Language politics reimagined | Explained News,The Indian Express


The resolution piloted by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin in the state Assembly earlier this week against “the imposition of Hindi” is in step with the DMK government’s current strategy of emphasising the region’s distinct cultural identity as a counterpoint to the unitarian tendencies of the central government and the BJP.

Speaking in the House, Stalin said: “DMK was born to nurture Tamil and to protect it from the onslaught of other languages. The party has been functioning as a Tamil protection movement since its inception.”

The DMK’s aggressive stance has been triggered by reports that the Parliamentary Panel on Official Languages has recommended that Hindi be considered as the medium of instruction in central institutions of higher education in Hindi-speaking states, and regional languages in other states.

Stalin’s stance has found an echo in neighbouring Kerala, where Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, referring to media reports, wrote to the Prime Minister that “no language may be preferred as a medium of instruction over other languages, lest it should be seen as an imposition”. He also warned that the proposal “does not augur well for our cooperative federal set up”.

Pushback in the South

The Centre has argued that the House panel’s proposals only seek to privilege regional languages over English, and is not limited to promoting Hindi. But that claim has few takers in southern India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Here, a large section of the population believes that claims made for Hindi are merely an extension of the central government’s antipathy towards a federal vision of the Indian nation state, which allows space for diverse traditions of faith, culture, language, etc. to co-exist and flourish.

This perception may even be spreading: A number of non-BJP politicians argue that the BJP wants to dominate the polity by advancing a Hindu-Hindi-Hindutva political agenda. They have become vocal that public policy under the Narendra Modi government is shaped by majoritarian instincts and geared towards suppressing minority voices, including religious and linguistic minorities.

Tamil subnationalism

This stance seems to have found greater resonance in Tamil Nadu, of course, for historical reasons. Language politics has a long and layered history here, dating back to the 19th century when the linguistic canon was organised in Tamil and a political self developed around the Tamil language.

The Self-Respect Movement in the 20th century nurtured the linguistic identity to marginalise other powerful social markers, including caste and religion, and imagined a secular, egalitarian polity. Under Periyar and the Dravida Kazhagam, it extended to include the idea of an independent Dravida nation comprising the provinces that housed the languages of the Dravidian linguistic family — among them Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, and Tulu.

Soon after Independence, Dravidian nationalism morphed into Tamil subnationalism, which made peace with Indian nationalism when the DMK, the flag-bearer of the movement, joined electoral politics.

The DMK could successfully justify this transformation to its cadres also because the Indian Constitution visualised the new nation-state as a federal entity, a Union of States. The Dravidian parties, in power in Tamil Nadu since 1967, have always resisted dilution of this federal pact in favour of an all-powerful Centre.

A federal political project

The Stalin government has moved beyond piecemeal articulations of Tamil subnationalism to institutionalise its features around a Dravidian model of governance — Kalaiyarasan A and Vijayabaskar M have theorised it in their work, The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu.

It started when the DMK, in office, changed the name of the state from Madras to Tamil Nadu. Tamil Thai Vazhthu — an invocation to Goddess Tamil from the 19th century play, Manonmaniam — was made the morning prayer in schools, which inculcated a sense of linguistic identity in the youth.

Welfare schemes such as mid-day meals in schools and subsidised rations, pensions, reservation in education and employment, etc. have been framed within the discourse of social justice, citizen’s rights, and federalism, as against dismissing them as freebies.

Tamil Nadu has opposed the NEET exam on the ground that it is an encroachment on the state’s rights. Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan criticises the central government’s economic policies on principles of financial federalism. The decision to use “ondriya arasu” (Union government) instead of “mathiya arasu” (central government) in official communiques marks a political stand, not merely a change of terminology.

The state government has now started a project to translate the best of Tamil literature into various Indian languages and English. The Dravidian Model, clearly, is a federal political project posed as an alternative to the BJP’s Hindutva nationalism.

Radical force of language

But can it trigger a resonance in other states? Can the “federal stance” become a political glue for non-BJP parties to unite against the BJP?

Linguistic subnationalism is a sleeping fault line in large parts of India. The National Movement recognised it very early: Gandhi saw the radical potential of linguistic subnationalism and the Indian National Congress reorganised its provincial committees on a linguistic basis in the 1920s. The Constituent Assembly debated the language question, and voted against favouring any single language as a national language.

The first language martyrs came from the Madras presidency when, ironically, the 1937 Congress ministry tried to impose Hindi. In 1952, Potti Sriramulu fasted to death demanding a separate province for Telugu speakers. Days after his death, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced the formation of Andhra Pradesh.

In Western India, the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti and Mahagujarat Parishad mobilised people around linguistic identities. Kerala and Karnataka had its own movements that demanded unification of regions that spoke Malayalam and Kannada respectively.

People who died for language were treated on a par with freedom fighters. Gyanesh Kudaisya in his India in the 1950s: A Republic in the Making writes: “Fears raged over the likely break-up of India by fissiparous regional and linguistic forces. The States Reorganisation Commission’s transparent and deft handling of the demands for linguistic states led to deepening of the federal idea and the consolidation of vernacular democracy.”

A future model of politics

It may, however, be a mistake to assume that provincial nationalisms found closure after the reorganisation of states. The Shiv Sena’s nativism can be traced to the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. In the 1980s, N T Rama Rao founded the Telugu Desam Party on Telugu self-respect. Linguistic nationalism was an undercurrent in the Assam movement in the late 1970s, which spawned militant nationalism. The AGP, which came to power in 1985, and the Ulfa were both products of the Assam movement. In Punjab too, the initial state identity was drawn from language, which later leaned towards religion, and found an outlet in a faith-based nationalist project.

The tension between the regions and the Centre has been an influential undercurrent in the evolution of the Indian nation-state. At times when centralising tendencies take over, disturbing the pact between the Centre and the regions mediated by a constitutional vision that allows multiple identities to co-exist, provinces respond by emphasising local identities. The spurt in subnationalisms in the 1970s and after was a pushback to the overcentralisation of authority in Delhi. In the 1980s, the federal pushback to a hegemonic Congress, which targeted opposition parties and governments, resulted in the formation of the National Front, with NTR as president.

It is possible that many regional parties, currently on the defensive or on the verge of extinction, may find a second wind by re-embracing nativist politics, primarily championing a linguistic identity to challenge the pan-Indian hegemon that the BJP has become.

The Trinamool Congress under Mamata Banerjee had projected a regional tilt during the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021, the CPM in Kerala, the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress under Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, possibly Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) in Maharashtra have all showed signs of nurturing or subscribing to linguistic subnationalism in their political battles with the BJP. The DMK’s political stance has a message for these parties.


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