M.K. Gandhi stepped into the Indian political scene in the initial decades of
the last century and soon became the unquestioned leader of the Indian
NationalCongress. He already had strong views on the question of National
Language for India when he was not yet well recognized. These views were
propagated by him for the linguistic unification of India. In the words of Granville
Austin, “Gandhi placed the language issue at the heart of the independence
movement” (Austin 2010: 47). In the course of his campaign for the unified national
language, he chaired the annul sessions of Hindi Sahitya Sammelan at Indore twice
in 1918 and 1935 and delivered its presidential speeches. He also formed Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in 1918 (in 1946 ‘Hindi’ was replaced with
‘Hindustani’), Rashtrabhasa Prachar Samiti in 1936, Hindustani Prachar Sabha in
1942. He regularly monitored the programmes of Hindustani (Gandhi’s use of the
terms Hindi, Hindi-Hindustani and Hindustani was rather ambiguous. For convenience,
Hindustani is used to represent Gandhi’s advocated language in this paper.) propagation in
the non-Hindi regions. In addition to this, he delivered many speeches and wrote
many articles in an attempt to build a consensus in favour of Hindustani as the
national language. Baldev Raj Nayar notes this fact of Gandhi’s effort writes that
“Even though other leaders from non-Hindi regions had advocated the cause of
Hindi as the national or link language, it was Gandhi who took active steps for its
propagation in the non-Hindi areas” (Nayar 1968). Not only Hindi but due to
Gandhi’s efforts, the issue of National Language came into mainstream debate. In
words of Jyotirindra Das Gupta, “the most important advocate of a common Indian
language designed to unify the national movement was Mahatma Gandhi.” (Das
Gupta 1970: 108)
Gandhi was favouring Hindustani as the unified national language of India.
His concept of Hindustani faced challenges from the advocates of the camps of
English, Hindi (Sanskritised Hindi), Urdu (Persianised Urdu) and other Indian
languages, but Gandhi rejected these claims. For him, English was simply a language
of administrators, so he emphasised upon the need for the administrators to learn
local languages, not people to learn English: “Crores of men should learn a foreign
tongue for the convenience of a few hundreds of officials is the height of absurdity.
… Nobody disputes the necessity of a common medium. But it cannot be English.
The officials have to recognize the vernaculars” (Gandhi 1956: 17).
Hindi and Urdu are one and the same, according to Gandhi. Both the
languages represent only Hindu and Muslim communities respectively. His stress
was on the fusion of both Hindi and Urdu. In his words, “Hindustani, i.e., a correct
mixture of Hindi and Urdu, is the national language” (ibid 149). For him, fusion of
Hindi and Urdu reflects fusion of Hindu and Muslims. As for other Indian languages,
he argued that these are provincial languages which could be used in their respective provinces, but for inter-provinces purposes Hindi/Hindustani should be used as the
national language. In his second Indore speech Gandhi said, “I have always held that
in no case whatsoever do we want to injure, much less suppress or destroy, the
provincial languages. We want only that all should learn Hindi as common medium
for inter-provincial intercourse” (ibid 38).
What is Hindustani?
Though the Hindustani was supported by prominent figures like Gandhi, it
didn’t have a monolithic definition and thus was used in variously various references
(Rai 2001: 11-16; Rahman 2011: 31-41). Before the spread of the Hindi-Urdu
controversy, lingua-franca of northern-central India was known as Hindustani. After
the dispute of Hindi and Urdu gained momentum, Hindustani was also used for
Hindi and Urdu separately and commonly. Gandhi himself has used this phrase in
various contexts. However, Gandhi’s popular definition of Hindustani is as follows: Hindustani is the language which is spoken and understood and used by
Hindus and Muslims both in cities and villages in North India and which
is written and read both in the Nagari and Persian scripts and whose
literary forms are today known as Hindi and Urdu. (Gandhi 1956: 113)
A point in this regard worth mentioning is that Gandhi was not consistent
about the nomenclature of the said language. Initially he was using the term Hindi,
then Hindi-Hindustani and later calling it Hindustani. He also exhibited
contradictions and uncertainty in using the nomenclature. However, towards the end
of his life, these contradictions and uncertainty were reduced considerably,
especially after 1945 when he left Sammelan. In 1936, he said “Hindi, Hindustani
and Urdu are different names for the same speech” (ibid 63) and in 1938 he said that
“for the purpose of crystallizing Hindustani, Hindi and Urdu may be regarded as
feeders” (ibid 88). Further in 1946 he clearly stated that, “neither Urdu nor Hindi is
to be termed Hindustani. Though not in vogue today, Hindustani is a wise mixture of
the two” (ibid 154-55). In another piece, he elaborated on the correlation between
this trio: “Hindustani is spoken by both Hindus and Muslims. But it has now
assumed two forms: Sanskritised Hindi and Persianised Urdu” (ibid 145).
Observing these fluctuations in Gandhi’s discourse pertaining to Hindustani,
Granville Austin writes, “Gandhi, as we shall see, used the words Hindi and
Hindustani at all different times for varied reasons, but he was always speaking of
the same tongue, that is broad Hindustani written in both – Urdu and Devnagari –
scripts” (Austin 2010: 48). Though, Gandhi himself shifted from ‘Hindi’ to
‘Hindustani’, he mentioned that the issue of nomenclature wasn’t of a prominent
importance for him, important was the nature of the said language. However,
contradiction and uncertainty are not restricted merely to the nomenclature and usage
of the languages but has also proliferated into other aspects of Gandhi’s thought on
the question of language. He was ambiguous and in the words of David Lelyveld,
“typically vague about what language other than English he might have preferred to
use …” ( Lelyveld 1993: 191). Peter Brock also noted ambiguity and said “some ambiguity
undoubtedly existed in the mind of Mahatma” (Brock 1983: 204).
Colloquial and Sanskrit
This is a general notion that Gandhi was in favour of the colloquial form of
language. In his first Indore speech in 1918 he said, “I have often said that Hindi is
that language which is spoken in the North by both Hindus and Muslims and which
is written either in the Nagari or the Persian script. This Hindi is neither too
Sanskritized nor too Persianized. The sweetness which I find in the village Hindi is
found neither in the speech of Muslims of Lucknow nor in that of the Hindu pandits
of Prayag. The language which is easily understood by the masses is the best. All can
easily follow the village Hindi” (Gandhi 1956: 9-10). As far as vocabulary was
concerned, in his second Indore speech in 1935, Gandhi suggested, “all words which
have become current coin in the language of the people should be freely accepted in
our national language” (ibid 40). But, contrary to this, in a piece on languages of
southern India he took a position in favour of Sanskrit vocabulary in the following
words: “So far as South Indian languages are concerned it is only Hindi with large number of Sanskrit words that can appeal to them, for they are already familiar with
a certain number of Sanskrit words and the Sanskrit sound” (ibid 54).
This is notable that despite an impact of Sanskrit on Tamil and other
Dravidian languages, strong resistance to the domination of the Sanskritisation
process was noticed among those who had not been traditionally learning or allowed
to learn Sanskrit. This led to de-Sanskritisation and created anti-Sanskrit sentiments.
Observing this David Lelyveld rightly commented that, “ignoring anti-Sanskrit
sentiment in Tamil Nadu, Gandhi argued that the common Sanskrit vocabulary
would serve to bridge the languages of India together” (Lelyveld 2002:181).
However, in another instance of favouring Sanskrit, Gandhi mentioned in the
context of Gitanjali by Rabidra Nath Tagore that, if Gitanjali was transliterated in
Nagari script, people of the all regions would be able to comprehend it because
“there is in it a vast number of words derived from Sanskrit and easily understood by
the people of the other provinces” (Gandhi 1956: 43). Even if we avoid Gandhi’s
non-recognition of the “forms of diglossia” which in the words of Paul R. Brass
“have arisen in all major language regions of India, but Tamil is generally used as
the classic example in South Asia” (Brass 2010: 210), Gandhi’s statement is in sharp
contradiction to his vision of colloquialism.
Language and Religious Communities
Gandhi did have concerns about the unified language and harmonious relation
between Hindu and Muslim communities and he perceived Hindustani as a better
solution. In the words of William L. Richter, “He sought to unite Hindus and Muslims into
one nation through use of composite Hindu-Urdu vocabulary and both scripts” (Richter
1971: 29). He was quite confident about this solution, as he wrote in 1948, “I may be alone today in my belief, but it is obvious that ultimately it is neither Sanskritised
Hindi nor Persianised Urdu which will win. It is only Hindustani which will win
ultimately” (Gandhi 1956: 186).
The notion that Hindi is a language of Hindus and Urdu of Muslims is a false
perception and also, a root cause of Hindi-Urdu controversy. But, Gandhi got the
wrong impression and approved the separation of Hindi-Urdu as the languages of
Hindus and Muslims respectively. While defining Hindustani he used terms Hindus
and Muslims, etc., of the northern India. He had also extensively used phrases such
as Urdu of Muslim brothers, Language of Muslims, Language spoken by Hindus.
This notion of Gandhi was extensively expressed in his writings and speeches. In
another instance, when Hindustani was declared as the language of Congress,
adherents of Hindustani should have observed this as a victory over religious
symbolism of Hindi and Urdu, but Gandhi took this debate in the opposite direction.
He commented on the decision, “Independently of the Congress, Hindi and Urdu will
continue to flourish. Hindi will be mostly confined to Hindus and Urdu to Muslims”
Gandhi had also carried the notion of religious association of the scripts. For
him, this was more contested than the languages themselves. In fact, the Urdu-Hindi
controversy itself initially started as script controversy between Persian and Nagari.
He recognised Nagari as a script of the Hindus and Persian-Arabic as that of the
Muslims and said in his first Indore speech, “There is no doubt difficulty in regard to
scripts. As things are, Muslims will patronize the Arabic script while Hindus will
mostly use the Nagari script” (ibid 10). Even if we avoid the mistake of placing
Arabic script instead of Persian in this discourse, Gandhi’s notion of scripts’
association to the religious communities does appear sharp. Gandhi placed Arabic in
consideration as the representative of Muslims, as popular Islamic religious texts
were written in the Arabic. However, this is a fact that Persian language and script,
instead of Arabic, were used in Mughal courts and as a counterpart in this
controversy itself is a rejection of religious association of languages and scripts
(Gupta 2011: 27).
Gandhi’s contradictions were also reflected in this regard. He himself
recognised that many Hindus such as Tej Bahadur Sapru were great scholar of Urdu
and he was also unhappy with the decision granting official status to the Hindi and
Nagari in United Province (Gandhi 1956: 171). And in 1948 he also accepted that
Nagari isn’t associated with all the Hindus, “we cannot forget that many Hindus and
Sikhs are ignorant of the Nagari script” (ibid 182). But with the exception of a few
instance of contradictions he exhibited a strong sense of association of Hindi-Urdu
with Hindus and Muslims respectively. Even Gandhi’s stress upon Urdu was because
of, as in the word of David Lelyveld, he considered that “it was a matter of religious
importance to Muslims and it should be respected and nurtured for that reason” (Lelyveld
However, Gandhi’s proposal of two scripts – Nagari and Persian – was just a
temporary arrangement and “In the end, the script which is the easier of the two will
prevail” (Gandhi 1956: 10). While presenting this pre-requisite, he wasn’t impartial.
He was in favour of Nagari for national integration and many a times very explicitly
expressed his favour for Nagari. He wrote in 1927, “It is my firm conviction that
there should be one script for all the Indian languages, and that script can only be
Devanagari …” (ibid 25). Further in 1948, in his one of the last pieces on language he
said, “It is no secret that among the various scripts I consider Nagari to be by far the
best” (ibid 184).
This is also notable that Gandhi’s argument in favour of Nagari reflects its socalled
association with the Hindu community. In the course of projecting Nagari as a
unifying script, Gandhi wrote,
Before the acceptance of Devnagari script becomes a universal fact in
India, Hindu India has got to be converted to the idea of one script
for all the languages derived from Sanskrit and the Dravidian stock.
… If all these scripts could be replaced by Devnagari for all the
practical and national purposes, it would mean a tremendous step
forward. It will help to solidify Hindu India and bring the different
provinces in closer touch (ibid 25-26).
Gandhi’s thoughts related to script also reflect contradictions. William L.
Richter observed the contradictions in the following words: “There was also an apparent contradiction in Gandhi’s simultaneous advocacy of a common Devanagari script for the
regional languages and two scripts for Hindustani” (Richter 1971: 31).
Heterogeneity and Unification
In the process of unification, Gandhi was keen in making the unified national
language. Gandhi’s attempt “harnessed linguistic self-determination to the
independence movement” (Friedrich,1962) and “only reflected the linguistic
hegemony of the north” (Ahmad, 2006). Gandhi’s definition of Hindustani could be
analyzed in this way: National language is that which is spoken in the northern India
by Hindus and Muslims only. Needless to say, this concept was very narrow, which
excludes the people of the rest of the country.
While defining the national language Gandhi described five requirements for
national language, as follows- “1. It should be easy to learn for government officials,2. It should be capable of serving as medium of religious, economic, and political
intercourse of throughout India, 3. It should be speech of the majority of the
inhabitants of India, 4. It should be easy to learn for the whole country, 5. In
choosing this language, considerations of temporary passing interests should not
count” (Gandhi 1956: 3). Afterwards, he declared that, “We shall have to admit that
it is Hindi” that has these characteristics (ibid 4) but he did not elaborate here how
Hindi or Hindustani possessed these attributes.
Though, Gandhi did acknowledge the differences between Hindi and other
languages and the varying levels of learning difficulties, especially to those who
speak Dravidian languages (ibid 6), yet he imposed the responsibility and burden on
Dravidians only. For instance, he asked the Kannada speakers in a public address,
“Have you not energy enough to devote to a study of Hindi four hours each day for
just one month? Do you think that is too much to devote this time to cultivate contact
with 200 millions of your own countrymen?” (ibid 49)
Gandhi argued that Hindustani is spoken by a majority of the people in this
country. So, for the unified link language Gandhi asked the Dravidian inhabitants to
learn Hindustani. (One could include the speakers of Tibeto-Burman and AustroAsiatic
languages also here.) Gandhi believed that speakers of Dravidian languages
are lesser in numbers than Hindi, making it more logical for them to learn Hindi:
The Dravidians being in a minority, national economy suggests that
they should learn the common language of the rest of the India than
that the rest should learn Tamil, Telugu, Kanarese and Malayalam in
order to be able to converse with Dravidian India. (ibid 18) In this context, it is notable that India has vast linguistic heterogeneity,
languages of four language families, Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European,
Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic – were and are spoken here. Further,
each and every family has its own internal diversities and among them many
languages have classic linguistic and literary heritage. Even Hindi-region itself has
linguistic diversity in the form of languages such as Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Brijbhasha, Maithili, and Santhali. But here, this heterogeneity and diversity were ignored and all
non-Dravidian languages were defined under Hindi or Hindustani.
Gandhi and Hindi Sahitya Sammelan
As stated above, Gandhi was also associated with the Sammelan for a long
period and he was also under the influence of the linguistic notion of Sammelan. This
association continued till 1945. In 1942 he wrote about this: “I am proud of my
connection with that body” (ibid 102) i.e., Sammelan. On the issue of opposing
Sammelan he said, “I have been associated with the Sammelan since 1918 how can I
deliberately oppose it? Moreover, there should be strong reasons if I were to oppose
it. There is nothing of the kind” (ibid 111).
Gandhi drifted away from Sammelan later when he formed somewhat
favourable opinion of Hindustani and started to stress upon both Hindi and Urdu as
component of the Hindustani. This development caused a conflict between Gandhi’s
position and the language policy of the Sammelan. Sammelan criticised Gandhi and
his evolving thoughts on language and pushed forward its own notion of language.
Gandhi also criticised Sammelan. In 1945, while expressing his displeasure over Sammelan’s position Gandhi stated that, “If the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan people
insist that they will work only for the Sanskrit-ridden Hindi, the Sammelan ceases to
exist for me” (ibid 123). In the same year, Gandhi resigned from the Sammelan.
It could be concluded that contradiction and ambiguity appeared in almost all
the aspects of Gandhi’s thoughts on national language – whether it be the issue of
name, form, script or any other dimensions of the language debate. Influence of the
Sammelan on his linguistic thought was also reflected in his notion. Gandhi
considered Urdu and Hindi as a language of Muslims and Hindus respectively.
Gandhi’s proposal of Hindi or Hindustani as a unified language was also on the track
of Sammelan, as it advocated linguistic hegemony of Northern-India over the rest of
However, it is also noticeable that towards the last days of his life, Gandhi
was arriving at a somewhat rational position, but this could not reach its logical
culmination because of his marginalisation at the social and political fronts. He had
tremendous influence on common people of the country but not on the power elites.
Also, creation of an impartial Hindustani at least would have been able to prevent
division of Hindi-Urdu and the grudge between Hindu-Muslim communities, which
was intended by Gandhi.
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