How Dravidian ideologues used ‘opposition to Hindi’ to build their ‘protector of Tamil culture’ image and retain power

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How Dravidian ideologues used 'opposition to Hindi' to build their 'protector of Tamil culture' image and retain power

— Consider reading the article How Dravidian ideologues used ‘opposition to Hindi’ to build their ‘protector of Tamil culture’ image and retain power on OpIndia website —

We earlier looked at how Dravidian ideologues blocked nationalist education during the British Raj, and later strengthened the hands of Christian missionary schools in the 1950s.

We will now look at how they used the plank of opposition to Hindi as a means of building their image as protectors of Tamil culture and native rights and to bring them to power.

The Justice Party and power

Ever since the British began to devolve power to native Indians, the Justice Party, which was formed by upper-caste landlords to challenge Brahmin domination in Government positions and jobs, automatically saw this as an opportunity to fortify their political power.

In 1916, Dr T M Nair, who had been associated with the Indian National Congress, lost elections to the Imperial Legislature of India. He blamed this upon Brahmin domination. Similarly, many other upper-class businessmen, merchants, landlords, zamindars and rulers of minor principalities in Madras Presidency felt the same grievance.

They formed the South India Liberal Foundation, popularly known as the Justice Party, after an English language newspaper called Justice.

As part of the Montague-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, Madras Presidency had a system of dyarchy in place. The Governor of the Presidency held wide executive powers, but shared some of them, Education, Sanitation and Local Government with a Legislative Council. The constituencies they were elected from were

  • Communal constituencies such as Muslims, rural Muslims, urban non-Brahmins, urban Muslims, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians
  • Special interests – Chamber of Commerce, planters, landlords, Universities
  • Territorial constituencies – of which a portion were reserved only for non-Brahmins.
  • Nominated members

The upper-classes of the Justice Party dominated special interests, nominations and communal constituencies. Also, since the largest political movement – the Congress did not participate in elections, the Justice Party ran the Government of Madras Presidency from 1920 to 1937, with a four-year interlude between 1926 to 1930, when a Government was formed by minority votes to the Swaraj Party led by Subbarayan, which was a splinter bloc of the Congress led by Srinivasa Iyengar and then Satyamurti.

Given the backgrounds of Justice Party leaders, they were socially conservative and British loyalists.

Provincial Autonomy

The Independence Struggle brought about further increase in autonomy for India. The Government of India Act of 1935 created a bicameral legislature, with Members of the Legislative Council nominated by the British Raj and Members of the Legislative Assembly elected by popular vote. Suffrage was not universal but restricted only to people holding land or paying taxes. 

This amounted to a 7 million-strong electorate, or 15% of the population of Madras Presidency. Even though this electorate would tilt towards conservatism and a slower pace of change, it was composed of a larger bourgeoise, which was overwhelming in favour of the Congress. The 1937 elections saw a Congress government brought to power with 159 of 215 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji was the first Chief Minister. 

Dravidians out of power

It is always a pattern that Dravidian politicians, once out of power, will ally indiscriminately with all political forces. They also have the propensity to engage in generating chaos and wide spread agitations.

Their experience of a complete loss of power demoralized the Justice Party. The earlier generation of leaders took a back seat. By this time, EV Ramasamy had joined the Justice Party.

He was already toying with the idea of demanding a separate Dravida Nadu or homeland for Dravidians in South India. The introduction of Hindi as a compulsory language was a God-send for his brand of politics.

Hindi Learning

Utilizing Hindi as a link language for communication across all parts of India had been a long-term objective of the Indian Nationalist movement. Since the language distance between South Indian languages and Hindi was more than those of Maharashtra and Bengal, a separate organization, the Dakshina Bharata Hindi Prachar Sabha, was established by the Congress in 1918. 

In 1938, Hindi was introduced as a compulsory subject in Government Secondary Schools by the Rajaji Government. The Opposition immediately broke out in protest. 

As the movement gained momentum, the Government reacted in a ham-handed manner, jailing picketers. Police brutality resulted in custodial deaths of two young activists – Thalamuthu and Natarajan.

These two young men were from under privileged backgrounds, of illiterate parents and from historically under privileged castes. In a persistent pattern, it is usually such foot soldiers that bear the brunt of difficulties brought upon them by upper caste Dravidian leaders.

To put this in perspective, students in classes 6,7 and 8 would undergo 3 hours of additional study per week to learn an additional language. In then Madras Province, this would not affect more than 25% of the enrolled student population. They would have started with the basic alphabet and proceeded to a basic ability to construct sentences and read words.

That such an issue merited so much unrest in a time of approaching War, persistent malnutrition, illiteracy – overall literacy in Madras Presidency was 11% in 1931 and the spectre of famines and epidemics during the British Raj, must seem strange to anyone. However, it has been a skill of the Dravidian politicians to make the trivial a rallying point to whip up passions. They are so effective that it is a kiss of death for any Tamil politician to not sing paeans to Tamil or suggest that learning of Hindi or Sanskrit may not harm the cause of Tamil.

The illusion created was that children learning Hindi for a few years would turn Hindi into the official language of India, thereby dooming all Tamils to second class status or destroying the Tamil language. The narrative created was of cunning Brahmins who would impose Hindi, learn it first, deny it to other Tamils and thereby destroy Tamil and the Tamil race.

End of the Protest

In 1939, the Congress resigned from Government on account of the British pressing India into the Second World War. The order to introduce Hindi was rescinded by Governor Erskine in 1940.

There were protests again in 1948-1950, when Congress Governments attempted to re-introduce Hindi.

However, what catapulted the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to power was the agitation of the 1960s, which we will see in the next part. 

Beyond a play for power, the antipathy to Hindi among the Dravidian Nationalists is a very calculated strategy to control the narrative. We shall see how the dynamics of this aspect work in the next part, too.

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