Linguistic Nationalism

The linguistic aspects of ethnic, religious, regional and cultural conflicts in four South Asian countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, are often left unexplored. Consider the following three such examples where each nation faced a similar situation of deciding what its national language was going to be. To impose or not to impose, was the question.

(1) Sinhalese vs. Tamil in Sri Lanka

The passage of Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 was a turning point in Sinhalese-Tamil relations. Tamil grievances subsequently grew because, in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, language policies had wide-ranging implications for educational and economic opportunities. By the 1970s many Tamil youth had become both radicalized and militarized. […]

Both groups, in the main, enjoyed cordial relations for more than 2,000 years. Then, in the 1950s the Sinhalese abandoned the movement to make both Sinhala and Tamil the country’s official language and instead instituted Sinhala as its sole official language. The Sinhala-Only Act of 1956 led to ethnic riots in that year and in 1958, marking the beginning of acute Sinhalese-Tamil animosity. The manner in which the Sinhala-Only Act and Sinhalese linguistic nationalism facilitated violent conflict, however, has not been fully appreciated.

[Source: Fighting words: language policy and ethnic relations in Asia, Michael Edward Brown and Sumit Ganguly, 2003]

(2) Urdu vs. Bengali in Pakistan

When the state of Pakistan was formed in 1947, its two regions, East Pakistan and West Pakistan, were split along cultural, geographical, and linguistic lines. In 1948, the government of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan. […]

The Language Movement catalyzed the assertion of Bengali national identity in Pakistan, and became a forerunner to Bengali Nationalist movements […] and subsequently the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

[Source: Wikipedia page on Bengali Language Movement.]

(3) Hindi vs. English and other regional languages in India

The final vote on the compromise amendment providing a solution to the language controversy in the Constituent Assembly revealed the basic lines of division in the country on the matter [in 1949]. On one side ranged the most dominant leaders in the Congress organizations and the government, with Nehru himself taking the lead in arguing strongly for a pluralistic compromise solution, and the representatives from the southern states and from other non-Hindi-speaking states […] The bulk of the vote against the compromise amendment, reflecting the sentiments in the Assembly for a quick transition to Hindi and the displacement of English, came from the Hindi-speaking states […] Despite the heat generated during the debate, the ultimate compromise, which was carried by a large majority, was for a multi-lingual solution, including the retention of English […]

[Source: Politics in India since Independence, Paul R. Brass and Gordon Johnson]

In 1967, attempts were made by the prime minister Lal Bahadur Shahstri and his other Hindi (not Hindu) chauvinist colleagues Gulzarilal Nanda and Morarji Desai to (re)introduce Hindi by force, but thanks to numerous protests (mostly in Madras) and a couple of resignations from two Union Minsters (also from Madras), the damage that “imposing Hindi on non-Hindi-speaking people by the Hindi-speaking people” could have done on the national unity never materialized in its full form.

[Hat Tip: Language Log]

P. S. I have not read the books that I’ve referenced in this post. I browsed some pages/chapters on Google Book Search.


2 responses to “Linguistic Nationalism

  1. Pingback: Indian History Carnival – 18 | DesiPundit

  2. After Singur issue abusive attacks on Bengali community got a high. I have physically witnessed few incidents where Bengalis were abused brutally in a vulgar way but this vulgarity now jumped on some online media like Rediff. Surprisingly Rediff tolerates every abuse on Bengali community, which actually encourages those criminals who want to abuse Bengali creed. Every article published on West Bengal or Bengali community, some non-bengali creatures jump on the same to flesh it out.
    Singur was a political issue. Bengalis didn’t push away Nano factory from Singur as it was portrayed by hindi media across India. Hindi media never informed Indian society, that most of the land owners gave their land for Nano factory. Few political hooligans snatched the wish of majority & our poor physically challenged state govt crumbled in front of those hooligans!

    These Bengali haters were keen to search issues to bash Bengali creed, after Singur they’ve got it. Their forefathers like Moraji Desai, Rajiv Gandhi, Chacha Nehru were infamous Bengali haters, they are actually carrying the tradition of their clan & hegemony.

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