Source : Medium

article has been authored by Advocate Smriti Sharma, an LL.M. graduate in Constitutional and Criminal Law from NLU- Delhi


Language in the political, social and cultural contexts of a nation has two major functions (1). One is practical: the expression and intercommunication of thought; the means of conveying cultural and social items between individuals and groups of a single generation as well as from one generation to the next; the indispensable tool of political and social intercourse. The other function is symbolic: language is often the symbol of national identity, the rallying point of numerous individuals and groups, often with widely differing interests and orientations; the common denominator which serves to identify these groups —and by which these frequently identify themselves—as a nation.

This short essay discusses in detail the linguistic contentions regarding ‘the National Language of India’ and ‘the status of English language in India’ as raised in the Constituent Assembly of India (hereinafter The Assembly). It further explains as to why the Assembly had deferred the issue related to the National Language of India.

The Need for a National Language

It was clear from the Assembly’s idea that the 1950 India which was a deeply divided and diverse society needed a common language for not just the sake of convenience but also to further their agenda of national integration. The Assembly realized that a multilinguistic society like India wherein people associated language with their identity, the ‘National Language of India’ could be used for the purpose of Indianization and to promote a sense of unity amongst the Indians.

Due to the necessity to have a national language led the Assembly to tackle certain questions during the linguistic contentions such as-

● What should be the National Language of Independent Indian?

● Should it be the same as official language?

● Which language could be used for communication between the Centre and the State?

● What should be the status of the regional languages?

● What should be done with the Colonial imposed English?

These questions posed a major problem for the Constituent Assembly.

Maulana Azad was of the view to choose English as the national language as it provided for a convenient link between Northern and Southern India. However, the Assembly was rife with disdain for the colonial language and were quick to reject that proposal on account of national unity. English language for the majority was a reminder of the colonial oppression faced by India and hence, was vehemently opposed. In fact, R.V. Dhulekar called the 200 years of Britishers as “slavery of the foreign language”. (2)

At the same time, still a need for common language was considered essential for unifying the country, mobilizing the masses, and developing national literature, keeping this in mind, Gandhi pointed out five characteristics (3) for any language to be accepted as the national language:

(i) It should be easy to learn for government officials,

(ii) It should be capable of serving as a medium of religious, economic, and political intercourse throughout India,

(iii) It should be the speech of the majority of the inhabitants of India,

(iv) It should be easy to learn for the whole of the country,

(v) In choosing this language, considerations of temporary or passing interests should not count.

Even though the Assembly were in the favour of Hindi, it didn’t seem to fit the criteria laid down by Gandhi. Government officials who had been trained in English and couldn’t compromise on their administrative duties to learn Hindi or any new language and during that time, there weren't even translations which could be done. Then Hindi could be used as a medium of religious, economic, and political intercourse only throughout North India since Hindi wasn’t as prevalent in South India. It wasn’t even a speech for the majority and learning a new language for the whole of India could be very difficult. Lastly, one of the practical aspects of not choosing Hindi was that it would be difficult to type using a typewriter. These obstacles were not just limited to Hindi but would remain even in case of other languages.

The Debate around the National Language

The language debate had become quite a divisive in the Assembly especially after the demand for Pakistan solidified which meant Urdu was out of the language debate, the groups consisted: on one side were the members from the Hindi/ Hindustani speaking Northern states of India and on the other side were the members from the non Hindi/Hindustani speaking southern states of India. The pro -Hindi/Hindustani group was further divided into two camps: the Hindi camp and the Hindustani camp. The pro-Hindi/ Hindustani group moved a large number of amendments and argued for adopting Hindi or Hindustani as the sole national language. The anti-Hindi group opposed that adoption of Hindi/Hindustani as the national language and favoured retaining English as the official language.

English, which was initially seen as a symbol of colonial rule, had risen as a convenient solution to the fierce debates surrounding the language contentions. Even though the Assembly was not in favour of making it the national language, they did realize the importance of retaining English as an official language. Since, it was a neutral language and most government officials had been trained in English, further, English was also seen like a good compromise between Northern and Southern Indian states. Most of the official work and typing also happened in English, so it seemed like a good idea at the time to divert the debate of national language as it had reached an impasse to official language.

Conclusion: The Deference

And to avoid continuing the debate further, a compromise was drawn in 1949- called the ‘Munshi-Ayyangar’ formula(4). This compromise struck a balance between the demands of all groups. The name of the language was accepted as Hindi but the protagonists of Hindustani were comforted with the directive clause of Article 345. In that clause itself, those who were the champions of Sanskritized Hindi were appeased because Sanskrit would be the primary source of vocabulary, while at the same time the words from other languages would not be boycotted. Hence, Part XVII of the Indian Constitution was drafted according to this compromise. It made no mention of a national language. Instead, it defined only the Official Languages of the Union.

The Constitution of India, which came into effect on 26 January 1950, stated that the Official Language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script, in the hope that it would facilitate regional communication and encourage national unity. The Constitution also provided for continuing the use of English in official work of the Union for a period of fifteen years with the objective to replace English by gradually phasing in Hindi.

There seems to be two major reasons apparent for deferring the issue of national language. Firstly, an impasse or a deadlock had been reached amongst the members of the Constituent Assembly regarding the language debate which meant no headway for any language as national language-be it Hindi, Hindustani or any other regional language; so, picking one language over the others would be nothing short of oppressing one community ending up in fostering hate for the chosen language. Secondly, what started as an agenda to promote national integrity had unravelled most of the members’ own preference for a particular language and the debate was promoting more animosity and feeling of ‘antinationalism’ amongst the members. At that time, it must have seemed like a good idea to defer the language contentions in the hopes to give the linguistically complex India to cultivate national unity and integrate into one common nation.

In fact, the reason for the deference the language contentions on the basis of the 1949 compromise can be summarized with what Dr. Rajendra Prasad right after finalizing the articles related to the national language- “Our Constitution so far has evoked many controversies, and raised many questions which had very deep differences; but we have, somehow or other, managed to get over them all. This was one of the biggest gulfs which might have separated us… …Therefore, if we did not accept this formula, the result would have been either a large number of languages to be used, for the country as a whole, or separation of provinces which did not like to submit or accept any particular language under pressure. We have done the wisest thing possible.” (5)

Even after 1950, efforts have been taken to finalize one language as a National Language of India but those have failed due to similar reasons. It is time that it was realized that a common language which may be a unifying factor in China or Japan cannot be factor in India due to the complex and diverse cultures and languages.


  1. “The language Problem—A Solution” by O. L. Chavarria-Aguilar

  2. Constituent Assembly Debates- Volume IX, 14 September 1949

  3. The Effectiveness of Establishing Hindi as a National Language” by Lakhan Gusain

  4. The Effectiveness of Establishing Hindi as a National Language” by Lakhan Gusain

  5. Constituent Assembly Debates- Volume IX, 14 September 1949

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