Many ceremonies recently marked the 35th death anniversary of C N Annadurai, first DMK chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He is remembered mainly for ending Congress hegemony and Brahmin supremacy in the state. But today we should see him in a new light: he saved India from Hindi imperialism, ensured the continuation of English, and so made possible the outsourcing revolution that is moving lakhs of jobs from the West to India.
Today we boast that India has a competitive advantage in outsourcing because of its English-speaking population. But most politicians at independence wanted to eliminate English, then seen as a vile colonial implant, and replace it with Hindi. The Constitution in 1950 decreed that Hindi would be India’s officials language, but as a transitional measure allowed English to continue for 15 years (till 1965).
Nehru wanted Hindi as a national language, but also saw the value of English as a window to the world. Socialists like Lohia were rabidly anti-English, and launched an Angrezi Hatao agitation in 1957. The Jan Sangh in 1963 launched a violent agitation for abolishing English not only in official use but in shop signs, street signs and even car number plates.
However, non-Hindi states (above all Tamil Nadu) began to worry about the 1965 deadline. If English was abolished, would they not be disadvantaged compared with Hindi-speaking states?
Annadurai’s DMK viewed Brahmins as imperialists from north India, and (in its early years) wanted Tamil Nadu to secede from India to escape this domination. The DMK denounced the move to abolish English as brazen Hindi imperialism.
Nehru strove for compromise in his Official Languages Act of 1963. This allowed continued use of English after 1965. But under the same Act, the Home Ministry issued circulars making Hindi obligatory for all central government officers, and declaring that Hindi would become the official language of India on January 26, 1965.
Annadurai saw this as Hindi imperialism, and struck back with the most violent agitation the state had ever seen. Several Tamil students immolated themselves in protest. The police opened fire on rampaging mobs, killing at least 66 (official figures) and maybe 500 (unofficial estimates). Fearful that the language issue would stoke secession, New Delhi retreated and assured all states that their adoption of Hindi would be optional, not mandatory. In 1967 the Official Languages Act was amended to specify that both English and Hindi could be used as official languages for all purposes.
In the state election of 1967, the DMK won a landslide victory. The party has (in one of two factional avatars) ruled the state ever since. Many people think South India resisted Hindi. Not really. The resistance was specifically Tamil. Former foreign minister Dinesh Singh, from Uttar Pradesh, once complained bitterly to me that Hindi would have triumphed but for Tamil Nadu.
Note, that Annadurai was a champion of Tamil, not English. He wanted to raise Tamil to its pre-Sanskrit position of glory, and his party went out of its way to purge Tamil of words of Sanskrit origin (just as Hindi fanatics purged Hindustani of words of Persian or Arabic origin). A rising DMK star, Gyanasundaram, was embarrassed since Gyan and Sundaram were words of Sanskrit origin, and so translated these into old Tamil and renamed himself Mathialagan.
The Tamil Brahmin elite was proficient in English. Annadurai did not want this proficiency to become an advantage, and so limited their access to educational institutions and state government services through stringent quotas. As a Tamil fanatic, he wanted English for the limited purpose of keeping the Hindi-wallahs at bay, of ensuring that Tamilians were not disadvantaged in all-India exams (for educational institutions and the civil and defence services).
Unwittingly, he helped preserve English as India’s window to the world. This was something always wanted by Nehru, a north Indian Brahmin whom Annadurai hated. Decades later, English helped India storm the outsourcing market.
I often hear fears that India’s English-language advantage in outsourcing is temporary. Of other ex-British colonies, Sri Lanka has far better literacy and infrastructure, and Bangladesh has far lower wages than India. Why shouldn’t outsourcing shift there? The delicious answer is that language chauvinism has ruined their chances.
Sri Lankan politicians have severely curtailed English education, insisting that Sinhalese should be taught only in Sinhala and Tamils in Tamil. Bangladesh has replaced English by Bengali very widely. These countries never had regional chieftains like Annadurai insisting on preserving English. So India will easily beat them in outsourcing.
Annadurai was flayed in his lifetime by the Jan Sangh, which spearheaded the anti-English agitation of the 1960s. One of those agitators was Atal Behari Vajpayee. How ironic that the same Vajpayee should now boast about a Shining India based on comparative advantage in English!