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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai
EARLY GANDHI AND THE LANGUAGE POLICY
OF THE INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS
M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
LINGUISTIC RE-ORGANIZATION OF THE PROVINCIAL CONGRESS COMMITTEES
The decision of the All India Congress Committee of the Indian National Congress
on 8th April 1917 to constitute a separate Congress Province (Andhra Provincial
Congress Committee) from out of the Telugu speaking districts of the Madras
Presidency strengthened the argument for the linguistic re-organization
of British India provinces. Already a consensus was evolving in British
India among several Indian leaders that, for the effective administration,
the language of governance and education should be the dominant language
of the people, and that provinces, for this purpose, should be re-organized
on linguistic lines. But Gandhi thought otherwise, when the proposal to
re-organize the provincial committees on linguistic lines came up before
the AICC in 1917. Sitaramayya writes (Sitaramayya 1935),
Even Gandhi thought that the question might wait the implementing
of Reforms [initiated by the British] but Lokamanya Tilak saw the point,
namely, that Linguistic Provinces were an essential condition prerequisite
to real Provincial autonomy.
That is, the process that started with the formation of a separate Linguistic
Circle of the Indian National Congress for the Telugu-speaking territory
became a basic principle for the recognition of the linguistic identity
of various populations to carve out the administrative units in India.
Note that, although Dr. Annie Besant was on record asking for a linguistic
delimitation of Provinces in her Presidential Address in Calcutta Congress
in 1917, she was reported to have resisted the move for a separate Linguistic
Circle of the Indian National Congress for the Telugu speaking territory.
Also note that even Gandhi was reportedly against any immediate decision
on the matter.
These should not be considered as isolated events nor should these be considered as a slur on the individuals who appeared to contradict their own positions (as in the case of Dr. Annie Besant). These should, indeed, be taken as symptomatic of the complexity of the problem, and symptomatic of the consequent conflicting tendencies and reluctance on the part of opinion leaders.
Language was yet to receive a more serious and detailed scrutiny in relation
to the demands for Self-Government. The role of the Indian vernacular
for mass-based agitations and for mass communication was very well recognized
even in the earliest part of the history of the Indian National Congress,
but the demand for its role in administration and education began to be
debated with great strength only in the 1920s within the Indian National
Congress with the emergence of Gandhi as its supreme leader.
EARLY GANDHI: A CHAMPION OF OVERSEAS INDIANS
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived finally in India in 1915 from South Africa
to settle down in India, a decision that proved to be a great blessing
to our motherland. But Gandhi was no stranger to India and to the emerging
political scenario in India when he arrived in 1915. His fight for the
rights of the Blacks and Asians in South Africa had already been well-noticed,
well-recognized, and well-admired by the leadership, and the rank and
file of the Indian National Congress. In the Calcutta Congress of 1901
(the seventeenth Congress since the inception of this National Organization
in 1885), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi moved a resolution as a petitioner
on behalf of the British Indian population in South Africa.
The Indian National Congress from its inception had been interested in the well-being of Indians abroad. This natural interest on the part of the Indian National Congress brought to light, session after session, the inhuman treatment meted out to the Blacks and indentured labor in the British Colonies and encouraged the Indian leaders to devote themselves to their cause.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's soul-stirring efforts in South Africa and his conduct of Passive Resistance struggle led Gokhale to declare in 1909 that passive resistance
is essentially defensive in its nature and it fights with moral and spiritual weapons. A passive resister resists tyranny by undergoing sufferings in his person. He pits soul force against brute force; he pits the divine in man against the brute in man; he pits suffering against oppression; he pits conscience against might; he pits faith against injustice; right against wrong (Sitaramayya 1935:79).
The 1910 Allahabad Congress expressed its appreciation of the struggle
waged by the Indians in South Africa. The 1911 Congress congratulated
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the Transvaal Indian community. The 1913
Karachi Congress passed a resolution admiring the heroic endeavors of
Mr. Gandhi and his followers and their unparallelled sacrifices in their
struggle for the maintenance of the self-respect of India and the redress
of Indian grievances. Thus, neither Gandhi nor his program of non-violent
action, which was individual-based in character but involved groups of
men and women dedicated to the cause of Indians in South Africa, was no
stranger to Indian National Congress.
GANDHI NOT YET AN IMPORTANT FIGURE
Perhaps none thought that what was accomplished in South Africa would be applicable to Indian affairs on Indian soil; and perhaps no one could predict that Gandhi would ultimately become the soul, heart and spirit of the freedom struggle, guiding the destiny of the nation within a few years. In fact, Gandhi could not get elected to the Subjects Committee of the AICC in 1916 Lucknow Congress, when he was treated as a candidate of the Moderates pitted against the candidates of the Nationalist group led by Tilak. It was Tilak who, recognizing the great contributions Gandhi had made towards Indian cause in South Africa, declared him elected to the Subjects Committee (Sitaramayya 1935).
POLITICAL EDUCATION VIA INDIAN VERNACULAR - OLD GLORY VERSUS EFFECTIVE TOOL FOR POLITICAL EDUCATION
A beginner certainly Gandhi was at that time, but nevertheless a master of agitations, who only knew very well the pulse of the Indian ethos and who only, had the right weapons of Passive Resistance, Non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience and so on, to fight against the all powerful British Empire. Gandhi not only emphasized the importance of Indian vernaculars in the education of the masses, but used them directly as appropriate tools to fight for the independence of India.
Whereas for Lokamanya Tilak, the Indian languages formed an effective
tool for the revival of the old glory, radicalization of the freedom struggle,
and mass-based agitations, and also as a pre-requisite for the success
of Self-Government demanded by the Indian National Congress, for Gandhi,
to begin with, Indian vernaculars were an effective tool to enlighten
AN ARDENT SUPPORTER OF HINDI/HINDUSTANI
Since his return from South Africa, Gandhi quietly made a study of the
prevailing conditions of the poorer classes, even as he participated in
the activities of the Indian National Congress. Mahatma Gandhi himself
remarks in his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth,
that "up to this time my share in the annual proceedings of the Congress
was confined only to the constructive advocacy of Hindi by making my speech
in the national language and to presenting in that speech the case of
the Indians overseas" (Gandhi 1927).
A posture in favor of Hindi or Hindustani as the lingua franca
or national language of India thus was there with Mohandas Karamchand
Gandhi even before he became the undisputed leader of the Indian National
Congress. For example, he wrote in his book, Hind Swaraj
or Indian Home Rule, published in 1909 (or 1906?)
a universal language for India should be Hindi, with the option of writing it in Persian or Nagari characters. In order that the Hindus and the Mohammedans may have closer relations, it is necessary to know both the characters. And, if we can do this, we can drive the English language out of the field in a short time.
ENGLISH HAS NO PLACE IN HOME RULE
For Gandhi, in 1907 itself (1) the real home rule is self-rule or self
control, (2) the way to it is passive resistance: that is soul force or
love force, (3) in order to exert this force, "Swadeshi" in every sense
is necessary, (4) ….. we will certainly not use their (English) machine
made goods, nor use the English language, nor many of their industries
(Quoted in Kaushik 1964 : 43). He wrote in 1909 while at London in his
capacity as a member of the second South African Delegation (Gandhi 1956
: 1881-91) that
from the point of view of language before we can call 'our country'
our own, it is necessary that there should be born in our hearts a love
and respect for our languages .…. One sometimes also hears suggestions
that something should be done so that all Indians are able to express
themselves to each other in a common language. This is a possibility
for the future. Everybody will agree that this language should be Indian
in origin. But this step is for the future. We should begin to be proud
of being born Indians and similarly we should also be proud of having
been born Gujaratis [Gandhi was writing in Gujarati to a Gujarati audience].
Without such consciousness we shall be neither here nor there … It is
necessary for the people of one province to learn the languages of other
provinces as well … If we spend only half the effort we do in learning
English in the learning of Indian languages, there will be born a new
atmosphere in the country and a good measure of progress will be achieved.….
The character of a people is evident in its language….. Those who have
to serve their country and do public work will have to find time for
their mother tongue.
Sometimes we lose sight of the great emphasis Gandhi laid on the use
of the mother tongue and see him only as a champion of Hindi.
HINDI-URDU FOR INDIA
While the posture in favor of mother tongue is quite understandable as
a natural process, Gandhi's posture in favour of Hindi-Urdu even before
he got himself actively involved in the Indian freedom struggle in India
was due perhaps to his work among the multi-ethnic and multilingual Indian
communities in South Africa, who tended to use Hindustani among themselves
as a common language even though their home languages were widely different.
This lingua franca status of Hindustani among
the Indians in South Africa was a reflection also of the tendencies in
several parts of India then, and soon this posture in favor Hindustani
found its justification in the exigencies of history in north India and
its linguistic trends.
INDIAN VERNACULAR IN AID OF MASS MOVEMENTS
Gandhi's Champaran Movement in Bihar in 1917 was a mass movement, which
was followed by yet another mass movement, the Satyagraha in Kaira in
Gujarat in 1918, along with the textile workers' strike in Ahmedabad the
same year. An important characteristic of all these early movements inaugurated
by Gandhi was the education of the participants of these movements.
Gandhi appealed to the public for help for contributing volunteer workers
for educating the peasants of Kaira. Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel,
and other co-workers went from village to village inculcating the principles
of Satyagraha. This campaign was true political education for the Kaira
In 1916, Gandhi suggested the idea that the Congress-League Scheme proposals
for Self-Government be translated into Indian vernaculars, explained to
the people, and their signatures taken in support of the Reforms proposed
in the Scheme. This idea received warm support from all. Dr. Annie Besant
referred to it as Mr. Gandhi's capital idea of a monster petition" in
her Calcutta Congress (1917) Presidential Address. She pointed out that,
Mr. Gandhi's capital idea of a monster petition for the Congress-League
Scheme, for which signatures were only to be taken after careful explanation
of its scope and meaning, has proved to be an admirable method of political
propaganda. The soil in the Madras Presidency had been well prepared by
a wide distribution of popular literature, and the Propaganda Committee
had scattered over the land in the vernaculars a simple explanation of
Home Rule. The result of active work in the villages during the last year
showed itself in the gathering in less than a month of nearly a million
signatures. They have been taken in duplicate, so that we have a record
of a huge number of people, interested in Home Rule, and the hosts will
increase in ever-widening circles, preparing for the coming Freedom.
Thus, there is evidence that with Gandhi's involvement in the programs
of the Indian National Congress, wider participation of people in movements
was to be ensured only on the basis of the enlightenment of the people
as to the causes and need for such movements, and for which political
education through the Indian vernaculars was to be a prerequisite, or
was to be an effective tool.
THE FIRST NATION-WIDE MASS EDUCATION
That this position of Mahatma Gandhi was a deliberately worked out strategy
and was a basic element in all his struggles is clear when we consider
the fact that in Champaran in 1917, and in Kaira and Ahmedabad in 1918,
he used political education via the vernacular as an important step.
We are not able to locate readily the evidence for the use of written materials in the vernacular for ensuring the participation of the people in the Champaran Movement. However, the fact that elaborate case histories were collected, recorded and analyzed through interviews with the affected families of indigo cultivators was an indication of the effective employment of the vernacular for research/enquiry purpose. In fact some consider (for example, Payne 1969) that the battle was won by compiling voluminous reports and by demonstrating to the government that these reports described an intolerable condition of indigo labor.
Note also that Sitaramayya (1935 : 245) calls this a capital idea of translating
the Congress-League Scheme proposals into Indian vernaculars and collecting
signatures based on the translated material as "almost the first Nation-wide
organization that had been attempted by the Congress."
LEAFLETS IN HOMELY STYLE
Political education through vernacular was emphasized thus, but more
importantly in the Ahmedabad Textile Strike in 1918. During the same strike,
yet another dimension to Indian language use was added by Gandhi when
he drafted leaflets explaining to workmen "in a simple homely style that
the struggle in which they were engaged was not a mere industrial dispute
but a moral and spiritual struggle calculated to educate and uplift and
ennoble them, besides enabling them to win an increase in their wage"
The dimension added now to the Indian vernacular use was that, for the
communication to be effective and persuasive, even in the vernacular,
the expression should be in a simple, homely style. From the translation
of Congress-League Scheme in 1916/1917, we now arrive at an original piece
of material written especially for political education in an Indian vernacular
in the 1918 Ahmedabad Textile strike. Not that we claim that Gandhi's
was the first ever attempt in the Indian National Congress, but the conscious
exercise of Gandhi with regard to Indian language use and nuances had
a continuity of thought and had influenced the course of the language
policy of the Congress.
Language was not any more simply an identity token; it became a powerful weapon for political education; it became, indeed, an integral part of the freedom struggle.
CAN ENGLISH BECOME OUR NATIONAL LANGUAGE?
Raising the question "whether English can become our national language,"
Gandhi listed the following criteria for any language to become "our national
language," in his presidential address at the Second Gujarat Educational
Conference at Broach in 1917 (Gandhi 1956:3).
- It should be easy to learn for Government officials.
- It should be capable of serving as a medium of religious, economic and political intercourse throughout India.
- It should be the speech of the majority of the inhabitants of India.
- It should be easy to learn for the whole of the country.
- In choosing this language considerations of temporary or passing interest should not count.
Gandhi concluded that
English does not fulfill any of these requirements …... We shall
have to admit that it is Hindi..… There, now remains the question of script.
For the present, Muslims will certainly use the Urdu script and Hindus
will mostly write in Devanagari.…. No other language can compete with
Hindi in satisfying these five requirements.…. Thus, we see that Hindi
alone can become the national language. No doubt it presents some difficulty
to the educated classes of Madras. …. If Hindi attains to its due status
then it will be introduced in every school in Madras and Madras will thus
be in a position to cultivate acquaintance with other province….. In general,
however, the ways, which have been suggested for the promotion of the
Mother tongue, may with suitable modifications be applied to the national
language. The responsibility of making Gujarati the medium of instruction
will have to be shouldered mainly by us but in the movement to popularize
the national language the whole country must play its part (Gandhi 1956:
This was in 1917, and the Indian National Congress was not yet fully Gandhi-bound.
GANDHI'S IDEAS AS THE IDEOLOGY OF THE INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS
Gandhi's ideas on a language policy for India was arrived at, thus, long
before Gandhi himself became a full time Congressman. His ideas on a language
policy for India were to be adopted by the Indian National Congress in
due course. For a compendium of the chronologically organized ideas of
Mahatma Gandhi on Indian languages and his thoughts on a national language
for India, diligent students of linguistics and adjacent sciences as well
as interested readers are referred to the excellent volume, Thoughts
on National Language by M.K. Gandhi, published by Navajivan Publishing
House, Ahmedabad (1956, and subsequent reprints).
Since our goal in the present work is not to present in detail and analyze
the thoughts on Indian languages, etc. of Mahatma Gandhi, but to present
only a chronological overview of the evolution of the language policy
of the Indian National Congress, we will restrict ourselves to citing
here and there only such points in Gandhi's thoughts and career that had
a direct influence on the evolution of the language policy of the Indian
National Congress and its conduct.
THE RESPONSE FROM THE LEADERS OF THE INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS
Gandhi's ideas on the national language, though acceptable in their overall
import, were not fully shared by all the members of the Indian National
Congress, just as Mahatma Gandhi's other ideas on the socioeconomic reconstruction
were not also fully shared by all the members of the Indian National Congress.
However, his language policy appears to have received a greater measure
of acceptance than his ideas and practices of socioeconomic reconstruction
in independent India.
Be that as it may, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Gandhi
was not yet the undisputed leader of the Indian National Congress; the
Indian National Congress had not yet seriously thought over and decided
upon a language policy for India; and it was Gandhi who, because of his
abiding faith in the masses, was forcefully arguing in favor of the use
of Indian vernaculars for purposes of political awakening, country's governance
and education. He entered the Indian National Congress, for whose membership
a good acquaintance with English was required, with an anti-English plank
of action, a pro-mother tongue stance which was inextricably linked with
the proposal for accepting and developing Hindustani as the national language.
All these ideas were yet to find a place within the scope of the activities
of the Indian National Congress.
THE STAGE WAS SET FOR GANDHI'S COMPREHENSIVE PLAN FOR A LANGUAGE
With such conscious recognition and use of the vernaculars for political
education exhibited by Gandhi, it was not unnatural that he offered the
most ever comprehensive plan or a language policy for the Congress in1924
itself (dealt with in a forthcoming article). Note that the references to the role and
function of Indian languages were few in the deliberations (and resolutions)
of the Indian National Congress until the beginning of 1915. As already
pointed out, most of these references were made in relation to the creation
of separate linguistic circles (called Pradesh Congress Committees) for
identified contiguous linguistic groups. The thinking within the Indian
National Congress was veering around to the idea of the re-distribution,
delimitation, or re-organization of the provinces on a linguistic basis.
A formal suggestion was already made in 1917 Calcutta Congress Presidential
address of Dr. Besant, as already pointed out. Between 1917 and 1924,
political education through Indian vernaculars for wider participation
and better enlightenment of the people was well established and convincingly
demonstrated by Mahatma Gandhi in the movements initiated and conducted
by him. With a growing awareness of the role of the Indian vernacular
in public agitations and in response to the growth in language consciousness
brought forth by the interest and findings in Indian linguistic and cultural
studies both by Indians and foreigners, the stage had been set for the
evolution of a formal language policy for the Indian National Congress.
THE CONGRESS IS NOW GANDHI-BOUND!
The period from 1915/1916 to 1924 witnessed the formulation of specific
programmes, goals and ideologies in the Indian National Congress. This
was also the period in which the Indian National Congress became "Gandhi-bound."
His great successes in public agitations in South Africa not withstanding,
Gandhi was a beginner in Indian politics. By a combination of circumstances,
he became the heart and soul of the Indian National Congress during this
period. From petitioning, the Indian National Congress took to specific
agitations. From a focus on service matters, the Indian National Congress
took on to specific nation-building socio-economic activities.
During the same period, in which all the departments of the Organization
became sharpened, the language policy of the Indian National Congress
was born. The amazing thing is that the language policy which evolved
in the deliberations of the annual National Congresses in this period
and found expression in the utterances of the leaders such as Gandhi continues
even today, with only minor changes here and there, which proves the sagacity
and clarity of the thought of the original of the language policy of the
Indian National Congress.
THE EMPHASIS OF THE HOME RULE MOVEMENT AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN
GANDHI AND ANNIE BESANT
We have already noted that the Home Rule League of Mrs. Annie Besant
had a bias for cultural rejuvenation even as it emphasized Self-Government
for India. There was a shift from the socio-economic matters to an emphasis
(or rather an addition of a focus) on culture and the use of native genius.
With this shift was associated the language policy of the Home Rule League.
Note also that the Home Rule movement attracted mostly the South Indians,
whose participation was perhaps responsible for the early acceptance of
the legitimacy of linguistic identities. Note also that Mrs. Besant shot
in to prominence in the wake of the agitation against the partition of
Bengal, an agitation, which should be considered the precursor to subsequent
linguistic movements in the country. We have also pointed out that Lokamanya
Tilak was in favour of the delimitation of provinces on a linguistic basis.
We also noticed that Gandhi made it a point that prior to any mass movement
there ought to be political education through the vernacular. The Congress-League
Scheme was translated into vernaculars, millions of leaflets distributed,
people were first explained the meaning and implications of the Scheme
and their signatures obtained, and, for its success, recognition of the
role and function of the vernaculars was made a pre-requisite. The role
of the vernacular in movements ensured wider participation of the people
and made the movements a really democratic process.
Gandhi's approach to and solution for the question of a national language
for India, however, did not find favor with Mrs. Annie Besant. We have
already pointed out that in her Presidential Address in the Calcutta Congress
of 1917, Mrs. Besant laid much emphasis on provincial autonomy and suggested
a bilingual policy for the provinces without specifically mentioning a
language policy for the Central Government. (See Thirumalai 2005, THE ROOTS OF LINGUISTIC REORGANIZATION OF INDIAN PROVINCES
DR. ANNIE BESANT AND HER HOME RULE MOVEMENT
USE OF HINDUSTANI IN THE ANNUAL SESSIONS OF THE CONGRESS
There had been a steady expansion in the use of the Indian vernaculars
in the deliberations of the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress
in the early years of the second decade of the twentieth century. In addition
to the use of local Indian vernaculars of the venue of the session, Hindustani
also came to be used extensively in the deliberations in the annual sessions
because the radicalization of the Congress programme and agitational politics
introduced by the Extremists (Nationalists) brought into Congress very
many delegates from different regions of the country who were not well
acquainted with the English language. Thus, in the annual sessions of
the Indian National Congress in Delhi (1918) and Amritsar (1919) Hindustani
was extensively used by the delegates almost to the exclusion of the English
language, which prompted Mrs. Annie Besant, a much admired Home Rule and
Congress leader among the delegates from the South, to complain that the
1919 session became a provincial rather than a national assembly. (Note
that the Provincial Congress sessions so far had been conducted exclusively
in the provincial languages and hence the comparison and conclusion).
Gandhi seized the opportunity to reiterate his position with regard to
the question of national language (a position which he had arrived at
even before he became a full time Congressman). Gandhi felt that "the
nation has very materially suffered by reason of the proceedings of the
Congress having been conducted almost entirely in English except during
the last two years." He said:
… it grieves me to have to differ publicly from her view about
Hindustani making the Congress provincial. In my humble opinion it is
a grave error of judgement, and duty compels me to draw attention to it.
I have attended all the Congress sessions, but one, since 1915. I have
studied them specially in order to study the utility of Hindustani compared
to English for the conduct of its proceedings. I have spoken to hundreds
of delegates and thousands of visitors … and I have come to the deliberate-conclusion,
that no language except Hindustani - a resultant of Hindi and Urdu - can
possibly become a national medium for exchange of ideas or for the conduct
of national proceedings (Gandhi in Young India,
21 January 1920; also in Gandhi 1956: 14, 15).
Whatever may be the relative merit of the positions taken by Gandhi and
Dr. Annie Besant, it should be noted that these two positions have finally
evolved to become classical stances, which even today are held by pro-Hindi
and anti-Hindi advocates in the country. For the advocates of Hindi as
the official and national language, English continues to be a foreign
language, whereas for those who oppose Hindi as the official language
of India, Hindi continues to be only a provincial language. Be that as
it may, in1920 when Gandhi recorded his disapproval of the statement of
Mrs. Annie Besant, the Indian National Congress was yet to officially
accord any recognition to Hindustani as the national language. This it
would do only in 1925 in Kanpur amidst the nation-wide surge of nationalism
and Swaraj during the period of Civil Disobedience and Non-cooperation.
Of this, we shall have more details in subsequent articles.
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