When the Kolar member insisted on speaking in Kannada

When the member from Kolar insisted on speaking in Kannada

Articles of Faith

Alok Prasanna Kumar. Credit: DH Photo

T Chennaiah, a freedom fighter, later a Karnataka government minister and Rajya Sabha member, was a member of the Constituent Assembly. Born to a poor Dalit family in Kolar, his rise was meteoric by the standards of the day, though his contributions to the state are not well known these days outside of Kolar. Among them was how he weighed in on the language debate in the Constituent Assembly.

During a discussion on the legislative powers of Parliament on August 25, 1947, Chennaiah, somewhat out of the blue, delivered his intervention in the debate in Kannada. This startled the other members since the official languages of the Constituent Assembly were English and Hindi. However, members were allowed, with the permission of the President (in this case, Rajendra Prasad) to speak in a language of their choosing.

Some members insisted that Chennaiah switch to English (which he knew sufficiently well as we see from his other speeches in the Assembly). He refused to do so. Rajendra Prasad said he would not stop Chennaiah, only pointing out that if he continued to speak in Kannada, he wouldn’t be understood, and the point of his intervention would be lost. Chennaiah, nonetheless, chose to continue in Kannada.

We don’t know what Chennaiah said since the Constituent Assembly Debates do not record his speech in Kannada or a translation of it. To the best of my knowledge, no audio recording of his speech exists, so we are left to guess the content of his speech. However, in speaking in Kannada, Chennaiah probably wanted to make a point that went beyond his immediate intervention on Centre-State relations.

Chennaiah was, in fact, not the first to speak in a native language other than Hindi in the Constituent Assembly. Two other Dalit members of the Assembly had done so -- Govinda Dass (from the then Madras Province) had spoken in Telugu and P Kakkan in Tamil prior to this. Chennaiah was the third speaker who had reverted to a Dravidian language at the risk of not being understood by the rest of the Assembly. The politics and symbolism of this are hard to miss, especially given the acrimonious debate that took place two years later over the bid to anoint Hindi the ‘national language’.

When the first draft of the Constitution was presented, there was some consternation that it only provided for Hindi and English as ‘official’ languages. This left members from North Indian states and provinces dissatisfied -- they had expected Hindi to be declared the national language and argued for the same. Stiff resistance to this was put up by members belonging to the South Indian states, pointing out that Hindi was acceptable only to a certain part of the country and could not be declared a ‘national language’ only on the basis of numerical strength alone. They argued, persuasively, that any ‘national language’ could only evolve over a period of time with usage, it could not be imposed top-down by the government. The debate over language took place over several days in September 1949 and are worth reading.

The compromise that was eventually worked out was that Hindi and English would continue to be official languages of the Union government, and the need for English would be re-examined after 15 years. Deferring the question of continuing with English was a quiet acceptance of the idea that a ‘national language’ could not be imposed, unless it found sufficiently wide acceptance from the people. Needless to say, Parliament has not found any reason after that to do away with the use of English as an official language.

Hindi is one of the 22 languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and continues to be designated as the ‘official’ language of the Union government alongside English. Even today, some speakers of Hindi insist that it’s the ‘national language,’ though the Constitutional position is otherwise!

Even after the redrawing of states on linguistic lines, the political battles over language have not ended. The Union government’s efforts to “promote” Hindi have gone hand-in-hand with a tendency to use only Hindi, excluding other regional languages. We only need to look at the examples of India’s neighbours to learn what happens when majoritarian linguistic nationalism goes too far. Just as wiser counsel prevailed in the Constituent Assembly on this question, perhaps it is time for the Union government also to recognise the futility and dangers of attempting to impose one language on the nation.

(Alok Prasanna Kumar is the co-founder, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, uses his legal training to make the case that Harry Potter is science fiction and Star Wars is fantasy.  Alok.P.Kumar)

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