50. National Language and Script

If we are to make good our claim as one nation, we must have several things in common. We have a common culture running through a variety of creeds and sub-creeds. We have common disabilities. I am endeavoring to show that a common material for our dress is not only desirable but necessary. We need also a common language not in supersession of the vernaculars, but in addition to them. It is generally agreed that that medium should be Hindustani-a resultant of Hindi and Urdu, neither highly Sanskritized, nor highly Persianized or Arabianized. The greatest obstacles in the way are the numerous scripts we have for the vernaculars. If it is possible to adopt a common script, we should remove a great hindrance in the way of realizing the dream, which at present it is, of having a common language.

A variety of scripts is an obstacle in more ways than one. It constitutes an effectual barrier against the acquisition of knowledge. The Aryan languages have so much in common that, if a great deal of time had not to be wasted in mastering the different scripts, we should all know several languages without much difficulty; for instance, most people who have a little knowledge of Sanskrit would have no difficulty in understanding the matchless creation of Rabindranath Tagore, if it was all printed in Devanagari Script. But the Bengali script is a notice to the non-Bengalis-"hands off". Conversely if the Bengalis knew the Devanagari script, they would at once be able to enjoy the marvelous beauty and spiritually of Tulsidas and a host other Hindustani writers... A common script for all India is a distant ideal. A common script for all those who speak the Indo-Sanskrit languages, including the Southern stock, is a practical ideal, if we but shed our provincialisms, There is little virtue, for instance, in a Gujarati clinging to the Gujarati script. Provincial Patriotism is good where it feeds the larger stream of all-India patriotism, as the latter is good to the extent that it serves the still larger end of the universe. But a provincial patriotism that says "India is nothing, Gujarat is all", is wickedness....That the Devanagari should be the common script, I suppose, does not need any demonstration-the deciding factor being that it is the script known to the largest part of India... A spirit that is so exclusive and narrow as to want every form of speech to be perpetuated and developed, is anti-national and anti-universal. All undeveloped and unwritten dialects should, in my humble opinion, be sacrificed and merged in the great Hindustani stream. It would be a sacrifice only to be nobler, not a suicide. If we are to have a common language for cultured India, we must arrest the growth of any process of disintegration or multiplication of languages and script. We must promote a common language....If I could have my way, I would make the learning of Devanagari script and Urdu script, in addition to the established provincial script, compulsory in all the provinces and I would print in Devanagari chief books in the different vernacular with a literal translation in Hindustani.

Young India, 27-8-'25

Let us now consider the question of a national language. If English is to become our national language then it must be made a compulsory subject in our schools. Let us first consider whether English can become our national language.

Some of our learned men, who are also good patriots, contend that even to raise the question betrays ignorance. In their opinion it already occupies that place.

On a superficial consideration, this view appears correct. Looking at the educated section of our society, one is likely to gain the impression that in the absence of English, all our work would come to a stop. But deeper reflection will show that English cannot and ought not to become our national language.

Let us see what should be the requirements of a national language:

  1. It should be easy to learn for Government officials.
  2. It should be capable of serving as a medium of religious, economic and political intercourse throughout India.
  3. It should be the speech of the majority of the inhabitants of India.
  4. It should be easy to learn for the whole of the country.
  5. In choosing this language considerations of temporary or passing interest should not count.
English does not fulfill any of these requirements.

The First ought to have been placed last, but I have purposely given it the first place, because it seems as though English fulfilled it. Closer examination will, however, show that even at the present moment it is not for the officials an easy language to learn or to handle. The constitution under which we are being ruled envisages that the number of English officials which progressively decrease until finally only the Viceroy and a few more will be left here. The majority of the people in Government services are even today Indians and their number will increase as time goes on. I think no one will deny that. For them English is more difficult than any other language.

As regards the second requirement: Religious intercourse through English is impossibility unless our people throughout the land begin to speak English. Spread of English among the masses to this extent is clearly impossible.

English simply cannot satisfy the third requirement, because the majorities in India do not speak it.

The fourth also cannot be met by English it is not an easy language to learn for the whole of India.

Considering the fifth we see that the status which English enjoys today is temporary. The fact is that in India the need for English in national affairs will be, if at all, very little. It will certainly be required for imperial affairs. It will remain the language of diplomacy between different matter. English will remain the imperial language we will compel our Malaviyajis, our Shastris and our Banerjees to learn it and expect them to enhance the glory of our country wherever they go. But English cannot become the national language of India. To give it that place will be like introducing Esperanto into the country. To think that English can become our national language is a sign or weakness and betrays ignorance.

Then which is the language which fulfils all the five requirements? We shall have to admit that it is Hindi.

No other language can compete with Hindi in satisfying these five requirements. Next to Hindi comes Bengali. But the Bengalis themselves make use of Hindi outside Bengal. The Hindi-speaking man speaks Hindi wherever he goes and no one feels surprised at this. The Hindi-speaking Hindu preachers and the Urdu-speaking Maulvis make their religious speeches throughout India in Hindi and Urdu, and even the illiterate masses understand them. Even an unlettered Gujarati, when he goes to the North attempts to speak a few Hindi words. But Northern Bhaiya who works as gate-keeper to the Bombay Seth declines to speak in Gujarati and it is the Seth, his employer, who is obliged to speak to him in broken Hindi. I have heard Hindi spoken even in far off Southern provinces. It is not correct to say that in Madras one cannot do without English. I have successfully used Hindi there for all my work. In the trains I have heard Madrasi passengers speaking to other passengers in Hindi. Besides, the Muslims of Madras know enough Hindi to use it sufficiently well. It has to be noted that Muslims thought out India speak Urdu and they are found in large numbers in every province.

Thus Hindi has already established itself as the national language of India. We have been using it as such for a long time. The birth of Urdu itself is due to this fact.

Muslim kings could not make Persian or Arabic the national language. They accepted the Hindi grammar; only they used more Persian words in their speech and employed the Urdu script for writing. But they could not carry on intercourse with the masses through a foreign tongue. Similar is the case with the English rulers. Those who have any knowledge of how they deal with the sipahees in the army know that for this purpose they have coined Hindi or Urdu terms.

Thus we see that Hindi alone can become the national language. No doubt it presents some difficulty to the educated classes of Madras. But for Maharashtra's, Gujaratis, Sindhis and Bengalis it should be very easy. In a few months they can acquire enough command of Hindi to be able to use it for national purposes. It is not so easy for Tamilians.

Tamil and the other languages of the South belong to the Dravidian group. Their structure and grammar are different from those of Sanskrit. The only thing common between these two groups is their Sanskrit vocabulary.

But the difficulty is confined to the present educated classes only. We have a right to appeal to their patriotic spirit and expect them to put forth special effort to learn Hindi.

If Hindi attains to its due status, then it will be introduced in every schools in Madras will thus be in a position to cultivate acquaintance with other provinces. English has failed to reach the masses. But Hindi will do so in no time. The Telugu people have already started moving in this direction.

(From Gujarati)

From Gandhiji's presidential address at the Second Gujarat Educational Conference held at Branch on 20th October, 1917.

Our love of the masses must be skin-deep, if we will not take the trouble of spending over learning Hindustani as many months as the years we spend over learning English.

Constructive Programme, p. 20