Volume 5 : 4 April 2005

M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.

Early Gandhi


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.


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.


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).


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 the people.


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?) that,

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.


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.


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.


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 peasants.

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.


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."


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" (Sitaramayya 1935:242).

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.


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).

  1. It should be easy to learn for Government officials.
  2. It should be capable of serving as a medium of religious, economic and political intercourse throughout India.
  3. It should be the speech of the majority of the inhabitants of India.
  4. It should be easy to learn for the whole of the country.
  5. 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: 3-7).

This was in 1917, and the Indian National Congress was not yet fully Gandhi-bound.


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.


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.


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 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.


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 ).


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.


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany College of Missions
Bloomington, MN 55438