MK Stalin urges Narendra Modi to make Tamil an official language: Decoding Tamil Nadu’s chequered linguistic history


The language war is back in the news.

The age-old debate of official language and national language cropped up again when Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin, on Thursday, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make Tamil an official language, on par with Hindi, as the two shared stage at an event in Chennai to launch a slew of infrastructure projects.

Speaking at the event, the chief minister was quoted as saying, “Make Tamil the official language like Hindi and the official language in Madras High Court.”

This isn’t the first time that the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) chief has made such a demand. Earlier this month, he had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Justice NV Ramana on the same matter. Stalin had urged that Tamil be made the official language of the Madras High Court, giving the examples of the high courts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh where Hindi had been authorised as the official language along with English.

“One therefore wonders, what is the impediment to make the official language of other states the official language of the High Court, in addition to English,” the Tamil Nadu chief minister had written.

Status of Tamil

Stalin’s urge to Modi on a public platform on the matter of Tamil has thrown open the issue of the status of the language again. What exactly does Stalin want? What does he mean by official language?

As of today, Tamil enjoys the status of classical language, along with four other languages — Sanskrit in 2005, Kannada and Telugu in 2008, Malayalam in 2013 and Odia in 2014.

In fact, it was the first language in India to be declared classical in 2004 under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

Tamil Nadu's long history of language protests

Unlike other countries, India has no one national language.

The debate of official language vis-à-vis national language has been raging since the times of the Constituent Assembly.

After an intense discussion in the Constituent Assembly, the ‘Munshi-Ayyangar‘ formula was evolved and accepted, which stated that Hindi in the Devnagari script would be the official language of the Union. English would continue to be used for all official purposes for the next 15 years, to enable a smooth transition for non-Hindi speaking states.

However, when the issue came up again in 1965, it became a movement against the imposition of Hindi.

The DMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu under CN Annadurai raised objections and conducted massive rallies involving a large number of youth and students across the state. The anti-Hindi agitations during the period were one of the biggest movements in the state.

There were strikes, hartals and self-immolations, against the imposition of Hindi in the southern state.

News Minute reports that Chinnasamy of Tiruchi was the first person to immolate himself against imposition of Hindi.

Tiruchi’s action also led to a spate of self-immolations against imposition of Hindi. Reports state that in the two weeks of strikes, around 70 people died.

The Government of India, reacting to the massive violence, then enacted the Official Language Act in 1963, which provided for continued use of English alongside Hindi indefinitely.

Anti-Hindi protests took place again in Tamil Nadu in 1986 when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched a bid to introduce Navodaya schools across India. DMK leader Karunanidhi had opposed the move, as the educational institutions followed a three-language formula -- which means that Hindi would be one of the options.

Riots broke out in which 21 people self-immolated or consumed poison, forcing the Centre to retract the move.

In 2019, the issue cropped up again when a draft National Education Policy proposed that Hindi be taught as a third language in schools in non-Hindi-speaking states.

Protests followed, and the policy was withdrawn. The amended policy, however, left the choice of the third language open-ended.

National language vs official language

As of today, the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India recognises a total of 22 languages. While 14 of these languages — Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu were included in the Constitution at first, the rest of the languages — Sindhi, Konkani, Manipuri, Nepali, Bodo, Santhali, Maithili and Dogri — were added to the Constitution through subsequent amendments.

Under Article 343 of the Official Languages Act, Hindi in Devanagari script and English were designated as the “official languages” — that is, languages used for official correspondence.

This means that the official languages — English and Hindi in Devanagari script — are used for purposes of proceedings in the Supreme Court and high courts, for bills, acts, ordinances, regulations, bye-laws at the Union and state level and for inter-state communications.

Popularity of Tamil

While Tamil enjoys the status of a classical language, leaders of the state have long been demanding that the language be deemed as an official one.

The DMK has time and again raised the issue of making Tamil an official language, which would mean that it could be used for governmental communications as well as for court orders.

Their demand stems from the fact that Tamil enjoys great popularity within the country. The 2011 Census shows that Tamil is spoken by 5.7 per cent of the Indian population. Hindi, on the other hand, is spoken by 43.63 per cent of Indians.

The 2011 Census data showed that most Indian States, apart from a handful of states in northern and central India, do not primarily speak Hindi but have adopted the language as a secondary language.

Tamil is also spoken in several other countries; it is an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore. It is also spoken on a minority basis in Malaysia and Mauritius

With inputs from agencies

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MK Stalin urges Narendra Modi to make Tamil an official language: Decoding Tamil Nadu’s chequered linguistic history
MK Stalin urges Narendra Modi to make Tamil an official language: Decoding Tamil Nadu’s chequered linguistic history
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