Say Hindi and Tamil Nadu’s politicians would jump in unison shouting, “Over our dead bodies.” Since the 1960s, however, there have been no dead bodies. Only reams of newsprint and hours of television soundbites have been exhausted on how the last Tamil would stop Hindi from being sneaked in behind their backs—sufficient to light a fire over language and keep it burning. The latest red rag is the draft of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2019, which recommends the “continuation of the three-language formula in schools”. Under that formula, a third language other than the child’s mother tongue and English is to be taught from the primary school level.
“You are throwing a stone at a beehive called the two-language policy by trying to impose the three-language formula. The result can only prove disastrous as the Tamil youth would respond appropriately,” warned DMK president M.K. Stalin, who went on to allege that the BJP government was attempting to sneak in Hindi through the NEP. What got the goat of Stalin and other Tamil champions was this line in the draft NEP: “The three-language formula will need to be implemented in its spirit throughout the country, promoting multilingual communicative abilities for a multilingual country.” They saw this as yet another attempt to bring in Hindi as the third language in schools, especially in states that have been resisting the language’s incursion.
Tamil Nadu enforces a two-language formula of Tamil and English in schools affiliated to its state board.
Tamil Nadu has always been touchy about language issues ever since the 1960s when the DMK spearheaded the anti-Hindi agitation in which over a dozen youngsters were killed. It led to the DMK capturing power, beginning the state’s uninterrupted rule by Dravidian parties. Though the previous NEPs also advocated the three-language formula, Tamil Nadu has been quick to reject it. The state enforces a two-language formula of Tamil and English in schools affiliated to its state board. A 2006 law also makes Tamil a mandatory subject in all schools in the state, as part of Tamil Nadu’s attempt to maintain its distinct Tamil identity. Failure to implement Tamil as a medium of instruction at least at the primary level resulted in an outcrop of English-medium nursery and primary schools that demand premium fees, while state-run schools are hunting for students.
“Teaching in local language is crucial for inculcating critical thinking,” says educationist Prince Gajendra Babu. “On this count, successive governments professing to be promoters of Tamil language and culture have failed badly. They could not even get the Madras High Court to use Tamil as a court language.”
The posturing on Tamil also invites accusations of hypocrisy as most children of Tamil politicians study in English-medium schools, mostly affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), where they also learn Hindi. The son of former CM K. Karunanidhi’s daughter, Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, studied in a CBSE school, while Stalin’s daughter Senthamarai runs Sunshine Senior Secondary School, which is affiliated to the CBSE and offers Hindi as a subject. And when Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder S. Ramadoss was protesting against Tamil movies with non-Tamil titles, his son PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss’s three daughters were studying Hindi as a second language at La Martiniere in Delhi, as the school had no Tamil teacher. When Karunanidhi was asked in 2004 how he could recommend a first-time MP like Dayanidhi Maran to be Union minister, the late DMK supremo quipped that the young man knew Hindi.
Pointing out that the three-language formula goes back to mid-1960s, but was never properly implemented, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor says the NEP’s recommendation that students of Hindi-speaking states learn one non-Hindi regional language under the formula never found any takers all these years. “Most of us in the south learn Hindi as a second language, but nobody in the north is learning Malayalam or Tamil,” he says. In fact, over the past 10 years, more than 12 lakh candidates enrolled at the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in Chennai for taking its Hindi exams conducted across Tamil Nadu—a huge jump from the 4.76 lakh who enrolled in the previous decade.
According to Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader and MP for Villupuram, D. Ravikumar, the ghost of Hindi is not the real threat as the language the NEP actually attempts to undermine is English. “The three-language formula is actually a dangerous attempt to downgrade English,” he says. “It virtually echoes the language of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s tirade against English when he was Uttar Pradesh CM. By brushing aside English as the language of the elite, the draft NEP seeks to negate the advantage that learning English brings to students of the southern states. English is the language of the aspirational part of society and knowledge of English, not Tamil, Telugu or Hindi, has helped thousands of Indians working in the information technology sector in India and abroad.”
Some say the NEP raises the hackles of anti-Hindi groups only because it unabashedly tries to promote Sanskrit at the school level. They fear that what applies to Sanskrit would by extension apply to Hindi at a later stage. But K. Kasturirangan, who chaired the committee that prepared the draft of the NEP, says the fear is baseless.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai