National Education Policy: Language Controversy

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Reforms in the field of education are almost always accepted with good humour. However, when a country as diverse as India is in question, some anomalies are bound to occur. Hence, the recent draft National Education Policy could not glide spot-free.

It was mired in a controversy which has now been resolved for good. This controversy around the alleged imposition of Hindi language on its non-speakers was a déjà vu for India.

What exactly was the controversy?

Education Policy Committee led by scientist K. Kasturirangan had submitted draft National Education Policy to the HRD ministry recently. It called for proper implementation of three-language formula in schools across the country.

The draft had a paragraph which referred to Hindi and English as recommendation in the three-language formula. This was severely opposed by regional political parties, especially in Tamil Nadu. They termed it as an “imposition” of Hindi on them.

Following these protests, the HRD Ministry made amendments in the draft and uploaded a revised document on its website. It dropped the recommendation that stipulated the languages that students must choose to study. Stated simply, students in south India can now opt out of studying Hindi after grade 6.

How was this controversy a déjà vu?

This was not the first instance of such a controversy. Debate over Hindi has been raging since independence. Anti-Hindi imposition agitations have happened in Tamil Nadu since pre-independence era.

First such agitation was launched in 1937 when Indian National Congress government led by C. Rajagopalachari made teaching of Hindi compulsory in Madras presidency. It involved fasts, marches and conferences. The government brutally suppressed these protests. However, mandatory Hindi education was revoked in 1940 after resignation of Congress government.

When Constitution of India was being drafted, the choice of official language was again hotly debated. Finally, under article 343, Hindi was made the official language. The article also provided for English as a secondary official language for a period of 15 years. The aim was to have only Hindi as official language after 1965.

This was strongly opposed by many non-Hindi states. The movement was spear-headed by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a regional political party of Tamil Nadu. They demanded continued use of English for official purposes. In order to pacify them, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru enacted the Official Languages Act in 1963. It provided for continued use of English beyond 1965. However, this measure did not satisfy the DMK. They feared that these assurances might not be honoured by future central governments.

 As the deadline (26th Jan. 1965) for switching over to Hindi approached, anti-Hindi movement gained momentum in Madras state. On 25th January 1965, riots spread all over Madras state and continued for the next two months. The state government led by Congress called in paramilitary forces to supress the movement. This resulted in the death of about 75 persons which further aggravated the situation.

To restore order in the state, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave assurances that English would continue to be additional official language as long as the non-Hindi speaking states wanted. The protests subsided after these assurances.

The Official Languages Act was eventually amended in 1967 by the Indira Gandhi government to guarantee the indefinite use of Hindi and English as official languages. Nevertheless, minor protests followed 1968 and 1986 as well.

What is the legal perspective of these protests?

Article 19 of the Constitution of India confers freedom of speech to the citizens of this country. It ensures that a person can show his dissent by virtue of protest as far as the protest is peaceful.

Supreme court of India has also observed that peaceful demonstration is a fundamental right enshrined under part third of our constitution. It means that people of India have every right to show their dissent through peaceful protests. Therefore, the recent anti-Hindi protests by the people of Tamil Nadu cannot be questioned legally.

As far as linguistic identity is concerned, the Constitution of India confers certain rights. Article 29 provides that any section of the citizens of India having a distinct language shall have the right to conserve the same.

For instance, the government of India introduced the new National Education Policy. It recommended Hindi as one of the languages under the three-language policy. However, government failed in its bid when people of Tamil Nadu took to streets showing their dissent and the government was compelled to repeal it. This way, the people of Tamil Nadu exercised their linguistic rights under article 29 and right to peaceful protest under article 19.

Concluding the issue.

There are two sides to this coin. One faction believes that the framers of the constitution were very much aware of the linguistic minority of our country. This statement lends credence from part three of our constitution, especially article 29.

Every citizen of our country has been conferred linguistic rights. Even a small community in any part of the country which speaks a distinct language has every right to conserve it. It extends up to staging demonstration against any act of the incumbent government trying to curtail such right. Hence, people should be left alone with their language.

The other faction of the society is of firm belief that in order to strengthen the integrity of India, the nation needs to bridge the gap between north and south India. These two opposite ends of the spectrum can be united by imposing a common language – Hindi. It happens to be the most spoken language in India.

After examining these facts, the following course of action seems most plausible. India does require a language for unification of the nation. However, Hindi cannot be imposed on the people at pan India stage.

English, on the other hand, is a more pragmatic solution which happens to bridge the gap between southern India and northern India. Also, it will connect the Indian masses with the global stage. Therefore, students throughout India should be taught English along with a local language of their choice. This solution is acceptable to all.

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