Why Does India Keep Dealing With 'Language Wars'?

Experts say promotion of the Hindi language intensified under Prime Minister Modi's government.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
hindi imposition india
Experts have been observing linguistic hegemony in South Asian nations. In India, experts say that the promotion of Hindi has been an old agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Photo by Prakash Singh / AFP 

On Sunday, September 6, a photograph of Yuvan Shankar Raja, a music composer, with actor Shirish Saravanan, both from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, went viral on Twitter. Saravanan wore a T-shirt that read, “Hindi theriyathu, poda!” which translates to “I don’t know Hindi, go man!” Raja meanwhile, wore one that read, “I am a Tamizh Pesum Indian,” Tamil for “I am a Tamil speaking Indian.”


The tweet inspired many people to post photos and messages with #HindiTheriyadhuPoda in Tamil font, which trended over the weekend.

The T-shirt slogans are the social media manifestation of one of the oldest debates and movements, predominantly in south India, which call out the imposition of Hindi language on non-Hindi speaking states. Some called it “language imperialism.”

Hindi is also an official language of the government of India, but all 29 states can choose their official languages.

The anti-Hindi movement signals a resistance against the growing cultural and political preference for Hindi language in a country that has nearly 20,000 languages or dialects of mother tongues. The preference for Hindi is also associated with India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who often speaks in the language during diplomatic visits.

Hindi is an Indo-Aryan language that has roots in Persian and Sanskrit. It is mostly spoken in north India. The population in south India—in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala—have languages of Dravidian origin.

The 2011 language census found that Hindi was the mother tongue of 43.63 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population.

Most south Indian and northeastern states that are not Hindi speaking have adopted English as their secondary language.

The resistance against the imposition of Hindi dates back to pre-Independent India. At one point, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or Mahatma Gandhi—the lawyer and activist who is considered Father of the Nation—told people from south India that if they did not learn Hindi, they would “remain totally separate from the rest of India.”


Last month, the controversy erupted yet again when an airport official asked Kanimozhi, a political leader from Tamil Nadu, if the latter was Indian enough because she did not speak Hindi. “I would like to know from when being Indian is equal to knowing Hindi,” she tweeted after the incident.

Since then, many politicians, celebrities and public figures from south India, mostly Tamil Nadu, joined the debate. They recalled past experiences and humiliations because of not communicating in Hindi. Last week, Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaan spoke out about how he was reprimanded by an immigration official for not knowing the “mother language of the country.”

HD Kumaraswamy, former chief minister of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, tweeted about how “Hindi politics” stunted political ambitions of those belonging to south India. He also alleged that the government of India was subtly pushing policies to popularise Hindi in India and abroad, but not doing the same for regional languages.

In 2010, Ganesh N Devy, a cultural activist, started a project called The People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which has been surveying Indian languages. “If someone from south India says they don’t speak in Hindi, it doesn’t mean they’re linguistically intolerant,” cultural activist Ganesh Devy told VICE News. “It means that they’ve faced linguistic intolerance.”

Devy added that imposition of Hindi has led to ethnic slurs against people from south India, such as “Madrasi”—a word that ignores the diversity of southern Indian states.


In the past, anti-Hindi protests took violent and large-scale turns. In 1937, protests triggered when the congress party government tried to make Hindi compulsory. Another agitation took place in 1965 when students led processions and there was a spate of self-immolations. In 1987, anti-Hindi protests led to violence, demonstrations and arrests of over 20,000 people. Politicians were suspended from the state legislature for burning the Indian Constitution that confers official status on Hindi.

Experts noted that the promotion of Hindi language intensified under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ajay Gudavarthy, associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies in New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the promotion of Hindi has been an old agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In 2017, milestones on national highways in Tamil Nadu were changed from English to Hindi. Before that, new banknotes issued after the government’s demonetisation drive used devanagari numerals, which triggered criticism over cultural imposition. This year, the new National Education Policy’s proposal for a three-language policy, which suggests mandatory teaching and learning of Hindi, was opposed by Tamil Nadu and the east Indian state of West Bengal.

“What remains to be seen is how this new wave is being received in comparison to earlier movements. Will it foment similar kinds of resistance?” said Gudavarthy. “I don’t think the current wave of protests holds the same emotive value as that of previous agitations. That context does not exist anymore.”

Linguistic hegemony is also a major issue in the South Asian nation of Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese nationalists have tried to impose their language on minority Tamils. It was one of the reasons that sparked the civil war in the country in 1983. Over the last year, the Rajapaksa brothers, who hold the Presidential and Prime Ministerial offices, are being seen as favoring the majoritarian Sinhalese language.

In India, experts say that the current language war will create a ripple effect that will play out in the near future. “There may not be large-scale anxiety to this experiment right now, but this will stoke similar prejudices and superiority of Hindi language that we saw in previous decades,” said Gudavarthy. “It will happen gradually, and will impact not economical but cultural aspects of our lives.”

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