The Glorious and Bloody History of Tamil Language Movement

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©Awrup Sanyal

The Glorious and Bloody History of Tamil Language Movement

By Shafiqur Rahman for AlaloDulal

There is a widespread misinformation in our country that we, Bengalis, are the only nation to shed blood for establishment of language rights. Anyone with familiarity with history and rise of nationalism in the last three centuries would know that language rights have been forefront in many struggles of national self-determination in Europe and Asia. In the Nineteenth century, there were many uprisings and revolutions centered on language and cultural rights in multi-ethnic empires like the Austro-Hungarian empire or the Russian empire. In the 20th century too there many language movements in the near and far east. Closer to our home, the Tamil Language movement of 20th century has a history that is every bit as glorious and as bloody as our own movement.

Tamil is a very ancient language. Linguistically Tamil and other major South Indian languages like Telegu, Malayalam belong to the Dravidian branch of world languages which is distinct and separate from the great Indo-European branch of languages to which many of the European and Asian languages like Sanskrit, Bangla, Hindi, Persian, German, English, Greek, Latin, Slavic etc belong. Earliest written artifacts of Tamil goes back to 200-300 BC and the classic work of Tamil literary text, the Sangam Literature, is generally dated 500 BC to 200 AD. Many anthropologists claim that history of Dravidian languages goes back to the ancient Harappan civilization (2500-1500 BC) but that claim is disputed by many others too. As such, as an ancient but still living language, Tamil is recognized as one of the very few classical languages of the world that are still being widely used.

The ancient pedigree of Tamil and the distinctness of Dravidian languages from the Sanskrit based counterparts had always been great source of pride for Dravidians in face of forty centuries of repeated Indo-European aggression and expansionism from the north. Thus it is not surprising that when during the later parts of Nineteenth century, as the educated Tamils began to internalize modern ethnic-nationalistic ideals imported from Europe, linguistic identity became a key cornerstone of their nationalism. Tamil nationalism got an added impetus from the eternal Dravidian-Aryan conflict when rising Indian nationalism in response to British rule in India was given a monochromatic pan-Indian hue by Hindu nationalists in late 19th century by promotion of an Aryan-Sanskrit heritage as the foundation of Indian and Hindu identity. Moreover monopoly domination of Brahmins in education and employment in the early decades of 20th century fuelled resentment among educated non-Brahmin upper castes who equated Brahminism with Sanskritism. National political leadership added fuel to the fire when leaders like Gandhi and Nehru insisted on making Hindi the common language of whole India to politically unite the diverse population. In 1918 Gandhi established a Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha to propagate Hindi in the South and in 1925, the Indian National Congress adopted Hindi as the official language of all its proceedings instead of English. Dravidian nationalists saw these instances as the new phase of the age-old Northern chauvinistic attempt to dominate the South and extinguish its distinct identity.

Anxiety of North Indian and Brahminical dominance precipitated crystallization of Tamil Nationalism in the early decades of 20th century.  In 1916 educated non-Brahmins in the Madras Presidency formed the Justice Party to look after the regional interests of Tamils and lobby the colonial government. The most seminal figure of Tamil nationalism in the first half of the 20th century is  Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, popularly known as EVR.

Widely regarded as the father of the Dravidian movement, Periyar (1879-1973) came from a non-Brahmin family and was a politician, social reformer, rationalist, litterateur, linguist and an outspoken atheist. His towering stature in modern Tamil nation can be glimpsed by the fact that the two main political parties that have been ruling Tamilnadu alternatively since 1970s, DMK and AIDMK, are both offshoots of organization founded by Periyar. He joined the Indian National Congress party in 1919 but resigned in 1925 in protest of Northern and Brahminical dominance. He founded a movement called Self-Respect League and became an advocate of South India becoming independent of the north and become Dravida Nadu or land of Dravids.  Self-respect Movement worked for education reform, social and economic equality, women’s right, rationalism and enlightenment in society and many other reforms but more than anything it tirelessly fought against the evils of caste system. In 1939, Periyar became the head of the Justice Party and renamed it Dravidar Kazhagam, party of Dravids; which became the main opposition to the national Congress Party in the south.

Periyar Meeting with Ambedkar and Jinnah
Periyar Meeting with Ambedkar and Jinnah

The first phase of the Tamil Language Movement began when Congress Party was elected in State Government at Madras Presidency in 1937 in the first Provincial Election held in British India. In accordance to the national Congress Party’s policy of establishing Hindi as the common language of India, the new state government issued an order in April 1938 making Hindi language teaching compulsory in all the secondary schools of the province. Tamil nationalists all over the province immediately erupted in protest against this perceived marginalization of regional identity and imposition of a dominant culture. Agitations and street protests took place almost daily in all the major towns of the province.  Periyar and the opposition Justice Party fully backed the Anti-Hindi protests; Tamil intellectuals, litterateurs actively joined the protests too. Several Anti-Hindi Long Marches and Conferences took place in 1938. In one such conference in September, Periyar EVR declared that Tamil Nadu should be an independent country, “Tamil Nadu for Tamils”. Most remarkable was the huge participation of women in every aspects of Anti-Hindi protests. In 1939 a conference on Tamil language was held exclusively for women.

The first elected government in British Madras province responded with this opposition to its policy and authority with no less fury than the norm set by the colonial government. More than one thousand protesters were arrested and given various jail terms. There were 73 women among the jailed, almost half of them mothers with children. Periyar and many other leaders were given rigorous imprisonment sentences.  In January 1939, to arrested protesters, Thalamuthu and Natarajan, died in prison. The government said this was due to sickness but the language movement claimed they were victim of brutality in custody. The two deaths instantly became a cause célèbre to the movement and the dead became first martyrs. Even now, there is hardly any city or town in Tamil Nadu where there is not a street named after Thalamuthu and Natarajan. These were but just the first deaths for the long Tamil Language Movement; there would be many more deaths and in far bloodier circumstances. The first phase of the Tamil Language movement was over when the beginning of Second World War in September 1939 made Congress Party resign from government all over India and the British governor suspended the compulsory Hindi order in early 1940.

The issue of a national language became central to India at the end of British rule in 1947. As the leaders gathered to develop the framework of the republic and a constitution, the question of English or Hindi as the official language of India raised a firestorm. At one side were Congress Party stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Hindu nationalist leaders who wanted Hindi to be the only national language. The opposition was mainly comprised of leaders from South India. They wanted to retain English as the official language of India. Such was the temper of debate that at one stage one north Indian Congress leader declared in the Constituent Assembly that, “People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India. People who are present in the House to fashion a constitution for India and do not know Hindustani are not worthy to be members of this assembly. They had better leave”. The speaker was supported by Nehru himself. The debate continued for nearly three years. In face of unyielding opposition from the South a interim compromise was reached. English was to remain official language for fifteen years and during this period Hindi would be promoted as national language with the gradual phasing out of English. This only created a ticking time bomb that exploded with bloody violence when the time ran out.

While Periyar EVR dominated the pre-war Tamil nationalism landscape, the key figure to emerge after independence was CN Annadurai. Annadurai was a disciple of Periyar but he had falling out with his mentor and he formed a new party DMK after getting out of DK. He too was a staunch defender of Tamil identity and heritage. An orator and mass-politician per-excellence, Annadurai was the main political opponent of the Congress Party in Madras in the ‘50s and ‘60s. During these two decades there were many attempts by Congress government in center and in Madras to re-impose Hindi as compulsory subject and official language. Leaders like Annadurai resisted all such attempts vigorously. In 1963 Annadurai said in a speech, “”Making a language (Hindi) that is the mother tongue of a region of India the official language for all the people of India is tyranny. We believe that it will give benefits and superiority to one region. If Hindi were to become the official language of India, Hindi-speaking people will govern us. We will be treated like third rate citizens”. He also mocked the majoritarianism of the pro-Hindi block as, “ It is claimed that Hindi should be the common language because it is spoken by the majority. Why should we then claim the tiger as our national animal instead of the rat which is so much more numerous? Or the peacock as our national bird when the crow is ubiquitous?

Annadurai and Periyar
Annadurai and Periyar

With Hindi set to become official language from January 26, 1965, the Republic Day when Indian Constitution came into being in 1950, anti-Hindi protests burst forth in January in Tamil Nadu. Unlike the pre-war counterpart, the anti-Hindi protests in 1965 were led mostly by general people and students but the level of violence was far more deadly. On January 25 there was state wide strike in all educational institutes. Annadurai declared 26 January 1965 as a day of mourning. Students and general people brought out large processions in all the large cities over the next couple of days. The processions were generally peaceful but in several places police and ruling-party men attacked the protesting students. A student named Rajendran died when police fired on students in Annamalai University at Chidamparam on January 27. This death was the spark that ignited the movement.

From January 27 the students called indefinite strike and every day protest marches before Indian government offices took place. The government used police to try to clamp down on the agitation but such were passion and extent of the protests that they could do little. The central government rushed Army and Central Reserve Police to brutally suppress the protests. Between January 25 and February 15, at least 63 protesters were killed and thousands injured. Moreover many people protested against the Hindi imposition by pouring gasoline over their body and burning themselves to death. This was the biggest self-immolation in the 60’s, surpassing even the famous Vietnam self immolations. The situation in Tamil Nadu got so out of hand and gained such worldwide attention that even the UN took note of the government crackdown and scheduled a discussion.

The central government relented in face of such escalating protest and deaths, on 11th February Prime Minister Shastri announced that English will not be discarded as official language. In Elections of 1967 the Congress Party suffered reversal all over India and the new Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced that English will remain an official language indefinitely. In Tamil Nadu too DMK won State Assembly elections in 1967, Annadurai became Chief Minister and the long dominance of Congress was over in Tamil Nadu seemingly for good.

To this date Tamils all over the world remain fiercely proud of their language and the anti-Hindi struggle. Those who have visited Tamil Nadu know that how Tamils would rather converse with broken English rather than Hindi with all outsiders. Tamils also credit the language movement for the eventual emergence of India as the world’s largest English speaking country and preservation of the federal character of the Indian government. They say that the language movement was crucial in stopping Indian from being a centrally dominated country and flourishing of regional politics and regional identity. The preservation of English has also given rich dividend to Indians in international business and society. From IT, service, trade, business, education to politics, the English speaking edge has provided India a decisive edge over other developing countries. But there is a flip side to this development too. India has a huge English speaking elite that competes with the best in the world arena but India is home to forty percent of world’s 800 million illiterate people too. India has world beating businesses and plutocrats but its human development indicators that put sub-Saharan Africa to shame. Development of English as the official and the language of elite must have played in widening such contrasts.

International Mother Language Day should make us aware that 21st February is not just a celebration of Bengali Nationalism but a day of celebrating language rights and ethnic heritage of every cultural community, however small or large. A dominating group cannot impose its cultural practices on minorities on any excuse, national unity or ethnic cohesion.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent article, something like which I too was thinking of writing recently, but could not find the time to work on. I was, however, not necessarily thinking about writing on the history of Tamil language movement (something that I did not know much about until reading your piece), but a more general one on the widespread nature of linguistic nationalism vis-à-vis the sense of exceptionalism that permeates the thoughts of Bengali middle classes in our country when it comes to Ekushey. As a student of anthropology, and having taught courses like ‘Bangladesh: History, Society and Culture’, and ‘Language, Culture, and Society’, I have been long aware of various misconceptions that prevail even among the academic community in Bangladesh on matters like language, identity and history. However, there was a more specific reason why I was thinking about writing a piece that mentioned above.

    A couple of months ago, in a roundtable discussion on ‘education in mother tongue’ organized by a leading daily, I made a remark, in passing, that amounted to the same statement that this article begins with: “There is a widespread misinformation in our country that … Bengalis are the only nation to shed blood for establishment of language rights.” Then, a few days later, I got a phone call from someone who was responsible for writing up a report on the proceedings. He asked me whether I could give some examples of how people in other nations have died for their language! I was so surprised by the query over phone that I did not know how to respond to it except to say something rather general, somewhat like a paraphrased version of the first paragraph of this article. But I felt that the caller was not convinced.

    When the proceedings of the roundtable came out in print, I noticed that my deliberations were misrepresented in many ways. I sent a rejoinder, which was published eventually, pointing out some of the omissions and distortions that I thought needed to be corrected. But I did not go into the fact that my statement about ‘Bengalis not being the only nation to shed blood for their language’ had been left out. This was tangential to my main points anyway, and I concluded that repeating what I had said at the roundtable without elaboration or historical substantiation would lead to unnecessary misunderstanding and diversion from the main issue. But I did feel that there was a need to write on the subject for general audience. Given this background, I am very happy to come a across this timely and well-articulated article. I commend the author for writing it, and hope that articles like this one will appear in Bangla as well for wider reach.

    • Thank You Prashanta for the appreciation. I will try to do a Bengali article when I have time. You too should write something about mother language movements from anthropological perspectives.

  2. Great job Shafiq ! We are indeed grateful for your well researched article as the 75 year old struggle of Tamils against the hegemony of Hindi reached a foreign country crossing our borders. Awrup Sanyal brought to my notice on your excellent write up.Being a historical researcher on Tamil Nadu I awe stuck with which the tempo of the article came out of your pen. You touched the core of the problem which still continues to be same. They cling to the powers that be even to this day and create problems to our beloved Tamil language and still we fight for our language. Otherwise our most ancient culture, ethnicity, language would be destroyed and melt into thin air and we end up as slaves. Hats off to you as your detailed article gives impetus to our unswerving struggle to protect our language i.e., TAMIL which is still going on unending.

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