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Tamil Nadu Rediscovers Hindi

Anti-Hindi agitations helped Tamil Nadu politicians build their careers. Now the state is rediscovering a fascination for the language

Published: Feb 22, 2010 08:39:44 AM IST
Updated: Feb 20, 2010 11:07:22 AM IST
Tamil Nadu Rediscovers Hindi
In the Line of Fire Congress stalwarts Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachari and Sardar Patel in Delhi in 1950. All the Tamil angst during the anti-Hindi agitation was directed at them

Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray answers criticism against his party’s often violent agitations in Mumbai by citing the long history of anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu. He points to the state’s official policy that has led to insignificant use of Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Thackeray’s sense of history is impeccable because Tamil Nadu established the supremacy of Tamil through blood, in much greater intensity than the Sainiks do on the streets of Mumbai.

But Thackeray may have missed a finer point. Life has come full circle for Tamils. Today, Hindi is the most popular third language for the younger generation to learn across the state. “Everybody who once opposed Hindi is praising it now and sending their children to learn the language,” says C.N.V. Annamalai, general secretary of the Chennai-based Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha.

Bollywood news is devoured, migrant labourers from Bihar have begun coming in, and politicians are learning Hindi to be able to make an impact in Delhi.

Tamils began protesting against Hindi as early as 1938. The Congress Party, which had come to power in the then Madras Presidency under C. Rajagopalachari, had made Hindi compulsory in schools. Tamils saw this as a cultural invasion that could render their mother tongue a secondary language on their own territory. There was a burst of protests, forcing the government to withdraw its order. Over the next decade, the Congress would try to impose Hindi several times, each time facing a bigger groundswell of protests.

The campaign against compulsory Hindi quickly became a political issue. The protests were led by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (known as Periyar) who had ironically given out his house just 16 years earlier to start a Hindi teacher training college. But by 1938, he had become a separatist, convinced that the South Indian “Dravidians” should form their own nation and get Purna Swaraj from “Aryan” conspirators.

The agitation was mainly sustained by students. One such man was Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who at the age of 14 showed a genius for organisation. As the protests raged year after year, the political careers of Karunanidhi and his mentor C.N. Annadurai blossomed. Soon after independence, they started a party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, promoting Tamil nationalism. Their propaganda made the Congress Party look like a Brahmins’ party seeking to impose Hindi, Hindu supremacy and caste hierarchies on the secular Tamil national identity.

The flashpoint came on January 26, 1965. The day marked the completion of 15 years of the Constitution, which provided for removing the use of English and making Hindi the sole official language of the Union. Central government offices across the state had their boards blackened by tar. Protests brought life to a standstill. Scores of young people set themselves ablaze and died in the cause of Tamil. The police couldn’t control the agitation. The army came in but failed too.  

It was then the Centre made the historic decision to continue with English as an official language. Tamil Nadu, till today, follows the two-language system with Tamil and English. If we are an English-speaking nation today, thank the Tamil protesters for it.

The Congress lost power in Tamil Nadu in 1967. Annadurai and later Karunanidhi became chief ministers. The protests entrenched the Dravidian parties so deeply that Congress hasn’t been able to come back to power till today. This is a story of great inspiration for any regional politician seeking to consolidate his constituency and drive out national parties.

Meanwhile, the Hindi Prachar Sabha is quite busy. As many as 600,000 students appear for its exams in Tamil Nadu each year, a number that is growing at 20 percent. In 1965, at the height of anti-Hindi protests, the number was less than 20,000. “The anti-Hindi agitation basically did our job. It raised curiosity among the people and brought them to us,” says Annamalai.


(This story appears in the 05 March, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • A. R. Ramachandran

    One point that is largely missed or not emphasized in this discussion is that all regional languages are national heritage and hence need to be preserved. If one language is declared as 'national', one tends to move towards it and not the others. Now, who can be expected to preserve ancient Tamil works? Madhya Pradesh?? So this need to preserve the language is very important. When language becomes the basis of uniting a community, then that is a far more secular unity than any other. Though TN has caste conflicts, it is communally peaceful and one reason ascribed to it is strong affinity to Tamil language by all sections of it's populace. So let us understand that India's linguistic diversity is quite a critical component of its cultural diversity and should not be taken lightly. Hindi can never get approval in South India as the literary tradition in these languages far outshine those in Hindi.

    on Mar 30, 2016
  • Indian_nationalist

    I am from north india and I totally support the fact that Hindi shouldnt be imposed on anyone , every language should be respected in similar sense. One more thing at least 95 % of north indians think that hindi is national language of India which is not, I dont know how much ignorant they are ? I just want to ask north indian people if tamil is declared national language and u are told to communicate in tamil only than, what will be ur responce? Also i want to say to non hindi speaker please tell every ignorant hindi speaker that hindi is not our national language at least one time. Also please respect every language (even hindi) and dont show to the world that we are divided over language this is a softpoint of ISI and CIA against india. So please stay united and consider ur self as Indian first (instead of North indian or Tamilian bla bla..) and respect each culture in this country

    on Apr 15, 2015
  • Anand

    Think practically. If India capital is in Kerala and Malayalam is the official language then North Indian will find difficult/Un-necessary in learning it. South Indian will readily adopt Malayalam because its closer to their mother tonge. Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu,.. all have Hindi closer to their mother tonge. So you better understand the history of India and its diverse culture. Even USA like India does not have a national language(they only have Official language) in order not to discriminate people. So learn to respect human being and their mother tonge..

    on Oct 8, 2014
  • Marathi

    If young Tamils are taking up Hindi lessons, then I would say it is a matter of concern. This might be the start of the end of Tamil language and culture. Tamils should be proud of their language and culture rather than getting lost in the Hindi tsunami!

    on Mar 16, 2014
  • Satheesh Kumar Kandasamy

    Tamil people are NOT ignorant as you told.. If they do not know your language Hindi, don't think they are ignorant. If some Tamil people starts listening and answering politely to your conversation in English, Then you ask him/her a next question 'Kya yaar, why don't you know Hindi?'.. to be simple, for you people from north come and stay comfortably in TN, Tamil people do not want to learn or speak Hindi.( as long as they are in TN ) If I answered I would have answered same like following (which was answered by Harish Kothandaraman in Quora, thanks to him ) I am a Tamilian and I love Hindi. I, however, hate it when people try to impose that language on me. I cannot stand it when a random Hindi speaker walks up to me and begins talking in Hindi, listens to my reply in English and asks "You don't know Hindi? How can you not know the national language?" and I can only feel sad for India for its own citizens do not know we don't have a national language. I do not want to accept Hindi as a national language for the same reason as an Ambedkar or a Gandhi would not have, because it offends the sentiments of so many people. Try making Hinduism the national religion. Or Islam. For a broader answer, I have met quite a few Tamil people who have been undermined/insulted by Hindi speakers. Ironically, in every case, the Tamil speaker has been the smarter and more successful one. These Tamils tend to vehemently hate the Hindi speakers, which I think is a wrong way to deal with things. None of us have problems with Hindi. We only have problems with people who speak the language being arrogant and ignorant about the beauty of other languages, that the language matters very little and does not warrant ridicule of the people who speak it.

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Col P K Roy


    on Dec 10, 2013
  • Neha

    In this fast moving world , its not these region languages that we need. Apart from our mother tongue , we need to learn two foreign languages . This will improve our business and the country will flourish.

    on Sep 14, 2013
    • Marathi

      If the French, Germans, Chinese would have thought the same way, their language and culture would have long got destroyed. When will Indians understand that every culture and language has its own charm!? We DO NEED these so-called \'regional languages\', which are actually one of the 20-odd \'official\' languages of India

      on Mar 16, 2014
  • Kart

    this is complete bull... hindi cannot dream of any amt of popularity in this part of india... whilst we rn\'t against ppl learning hindi... any move to make it compulsory will be met with severe retribution... if u want to see the effect of hindi acceptance, pls go to bangalore, mumbai, hyderabad etc... i know ppl who r crying hoarse bout losing their mother tongue...

    on Nov 18, 2012
  • Dinesh

    I am a south Indian and a Post Graduate in Hindi Language. I feel Hindi is certainly and the only link language that brings all the states of India together and build cultural and linguistic harmony. But, it is not because of South Indians that Hindi is not flourishing. Official Language was set up in 1955 to prepare curriculam and contribute for the promotion of Hindi in all the States. But, much prior to that Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha was established in Madras, Tamil Nadu. If Tamilians were really fanatics, it would not have been ready to celebrate its centenary in a few years to come. It is wrong to project Tamilians as anti national by Hindians. It was not anti Hindi, but anti Hindi compulsory movement that took place in Tamil Nadu. Politicians of all parties belonging to all States distorted the truth and sent wrong signals to the youth of the country. Even the Ministries and Department of Official Language people do not follow the provisions mentioned in Official Languages Act and Rules made there under. Secondly, we south Indians do not have any relaxations in Jobs for Hindi posts in Central Govt. establishments. Only north people will occupy most of such posts. In this regard, Statistics should be made public and surverys should be conducted. To hide their inadequacy to learn any other language, be it South Indian Language or English, they give more thrust on Hindi and project others and anti national. North Indian states should come forward to implement trilingual formula provided in the Constitution and then talk about our patriotism and etc.

    on Feb 3, 2012
  • Dilipan Kumarappa

    please note that the untold real name is anti- compulsory hindi implementation movement

    on Jan 18, 2012
  • Siddharth

    South Indians rant too much about North Indians on Internet. Here's a list of their complaints redressed by North Indian Delhi born and brought up guy. Consider this a general purview of answers from North Indians. Common Complaints by South Indians. (1) North Indians hate us, consider us inferior: First come to Delhi, and look at how your communities are flourishing here. A section of tamilians and keralites are forming backbone of Medical Technologists/Technicians group here. No one bothers them, they are living happily. All Delhites consider them a close knit, law abiding community. Unlike your politicians, no political party here has on agenda, plans to segregate or harass them, or otherwise consider that they are 'threat' to North Indian culture. (2) North Indians hate our food: Not a single restaurant here exists that doesn't have Uttapam and Dosa/sambhar on it's menu. No one here thinks that south indian food is 'threat' to our cuisine or that it is invading us. (3) North Indians think they are superior, consider us ugly: We don't consider you ugly, infact some of the finest heroines of previous generations like Hema/Meenakshi etc were from South India. We don't consider ourselves superior infact you are working in jobs here that require brain like Medicine, Construction and Education. No one here cares to think even for a second that you're taking our jobs or are 'threat' to our existing jobs pool. (4) North Indians rule over south Indians bureaucratically: India is sovereign state, clear division of powers b/w states and center. First look at Armed forces, a decent number of officers are from south. Very less here are aware of fact that south thinks that north rules them. (5) North Indians don't learn our language but want us to learn theirs: Your politicians made you think so, no one from Kashmir complains that Hindi is being taught there. So is with Punjab and Himachal. Periyar wanted to rule so he created Aryan Dravidan theory with Brahminical Supremacy added, though there is no scientific/genetic evidence of Aryan Dravidan divide. We want to learn your language infact many of us learn it watching your movies. While watching your movies no one thinks that your movies are ruling over our national network and they are 'threat'. No one here thinks even for a second that too many south indians coming over to delhi can be 'threat'. No political party is against them. No delhite considers it offensive it they communicate in their own language yet it laughable that a paranoia down south says north indians are coming, save us, save us. save our language, food, culture, we'll be extinct. Grow up, this is 21st century, an era of cultural assimilation. No one cares if hindi speakers grow or fall short. Infact hindi is fast deriving words from other languages like Tamil, no one is bothered a bit about that. Break walls and let these unprecedented fears out of your mind. Let India Unite!

    on Jan 10, 2012
  • Shaiby Koshy

    I am A person from Kerala,and i can speak,fluent hindi,tamil,malayalam, and a decent amount of kannada and can understand telugu,these skills i acquired while working and studying in various states,and hindi is a compulsory language in schools in kerala,nobody have any hatred towards it,but recently i shifted to delhi,and here i found a mentality in people that hindi is the only language to be learnt and they think atleast in their inner mind ,that all south indians are second citizens of india,this opinion i got after mingling with so many people here both younger and older generation,both in villages and metro.in bangalore kannadigas need to learn hindi in order to speak with north indians,despiut a very large amount of north indians working there,nobody bothers to learn kannada .this mentality need to be changed.otherwise very soon ,south indian youth will develop a sense of hatred against hindi and that will be a hindrance to the growth of our nation and for the unity in diversity principle.

    on Apr 4, 2011
  • V Raj

    India doesn't have a National language defined in the constitution. There are many South Indians who speak flawless Hindi. How many North Indians speak Tamil, Telugu, Kannada or Malayalam? 'Unity in diversity' must be respected. In fact, south doesn't require Hindi at all yet we respect it and hence you could find it atleast in railway stations and other central government establishments. For all who said 'don't hate Hindi' I would say start respecting South Indian languages, culture and their 2000 years old heritage. Make an attempt to learn them. The Tamils have every right to be proud of their rich history. I don't become less patriotic by speaking Tamil. If you associate the Indian Identity with 'Hindi' I would choose not to call myself as an Indian.

    on Mar 28, 2011
  • Hitesh

    Halo friends, I am a north indian and i like south india very much and i tell u not only me but almost all north people think south is the oldest culture of india (see old temples). We love to communicate with u, but the language problem, i am in oman now and i have many tamil friends and they take me as a translator when they have to communicate with other people, reason being hindi has become so famous among locals here in UAE, OMAN. Dont hate hindi, if my sons get chance to learn tamil surely i will not stop them and i will persuade them to learn coz its our indian language.

    on Jan 16, 2011
  • Krt

    Hindi is not required for South India. It has been forced. By learning Hindi, one will be removing the need for their own language in their own State. Today, people who go to Bangalore, Hyderabad or Mumbai feel they need to know 'Hindi' there to survive. Because those States took Hindi, 'Kannada' has become an irrelevant language in Bangalore, Telugu is not required in the Capital City of AndhraPradesh and Marathi is not at all required in the Capital City of Maharashtra. Giving an upper hand to Hindi will slowly kill all non-hindi Indian Languages. A thing that is not needed, will be considered as an useless thing down the line and will be thrown onto the dustbin finally or will be just be kept in a Museum. For Indian states that has widely taken 'Hindi' as the default language of convenience, future generations (who are not going to be language sensitive) will simply throw out their own language into dustbin. This process will happen in a very gradual mode that people won't even realize that their language is being slowly killed. A State will continue to use it's own language, only, if it uses indigenous resources for development and keeps disruptive migrations** out, like that of TamilNadu. Or it has to be like that of Kerala model where neither industrial development nor any migration from other states will happen, and hence their language

    on Dec 25, 2010
    • Arun Dhaka

      Dear Friend, have you ever realised why only Tamilians have issues with learning hindi given that most of the states have their own languages. I am a Punjabi and can read write and speak, hindi, punjabi and english. This localised nationalism will not take you anywhere. You must learn Hindi if you want to communicate with 75% of India who do not know English. If not, you are more than welcome to keep living in your own shell.

      on Jun 13, 2011
      • Prabu

        I dont agree with you Mr Arun. What is the status of your language in Punjab? I think Punjabi going to die in a decade

        on Oct 29, 2011
      • Vijay Naicker

        Who told 75 % of Indian Doesnt Know English...??? If you don\'t know English then Learn That first... In this Rapid globalization world which is a global language... so that, you can communicate to the Entire world including India and Tamil Nadu.... Don\'t Keep backing up your Hindi and keep begging other forward south indian states (TN) to learn your language when we are not asking you to learn ours ....

        on Jun 14, 2012
  • Dinesh

    Writer is very right when he writes that people of Tamilnadu especially the new generation (mostly upper castes) are learning Hindi because they have realised that if they want to succeed in India knowledge of Hindi is a must. Those who have different opinion are living in fool’s paradise and one day they will also come across this truth. To love your own language is very good but to criticize one of the national symbols is not right. Every country has many languages but only one language is given the status of national/official language and in the context of India it can only be Hindi. In every state of India except Tamilnadu and Nagaland Hindi is taught to all children as a compulsory subject and I don’t see any opposition of Hindi in these states. If you live in Mumbai or ever visited you may find it is not English or Marathi but Hindi is spoken by almost every person there. I work with a PSU and work with people of almost every state, and want to reveal a fact that leave north Indians but even people of Karnataka and Andhra don't like Tamils because of their attitude and obstinacy.

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Abhishek

    It is really unfortunate that we Indians tend to fight for language, caste, religion, region, rather than for the nation as a whole. There are number of languages and Tamil, Hindi are two of them. The main reason of Hindi being official language is that it has the largest number of speakers. It is not because that one is superior to another...how can Tamil, one of the oldest language with rich heritage be compared with Hindi... it is really unfortunate that people of non-Hindi belt take pride in considering English, a foreign language, as a national language ignoring their own nation's main language, is this the nationalism...if yes then i really pity for India and her sons and daughters. And i find no difference in linguistic and religious fundamentalism.

    on Oct 17, 2010
    • Guru

      I truly agree and i heartily appreciate your views saying that unity and serenity to prevail in the nation at the same time. One language should not be given all the supremacy status while having so many different languages in India, however no language should be considered for a national language status just because of the number of speakers and imposed in the province which is totally different , however English have not been imposed on us. We use it just for the sake of business and we are well benefited for that, today this will be considered good to go for the numbers but in future this will be become stand of supremacy as the same biggest fiasco took place in the past, by categorizing people based on the profession they pursued later on they have been discriminated and condemned. I meaning casteism and moreover we gain nothing just by knowing that language, i mean hindi. Of course that will be learnt when we go to any hindi speaking state but why in my state my mother is great for me and i do respect other mother because i love my own mother, but imposition is totally wrong. If that has not been imposed then why is that called compulsory in schools . Hindi speaking community is dominating over us in many ways and they press our reconciliations stating be Indians , just by not kowing Hindi i will not be less Indian , because Hindians are not the only Indians.

      on Dec 18, 2010
      • Arun Kelkar

        Can you speak to your CM to consider a breakaway from India and align with your bretheren in Sri Lanka on Language grounds. Good Luck.

        on Jun 13, 2011
  • JafferSadiq

    We Tamilian learning hindi doesnt mean we passion towards it. There is no harm learning additional language. Even Muslims students take Sanskrit, French as second language in curriculum, as it is easy to score. It doesn't mean they have passion towards it. I like to bring notice on Anand.K's comments, anything don't take for its quantity, measure with quality, heritage values. Tamilian endru sollada tharenil thali nimuthu nillada.

    on Oct 10, 2010
  • ravi

    I am very much proud that Hindi has not been made national Language. I do not want to be third citizen in my own state. I oppose Hindi till my blood last. I will observe 14th september as a Black day because Hindi is being thrusted on us. How many North Indians speak or learn Kannada when come to Bangalore then why central Government force south Indians to learn Hindi. Let Govt promote South Indian Language at par with Hindi in North Indian states then we welcome. Why only Hindi, Hats off to Tamilnadu and tamilians who did great work to teach Hindi fanatics

    on Sep 10, 2010
  • Ashok

    Each country should have its own national language... but its shame that Tamils can accept European English but not Indian Hindi spoken by 40% and understood by much more then that....really shame...

    on Aug 5, 2010
  • Anand K

    Learning any language for that matter is always good and advisable, but the question is accepting it in our home state in our day to day affairs. where is the need to accept Hindi in Tamilnadu given the fact that Hindi is only an official language of the Union government of India as per article 348 and not the National language as it is being claimed. Further, if Hindi is so powerful, then all Hindi speaking states should be shining by this time, but what is the ground reality???? We don't see any reason as to why we should accept HIndi in our home state

    on Jul 14, 2010
  • Bharat

    Claims about Hindi spreading in Tamil Nadu is untrue. When choice is given to learn French, German and Hindi, students choose either French or German. Threat of Hindi vanished long ago, and the trend is true in other states where Hindi is not spoken at home. Also every Indian thinks, that learning English has more benefit. Within the perimeter of Tamil Nadu, locals only speak in Tamil. The scenario will never change. Considering no single language is spoken in this entire country, two-language formula must be adopted nationwide instead of imposing Hindi. <br /> <br /> There is nothing wrong if Maharashtrians want to adopt the same formula. As a Tamilian, I will give my support to Maharashtra for their rights.

    on Feb 20, 2010
  • Tamil

    Hindi Imposition vs Hindi Self learning is different.<br /> <br /> As a Tamil , I feel Proud for my language and learning another language ( as a hobby or as leisure ) -no body stops that.<br /> <br /> We still have anger on Congress for TAMIL EELAM Issues.<br /> <br /> Again to say..Hindi is NOT National Language of India. It is spoken in 5-6 states of INDIA...and it is another regional language which they want to impose on TAMIL<br /> <br /> Tamil have long history.<br /> Tamil Kings rules SEASIA ( Chola Kings )<br /> None of the Hindi Kings coukd able to travel in SEA and win other countries...they were EATING PAN and spitting all over North India

    on Feb 20, 2010
  • annadurai

    Tamil is so dear to tamilians that nothing will take its place. Agree. But today in globalised world one should know languages of other region to do business or to work there. Anywhere in India you can go and speak Hindi and get basic services. So why not learn it. This is the principle Nehru might have imposed Hindi earlier but misunderstood completely. Remember Tamilians, I am a tamilian in Pune, I dont know hindi, I dont know marathi but only English and working as IT guy. <br /> I wish I had learnt hindi earlier for basic services. Tamil politicians has made us take English language as an asset then why not Hindi for going around in India.

    on Feb 22, 2010
  • Ritesh

    The writer has just given a neutral perspective - But i already see people saying that Hindi isn't India's national language.The official language of the Union of India is Hindi with English as a secondary official language - Although the 8th schedule talks about the regional languages.All languages are important - Rise above the internal lines of caste

    on Feb 22, 2010
    • @abhi2point0

      Those people are right and so are you. The Indian constitution does not define ANY "national language". It only says Hindi is the official language of the "Union" ie. the Central Government and allows all states to legislate on their own official languages at the State Government level.

      on Mar 1, 2010
  • Bharat

    English united Indians. This will be our second language for all Indians in metros, suburbs and villages. All other languages come after mother tongue and English. Very small number of people do learn other languages depending on their need. In the interest of millions of people who do not speak Hindi, the government can change its stand on language policy.

    on Feb 22, 2010
  • Priyank

    Its a well known fact that Hindi is not the national language. All Indian languages must be seen as equal and be given equal importance by the central government. Being a democracy, its sad to see one language being given undue importance by the central government and trying to impose it on all the non-Hindi citizens of India.

    on Feb 25, 2010
  • Vivek Shankar

    India being a land of many languages will not have a national language a fact upheld recently by the Gujarat High court. Hence it's very unfortunate seeing one language getting undue importance over the others.

    on Feb 26, 2010
  • vinayaka

    If its true than Its a bad development happening in Tamilnadu. Hindi Prachara Sabha should be banned in every state. They are just forcing every indian to learn hindi. its not our national language why force people. why trying to paint the same color to entire nation. we Indians are united with our diversified languages. HPS is not different then people who give money and convert people to their religion.

    on Feb 26, 2010
    • Manoj Kumar

      Not sure why people get paranoid whenever they hear of Hindi ..one thing is very clear and that is nobody is imposing Hindi on any state and it shouldnt be imposed on anyone. But fact reamin the same that over the time Hindi will become langauge of business . The way English got its acceptance due to economic benefits , same way Hindi will be accepted for business dealing atleast and BTW except few states ( 3-4) people understand Hindi all accross India . What one can see is the Indians would be mastering three laguages instead of two. in future ).. Mother tongue, English and Hindi ....

      on Mar 1, 2010
  • Nandy

    Dont know why govt is giving much importance to Hindi when constitution declares all languages as equal.

    on Mar 2, 2010