence, which only an individual can use is not of much use in terms of the society…our non-violence need not be of the strong, but it has to be of the truthful…Some of us seem unfortunately, to have merely postponed the date of revenge”. 

I wish my restraint had more inner strength as well as truthfulness, but I am not that lucky. I don’t know when I will end up doing something “foolish”.  I started wondering about the Mahatma’s position on languages in India. Here, I discuss my readings of Gandhi’s view on language pluralism in the pre-independent Indian subcontinent. I try to see if his views have any resonance with the present-day language federalism debate in India.

Gandhi used to run a multilingual journal while he was in South Africa and continued to do that after he came back to India. He apparently constituted state-congress committees on linguistic lines. These just show that Gandhi probably understood the importance of effective communication in the vernaculars of India. However, my initial readings of his selected works did not convince me that Gandhi had a pluralistic language philosophy.


In 1909, Gandhi says

If man will only realise that it is unmanly to obey laws that are unjust, no man’s tyranny will enslave him.  This is the key to Self Rule. It is a superstition and ungodly thing to believe that an act of a majority binds a minority”.

And he goes on to say

it is we the English knowing Indians [less than 0.1% of ~2 million Indians in 1920s, now nearly 1 million out of 1.2 billion] that have enslaved India…we may learn and use English as the case may be.  Those who have studied English will have to teach morality to their children in their mother tongue, and to teach them another Indian language, but when they have grown up, they may [opt] to learn English. We have to improve all our languages…English books which are valuable should be translated into various Indian languages”

All of these sound just great, don’t they?  If we take Gandhi’s arguments in the context of Hindi majoritarian politics played by the Central government today, Kannadigas must feel no obligation to follow unjust constitutional provisions exploited by the Central government.  Hindi must not be allowed to be the official language of the Indian union.  They must repeal all privileges extended to Hindi (at the cost of other Indian languages) or they must extend all privileges to all Indian languages. The former is more practical than the latter. If and only if we (Kannadigas) disobey the central government (on these matters) that we will fulfil our ambitions of living in economically, linguistically, and psychologically autonomous Karnataka. We don’t and must not oppose the Indian constitutional values. We must however not accept constitutional provisions that undermine our regional and ethnic identity (I cannot say the same with conviction when it comes to religious and caste identities). Before we feel enthused by Gandhi’s universal philosophy of disobedience (when faced with unjust laws), I was disappointed to read this from Gandhi who argues the following (again in 1909)

Every cultured Indian will know in addition to his own provincial language [two more languages] …A Hindu [will know] Sanskrit, a Muslim [will know] Persian, and all [will know] Hindi.  Northerners should learn Tamil. A universal language for India should be Hindi, with an option to write it in both Persian and Nagari characters…in order that Hindus and Muslims may have closer relations”.

In 1925 Gandhi says the following

if English were our common language…then the democracy will be [that] of a mere handful. Common language of the vast mass can never be English. It is a matter of course a resultant of Hindi and Urdu or Hindustani as I would call it….our English speech [has made us] foreigners in our own land. I have profound admiration for the English language…but I have no matter of doubt in my mind that the English language and people occupy a place in our life which retards our progress”

Let me suggest to all of you to replace the word ‘English’ with the word ‘Hindi’ in Gandhi’s quote given above and replace ‘Hindi’ with ‘Regional languages’. That will be a neat summary of my attitude towards Hindi today.  Gandhi mentions Tamilu as an example perhaps because he was familiar with Tamil through his South African experience.  But, I hate it when North Indians (including MK Gandhi) see all South Indians as Tamilians. Are all North, West and East Indians Hindi speakers?  I am sure non-South Indians will be offended by such a remark.  People living in Karnataka are Kannada peoples (please see the introductory paragraph for a definition of Kannada peoples). North Indians must know that Kannada is among the most ancient living languages in the world (not just South India) and Kannada’s prolific literary tradition is second to none in the world (let alone South India).

Back to Gandhi’s ideas on Hindi, and frankly some of them are outrageous in the modern Indian context.  Gandhi was thinking about religious harmony but he could not foresee the venomous propaganda of a Hindi-centric central administrator. Let us grant and understand that Gandhi was trying to unify divergent religious forces to fight the British. However, his notion that Hindi must be known by all Indians is at the heart of Hindi hegemony in India. Hindi is retarding our progress. By raising our voice for linguistic autonomy in everything in our lives, we Kannada people are not advocating a Kannada majoritarian oppression of others in Karnataka. We are asking (requesting) people residing in Karnataka state to learn Kannada or any other language of Karnataka. By doing so, non-Kannada people will not only win their bread while in Karnataka, they will also win our hearts and minds.  


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