Non-Hindi language areas of Maharashtra, Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala took part in the 28-year-long movement
The recognition of 21 February as International Mother Language Day by the United Nations is a matter of great pride for the Bengali people. After the birth of Pakistan, in early 1948, Bengalis found that the money order form which was used for sending money through the post office included only Urdu language and excluded Bangla. The language movement started soon after that and the recognition and freedom of our language was achieved after through a long journey.
The people of the world know about our language movement. However, language movements started in a large part of British-ruled India and ended in 1965 in independent India.
After Nehru's death, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister of India and negotiated with the states agitating for language. This movement continued for 28 years. And it was a movement to establish the English language and resist Hindi language. The non-Hindi language areas of Maharashtra, Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala took part in this movement.
The main leaders of the Congress – Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Azad – were all Hindi speakers, and the language of most of the leaders of the Muslim League was Urdu.
In the Madras elections of 1920, the Congress was defeated by the local Justice Party. At that time, the anti-British Non-cooperation movement and the Quit India Movement under Gandhi began to intensify.
In 1935, the British Parliament amended the Government of India Act of 1919 and enacted a new law called the Government of India Act. The system of local government was created to let the Indians rule in the provinces of British India through a two-chamber parliamentary system. The two chambers are the Indian Legislative Assembly and Indian Legislative Council.
The law prescribed different types of reserved seats from the concept of representative democracy. The law fixed the seats of representatives in both chambers on the basis of population in each province. The reserved seats were created in both chambers.
For example, the general seats were where people of any religion could vote. The number of seats reserved for Muslims was the highest. The Congress allowed Muslim candidates of the party in the seats where only Muslims could be candidates including in Bengal. The number of reserved seats for Muslims and other religions was about half of the total seats in these provinces.
Also, there were other types of reserved seats for the lower caste Hindus, scheduled castes, and tribes; members of these groups of people could be candidates for those seats. In addition, Anglo-European reserved seats also had seats for Europeans and businessmen.
Prior to the creation of the reserved seats in 1935, the British wanted to devise their divisive politics in 1932 by creating a separate electoral system for the Dalit class. Gandhi went on a hunger strike in 1932 against this idea. The argument was that this would lead to more conflicts between the upper caste and the lower caste.
It was the ninth hunger strike of Gandhi which lasted for six days. Later, he sat for seven more hunger strikes. However, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution Dr Ambedkar was in favour of this idea. Ambedkar himself was a Dalit. His father was a truck driver in the Indian British Army. Ambedkar later accepted Gandhi's argument.
In the election of 1937 under the Government of India Act 1935, the Muslim League conceded a huge defeat in 11 provinces. The party failed to win a majority in any of the 11 provinces. Out of 1,586 seats, the Congress won 707 seats and the Muslim League 106 seats. Out of more than 600 seats of the general seats, the Congress got 600 seats. The Congress failed to gain a majority in Bengal, Punjab and the North West Front.
This defeat of the Muslim League in the election proved that the Indian Muslims still did not accept the leadership of a separate Muslim League. However, very few Indians had the right to vote in that election.
At that time, there were many conditions to become a voter as the age-based voter system had still to be introduced. The main voters were upper-class people who paid taxes. The number of Muslim voters was less than that of Hindus. After losing the election by a landslide, Jinnah proposed, on behalf of the Muslim League, that the Congress should not make any Muslim a minister, because the Muslim League was the only representative of the Muslims. The Congress rejected that proposal and achieved great success as an all-India party.
In Bengal, Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Huq left the Congress and the Muslim League in 1933. During his tenure as the mayor of Kolkata, he formed the new party the Krishak Proja Party. His party won 36 seats in the 1937 election against the Muslim League and the Congress. He became the prime minister of Bengal with the support of the Congress. The two main demands of his party were popular among the common people of Bengal – the end of the zamindari system and formation of a Debt Arbitration Board to rescue farmers from the debts of moneylenders.
In Madras, the Congress won 159 of the 215 seats. The Muslim League got six and the Justice Party got 18 seats. The Justice Party was in power in Madras for 17 years from 1920-1937. Then, Congress leader C Rajagopalachari became the prime minister and the former prime minister Ramakrishna Ranga Rao of the Justice Party became the opposition leader. Ranga Rao was a big zamindar of the famous Bobbili dynasty, his title was Raja.
This election in Madras gave the Congress the opportunity to rule the vast majority of the population in the South. However, it was that government which paved the way for the permanent removal of the Congress from the Tamil-speaking region of India.
The reason for this removal of Congress from the Tamil-speaking region was language. In the Deccan or the Dakshinatya, a large part of the various languages like five to six very old and rich languages – including Tamil, Malayalam and Urdu – were introduced as mother tongues and mediums of education of different communities. At the same time, due to British rule, the English language held a unique place in the far south of India.
Due to the short-sightedness of Hindi speaking Congress leaders – including Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Azad – the government of Rajagopalachari of Madras in 1937 tried to enact a language law in the parliament. About 70% of the people in the region spoke Tamil, which has a history of thousands of years. It is one of the oldest Indian languages. The original Tamil language dates back to 500 BC.
The population of the south jumped into the language movement against this decision of the Madras government. From 1937 to November 1939, about two thousand men and women were imprisoned. Local Congress workers also attacked the protesters.
The Muslims favoured Hindi which is a part of the Urdu language. During this long period, daily anti-Hindi street protests were held in the streets. The Congress leaders in Delhi did not understand the demands of the people of the region.
Finally, when the governor-general of British India declared World War II in November 1939, the Congress refused to take part in the war and withdrew its ministers from eight provinces as the war was declared without the consent of the Indians. Jinnah of the Muslim League supported the British declaration of war while Rajagopalachari resigned from the Madras government. The British governor declared the rule of the governor under the 1935 Act. At the same time the Hindi language law was repealed. As a result, the language movement was suspended at this stage.
This language movement in the South came back after the independence of India. On 26 January, 1950, the Indian Constitution added a clause that Hindi would be the main language in all states for the next 15 years, until the Republic Day of India on 26 January, 1965. The Congress leaders did not comprehend the anger of the people of the South as they were all from North India.
Since the adoption of the constitution, a dissatisfaction over the 17th chapter of the constitution started to spread everywhere except in the Hindi dominated areas. Tamil students continued to express their dissent over the language question on the Republic Day of India every year. When Nehru visited Madras in 1958 and made derogatory remarks about the issue, calling it "stupid," another bloody protest broke out. Nehru probably did not learn a lesson from the history of the Bengali language movement in East Pakistan. On that day, around 300 people were wounded by gunshots. The movement was stopped brutally by force.
In later years, Nehru, realising the sentiments of the people of South India, amended the provisions of the Constitution on language in 1963, adding: any province may continue to use the English language after January 1965. However, Tamil students continued to protest being skeptical of the language of that change.
After Nehru's sudden death, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister of India. On 25 January, the day before the chapter on language of the constitution came into force, the students in Tamil Nadu gathered for a mass protest and Congress workers and police attacked them. Two school students set themselves on fire.
That terrible riot affected all the other provinces of India. The spirit of the movement spread to non-Hindi-speaking provinces, including Assam and Bengal, and the Lal Bahadur Shastri government at the centre understood the importance of the crisis. The death toll in Tamil Nadu reached 300 and two Union ministers in the Shastri government resigned over the incident.
To cope with the situation, prime minister Shastri was forced to recognise the English language in a radio address. With the victory of the Tamil-speaking people's movement to recognise the English language, the Congress left Tamil Nadu forever. The DMK government came to power in the 1967 election and, after that, the Congress never came to power in the South.
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