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Language Debate in the Constituent Assembly

The question of the national language was one of the most contentious and vehemently argued by Constituent Assembly members. Members of this debate envisaged India as a nation, identified regional and linguistic identities, and strove to develop unity of purpose to set the groundwork for modern India in this discussion. The talks highlighted a schism between North and South India, as well as took communal overtones.

By the 1930s, Congress had agreed that Hindustani should be the official language of India. Mahatma Gandhi believed that everyone should talk in a language that the common individual could comprehend. Hindustani — a hybrid of Hindi and Urdu – was a widely spoken language in India, and it was a composite language enriched by the interaction of many cultures. It had assimilated words and concepts from a wide range of sources over the years and was thus understood by people from all over the world. This multi-cultural language, Mahatma Gandhi believed, would be the ideal medium of communication across varied populations, uniting Hindus and Muslims, as well as individuals from the north and south.

However, since the end of the nineteenth century, Hindustani as a language has been progressively changing. As communal tensions grew, Hindi and Urdu began to drift apart. On the one side, there was a push to Sanskritize Hindi, ridding it of all Persian and Arabic vocabulary. On the other hand, Urdu was becoming more Persianized. As a result, language became intertwined with religious identity politics. Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, believed in the composite character of Hindustani.

Push for Hindi:

Language has always held an important place because people associate their own unique identity with it. People's fears and anxiety about being trampled under the weight of Hindi came to light as a result of the push for Hindi. They wished to preserve their individuality and preserve the language of their preference. Those who advocated for Hindi being the national language knew no bounds and the speeches delivered carried no compassion and inclusiveness. They identified India with Hindi and Hindu, this further added to the complexity of the whole issue, layering it with communal tones.

R V DHULEKAR recalled that from Ramdas to Tulsidas and from Swami Dayanand to the Mahatma, all wrote in Hindi, and argued forcefully: “You may belong to another nation but I belong to Indian nation, the Hindi Nation, the Hindu Nation, the Hindustani Nation. I do not know why you say it is not the National Language. I shudder at the very idea that our universities and our schools and our colleges and our scientists, that all of them should, even after the attainment of Swaraj, have to continue to work in the English language… What will the ghost of Lord Macaulay say? He will certainly laugh at us and say, ‘Old Johnnie Walker is still going strong’.”


Shrimati G. Durgabai from Madras explained her worries-Durgabai informed the House that the opposition in the south against Hindi was very strong: “The opponents feel perhaps justly that this propaganda for Hindi cuts at the very root of the provincial languages ...” Nonetheless, she and many others had heeded Mahatma Gandhi's request and carried on Hindi promotion in the south, despite opposition, by opening schools and conducting classes in Hindi. "What is the end result?" Durgabai inquired. "I am astounded to see this uprising against the zeal with which we embraced Hindi in the early years of the century."

She had accepted Hindustani as the people's language, but now it was being modified, with words from Urdu and other regional languages being removed. Any step that degraded Hindustani's inclusive and composite character, she argued, was certain to cause anxiety and terror among diverse language groups.

Way Out

There had been an impasse in the Constituent Assembly about whether or not Hindi should be the national language. The Language Committee had published a report and come up with a compromise solution. Officially, Hindi in the Devanagari script had been settled upon, but the process of transitioning to Hindi would be slow and gradual. During the first fifteen years, English would continue to be used for all government functions. One of the regional languages could be chosen by each province to be used for official purposes inside the province. The Language Committee of the Constituent Assembly aimed to calm ruffled sentiments by referring to Hindi as the official language rather than the national language.

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU recalled Gandhi’s views on this matter. One, “that while English is a great language (that) …has done us a lot of good, …no nation can become great on the basis of a foreign language”. Two, the chosen language should be “more or less a language of the people, not a language of a learned coterie”. And three, “this language should represent the composite culture of India”. Therefore, Nehru said, Gandhi used the word ‘Hindustani’ “in that broad sense representing that composite language”.Nehru, however, cautioned against forcing Hindi on all of India’s peoples. “Is your approach going to be a democratic approach or… authoritarian?” he asked “the enthusiasts for Hindi”, in some of whose speeches, he said, he had detected “a tone of authoritarianism, very much a tone of the Hindi-speaking area being the centre of things in India, the centre of gravity, and others being just the fringes of India”.


The debates in the Constituent Assembly help us comprehend the numerous contradictory viewpoints that had to be negotiated in establishing the Constitution, as well as the many demands that were made. They inform us about the ideals that were invoked and the ideals upon which the framers of the Constitution worked and held sacred. However, it's important to keep in mind when studying these debates that the concepts advanced were frequently reworked to fit a particular context.

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