Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 4 : 10 October 2004

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.


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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai

M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.




The unfinished task of nation building in India requires an insightful understanding of the linguistic forces at work. It requires also an appreciation, a critical appreciation, of the excellent endeavour our great leaders had already made to canalize the conflicting linguistic forces for purposes of nation building.

This article is part of a project that I am currently engaged in. The focus of this article is to describe the evolution of the Language Policy adopted or practiced in the early years of the Indian National Congress. The larger work is titled Freedom Struggle and Language Policy. I hope to present my research in this area in some successive articles. The project itself seeks to paint a picture of how the language policy of the Indian National Congress evolved since its inception in 1885 until January 26, 1950, when India became a Sovereign Democratic Republic. It is, indeed, a fascinating story. In due course, I would like to cover not only the language policy of the Indian National Congress when it fought for India's freedom, but also its language policy as it evolved in the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly of India.


The language policy details are presented here as they unfolded themselves in the conduct of the Congress proceedings, and in the declarations of some of the major leaders and policy makers of the Indian National Congress. As a person of Indian origin, I do see that the contribution of the Indian National Congress to nation-building was very crucial and stupendous. In that period, during the freedom struggle and until India became independent, there was no other organization that could match the impact the Indian National Congress had over Indians. The story of the Indian National Congress is also the story of peoples around the world seeking political and social justice.


The story of the language policy of the Congress is told here in close conjunction with the unfolding of the major events in India's freedom struggle. On the one hand, the language policy of the Indian National Congress was mainly in the nature of a response to the challenges the Congress faced in its struggle for national independence, cohesiveness, and unity. On the other hand, the Congress also perceived language to be an important accessory needed for day-to-day political activities and movements.

With the passage of time, as the Indian National Congress became more broad based in terms of its membership and appeal, the use of Indian languages in political activities was seen to be inevitable. But such use also brought in forces which were seen by the Congress Organization as disruptive. Thus, the Congress was to strike a balance, in due course, between what it considered imperative ingredients for national unity and growing demands for the recognition of language-based sub-national identities.

This study covers general policy decisions on aspects of language choice and use in so far as these related to administration, education and mass-communication. It also covers the policies of language choice and use relating to, retention, or otherwise of linguistic identities and cultures of both major and minor linguistic communities as well as minorities. The project presents also the aspects of Congress policy relating to the reorganization of provinces on a linguistic basis.

The history of the language policy developed by the Indian National Congress is often seen by its unrelenting critics as nothing but an attempt at the elevation of Hindi as the national language. However, while adoption of Hindi as the lingua-franca for India was indeed a major item on its agenda, the language policy of the Congress evolved itself as a policy for the preservation and development of language and culture of all the sub-nationalities of Indian Nation.

A panoramic view of the language policy as it emerged in the Indian National Congress during freedom struggle is presented in the project work for the benefit of the students of linguistics and adjacent sciences such as education, anthropology, sociology, history, political science and public administration. At present, there is no comprehensive treatment of the subject available in print. We hope that the students and teachers of the above disciplines as well as practical politicians, administrators and fellow citizens interested in nation-building would benefit from a serious study of the subject matter dealt with here.



Several authors have written the history of Indian National Congress, which had its first meeting in Bombay in December 1885, and which continues to exist and grow. The approach these authors have adapted to study, analyze and present the history of Indian National Congress differs from one author to another in many ways.

For example, Andrews and Mookerjee (1967) lay a greater emphasis on the bases of religion which for them, appeared to have influenced the course of the history of the Indian National Congress Dr. Sitaramayya (Sitaramayya 1938 and 1947) took the chronological, political, and personal elements as the basis of his history of the Indian National Congress. Dua (1966) has tried to present the socio-economic bases of the Indian National Congress.

Kaushik, in his excellent elucidation of the Congress ideology and programme between 1920 and 1947 (Kaushik 1964), focuses more on the political, economic and socio-cultural creed of the Congress, with very little or only a passing reference to the language bases of the Congress leadership and Congress policies towards language use. Mazumdar (l917) presents the political developments within the Indian National Congress, more or less from the point of view of the Moderates even as he gives some inside information on the political processes and nationality formation in India.

Ram Gopal (1967) presents a very interesting narrative on how India struggled for freedom, with a greater sympathy for and understanding of Lokamanya Tilak's contribution to India's freedom struggle than one finds elsewhere. One of the very important volumes on the subject, Concise History of the Indian National Congress 1885-1945, (Pande 1985), which was issued under the auspices of the Congress Centenary (l985) Celebration Committee of the Indian National Congress, presents a Congress viewpoint of the history of the Indian National Congress.

One could cite many more works on the history of Indian National Congress that are voluminous in size even as they are significant contributions recording the political, social, and economic history of the Indian National Congress. But none of these has any detailed presentation on the evolution of the language policy of the Indian National Congress.


Sitaramayya (1935) classifies the phases of the history of the Indian National Congress into the era of Reforms 1885-1905, the era of Self-government 1906-1916, the era of Home Rule 1917-1920, the era of Swaraj 1921-1928, the era of Complete Independence 1929-1935, the era of Fight beginning with 1931 Gandhi-Irwin agreement to its breach in the same year, and the era of Reorganization in the years of late 1930s. Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayyas History of the Indian National Congress (1885-1935) was published on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the great national organization. In his own words, Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya felt that there was not much of a "plot to unravel in the story of the first thirty years, the happenings in which are dealt with subject by subject and character by character. The past twenty years (1915-1935) have been treated year by year."

In his second volume (Sitaramayya 1947), Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya focused on the events year by year until the end of 1946, with an emphasis on and apologia for the leadership of Gandhi. Perhaps Dr. Sitaramayyas use of the terms such as plot and unravel, used generally in literary analyses, reflected the simplicity of thought and approach of the great national organization in its beginning years which were soon followed by clashes and conflicts of ideologies and personalities, and consequent emergence of compromises, which became the hallmark of the organization in subsequent years.


The evolution of the language policy of the Indian National Congress was no exception to this process. In the beginning years, naturally, the policy was in its formative stage; it was simple and elegant, which was turned into a complex tandem as years and personalities were added to the institution.

Several authors, imbued with the sense of nationalism and a consciousness that they were participants in the processes of history making, have written excellent sketches of the history of the Indian National Congress. But these efforts have always been seen as inadequate to match the colossal Congress phenomenon and have been criticized for one reason or another. Even the most intimate and also well-informed History of the Indian National Congress written by Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya has been criticized by Mookerjee (1974) for lack of objectivity and for lack of linkages and explanatory power:

Doctor Pattabhi Sitaramayya's two volumes are works of great merit; but they do not satisfy the historians today because he never tried to link up one event with the other and being also in the midst of these events, Dr. Sitaramayya had not acquired the objectivity which only time and distance could bestow upon a historian.

Sitaramayya's involvement in the Indian National Congress movement was so complete and his intellectual make-up was so different that we should not complain that he did not leave behind a more exhaustive and more complete history of the great national organization that he served so well. The same criticism, to some extent, could be levelled against the insightful work on the Indian National Congress by Mookerjee himself. Thus, once an assessment of an event becomes an integral part of history-writing, inadequacy of coverage, slips in objectivity, and incorporation of subjective elements are bound to be assigned to any work of history by a discerning reader.

Nevertheless, Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya's work, coming from the pen of an erudite scholar of culture and an ardent champion of the reorganization of the provinces on linguistic basis, is a valuable aid to students who wish to study the evolution of the language policy of the Indian National Congress.


Andrews and Mookerjee (1967, originally issued in 1930s) looked at the history of the Indian National Congress from the viewpoint of the influence of Indian religious renaissance, of the deliberations before and after the outbreak of 1857 Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence, and of forerunners of the Indian National Congress (the organization and associations) which had been established in the different Presidencies prior to the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885.

For the history of the Indian National Congress proper, their publication which came out in the 1930s (re-issued in 1967), divided the periods into those of early days of the Indian National Congress till the beginning of Lord Curzon's Viceroyalty in 1898, the second phase consisting of the Curzon era and the Swaraj claim made by Dadabhai, and the third phase consisting of the reign of the moderates and the shifting of the capital to New Delhi.

The book included the period of the First World War and the years immediately after the War as the next phase. The volume did not go beyond 1920, although Mookerjee's later book (Mookerjee 1974) treated the period up to 1947. This later book of Mookerjee (Mookerjee 1974) divided the history of the Indian National Congress into two phases, namely, Phase one covering the period 1830 to 1920, and Phase two covering the period 1920 to 1947.


For the purposes of our analysis and presentation, we deal with the important policy statements, and political and agitational programmes with which the use of Indian languages was closely associated. Language policy of the Indian National Congress became an integral part of the agitational politics of the Indian National Congress. Policies relating to language use in government and education, etc., were always kept under check and used only at the deliberate exercise of the will of the Congress leadership.

That is, the language policy was yet another weapon used by the great organization in its struggle for independence and in its gigantic task of nation-building. The policy was to regulate the language loyalties of the sub-nationalities in such a way that these loyalties, first of all, should not seem to contribute to the mounting difficulties obstructing the unity of the country, even as these loyalties would certainly be nourished so as to build a united India. It was indeed a difficult task and, as we shall see in the following pages, the Indian National Congress largely succeeded in its efforts not to allow language loyalty to become divisive force until 1947.



For a better appreciation of the history of Indian National Congress and for an insightful understanding of the struggle for freedom of India, we suggest that the students of linguistics and adjacent sciences interested in Indian language policy formulation may keep the following phases as broad categories of events.

  1. The Indian religious renaissance and language use.
  2. Before and after the outbreak of 1857 War of Independence.
  3. Forerunners of the Congress.
  4. The era of Reforms, 1885-1905.
  5. The era of Self-government, 1906-1916.
  6. The era of Home Rule, 1917-1920.
  7. The era of Swaraj, 1921-1928.
  8. The era of Complete Independence, 1929-1935.
  9. The era of Fight.
  10. The Dawn of Independence.



The Indian National Congress slowly evolved into a great permanent institution with office-bearers and other paraphernalia. Originally the institution of the President of the Congress, until Dr. Annie Besant took it over in 1917, was merely a decorative post, active only during the Annual Sessions of the year. Dr. Annie Bezant made in reality the institution of the presidentship of the Indian National Congress an institution of relevance throughout the year.

In the description and analysis of the activities of an organization, one has to necessarily distinguish between the policies accepted, adopted, and practised officially by an Institution, and the policies advocated by individuals who are part of the institution, yet these policies advocated by the individuals may or may not have been accepted, adopted and practised by the institution.

A comprehensive treatment of the policies of an institution should certainly include not only the official shape of the policies and practices of the institution but also the policies advocated by the individuals who were part of the institution. However, in our study here, we propose to deal mainly with the policies and programmes of the Institution as adopted and practised by the Institution. Covering all the individual positions would require enormous work by a team of scholars and should, indeed, be left to some institutional arrangement to cull out such information from different sources.

But, at the same time, failure to cover the salient features of the individual positions to the extent that these have influenced the conduct of the institution would make any treatment inadequate. Accordingly, we make attempts in the following pages to cover the efforts of those individuals (and those individual positions) which have had some direct bearing on the course of conduct of the Indian National Congress. Moreover, we will also take recourse only to the documents that are most easily accessible to individual scholars to cover the aspects of contributions by individual leaders of the Indian National Congress. Our efforts would be mostly to include positions as attested in the resolutions and presidential addresses of the Indian National Congress, at least for the early phases of the period.


It must be said immediately that, amidst the vast diversity of culture, religion, language, region and so on easily seen in India, the Indian National Congress always tried to focus upon certain major items such as religion, social reforms and economic factors, which had immediate bearing on the context of situation then developing, almost to the exclusion of the emphasis on the role of language. Language was always there, but the pride of place had gone to the above three factors in the deliberations of the Indian National Congress until 1947. After 1947, however, language came to play an important, if not an equal role in the deliberations of the Indian National Congress.


There has been always a very intimate connection between the political field and the sphere of religious development in several parts of India. Religious movements even in the past were intimately linked to the political developments in almost all parts of India. For example, the history of Tamilnadu clearly indicates that the changes in dynasties were linked to the religious movements, even as the adoption of one religion or the other became one of the primary sources of expression of literary and other cultural aspects, including temple architecture and sculpture. Most of the literature in Tamil is religious and most of the architecture of Tamilnadu that has endured through the ages is religious.


In modern India too, the founding of the Indian National Congress was preceded by great enthusiasm for social and religious reformation, and activities of religious and social fervor, though both were not manifestly connected with the establishment of the Congress Organization. Between 1828 and 1833, Raja Ram Mohan Roy established the firm foundation for the future education of India. He also inaugurated trends in social reform. He had found faith in civil liberty and thus became the prophet of Indian nationalism. Andrews and Mookerjee (1967) correctly characterize such a sovereign faith in liberal principles as the most marked feature of Indian political life ever since. We will see that these liberal principles have also been the most marked feature of the language policy of the Indian National Congress, until 1947.



Sitaramayya identifies the source of the awakening of the spirit of India to meet the demands of modern times in Bengal at the beginning of the nineteenth century and reports that this awakening flowed out into wider and wider circles till it reached every part of India.

While this characterization is generally true, one should not also forget that there were awakenings in all over the country in different fields of thought and activities. The awakening came in the form of religious movements and sometimes also in the form of armed struggles. In the case of the Hindi-speaking provinces, this awakening came also in the form of a language movement to replace Persian and Urdu and to use Hindi and Devanagari. There were also implied and manifest activities which encouraged the adoption of Western concepts in the Indian society.

The Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission made progress because of the groundwork already done by the Brahma Samaj and its founder Raja Ram Mohan Roy. This awakening was helped in no small measure also by the reforms introduced by the British.


The founder of Brahma Samaj, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was educated also through English, and had a command over many Indian and foreign languages. He wrote books in his own mother tongue, Bengali, in addition to his expressions through English and other languages. On the other hand, Swamy Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj studied only through Indian languages, whereas Swamy Ramakrishna was considered to be illiterate in his own language. Ramalingaswamy in the South who founded a religious reforms movement in the South, particularly in Tamilnadu, was literate in his own language, and a poet of eminence in his own right, writing also in prose.

While the Brahma Samaj emphasized education through English, Arya Samaj carried it mainly through Sanskrit and Hindi. The Ramakrishna Mission used both English and Indian languages with emphasis on communication via Indian languages.

Another religious movement, which began before the formation of the Indian National Congress, and which came to be closely associated with the Indian National Congress and the struggle of Indians for political freedom is the Theosophical Movement, which began in Madras.

In 1875, the Theosophical Society was founded by Col.Olcott and Madam Blavatsky from New York. While the Brahma Samaj had some direct dealings with the political elements through its representations to the British Government, Arya Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission influenced social and political thinking of Indians both within and outside the political movements. The Theosophical movement started only as a movement of universal religion based on the high ideals of Hindu religion.. In due course, the Movement got directly involved in the struggle for political freedom of India. The Theosophical movement is also responsible for the Indian National Congress laying emphasis on the development and the use of modern Indian languages in the country.

There was a clear preference for English education in the activities of the Brahma Samaj; there was also a clear preference for the use of Sanskrit and Hindi in the activities of the Arya Samaj. Likewise, there was also a clear preference for Sanskrit and the use of English in the propagation activities of the Ramakrishna Mission; while such a clear preference for Indian languages was not indicated in the Theosophical Movement, it certainly did advocate, through the medium of English, the development and growth of Sanskrit and other Indian language and converted these positions into effective political attitudes and policies.


A brief look into the various Indian religious reformist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals that there was some regionalization of THE models, or regional differences on the emphases in the religious movements. These differences revolved around the choice and use of different Indian languages, and speaking and writing styles of several languages. Both ideological differences and differences in regional ethos must have contributed to differences in the personalities and language use in these movements.

Although rediscovery and regeneration of Indian religious bases were attempted in all the religious reformist movements, and these were made the goal of Arya Samaj and the teachings of Ramakrishna, the Hindi and Bengali backgrounds of these two movements did result in certain lack of agreements between Dayanad Saraswati and Ramakrishna. In other words, the regional ethos, of which language is an important factor, had its crucial influence on the religious reformist movements, shaping their directions, even when the reforms were directed against the so-called foreign influence. For example, Dayanand Saraswati and Ramakrishna did not see eye to eye on most matters: Dayanand himself visited Ramakrishna towards the end of 1872, but the meeting was unsuccessful (Andrews and Mookerjee 1967:18). Regional ethos had the twin task of maintaining its identity and of providing appropriate means for accommodation of extra-regional influences.



During the period 1828-1835, the abolition of slavery within the British dominions, the Indian charter of racial and religious equality adumbrated in the Charter of 1833 and the new democratic parliament in Great Britain helped the awakening in India.

A significant step towards nation-building came from Britain through the Regulating Act of 1773. It was the Regulating Act of 1773 that brought the territories under the East India Company under a single Governor-General. Before this Act, the three Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal were independent of one another. By the Regulating Act of 1773, the Governor or the President in the Council of Bengal assumed superintending powers over the other two provinces as well. By the Charter of 1833, the sole legislative power was vested in the Governor-General in the Council of Bengal to the super-session of the power formerly enjoyed by Bombay and Madras, thus establishing not only legislative centralization, the beginning of the Indian legislature, but also the framework of Modern India.

The Regulating Act of 1773 and the Charter of 1833 introduced and firmly established central legislation and central governance in India, which made it possible for the people of India to convert themselves into a single political nation based on the already existing socio-cultural, religious, and linguistic national identity. The Regulating Act of 1773 and subsequent regulating/reviewing acts of the genre, including the Charter of 1833, were mostly acts of expediency on the part of the British so that the British power could be executed and sustained with ease and efficiency. The wheel turned a full cirle in 1940s. The proposal to give autonomy to provinces and to keep the provinces in a loose federation mooted by the Cripps Mission in 1940s was also an act of expediency on the part of the British in their desperate bid to retain their hold on India.


By the time Indian National Congress was established in 1885, it was a settled fact that the form of Western education with English playing a pivotal role would stay and flourish in India. It was also an established fact that jobs in the government, both in the Central and Provincial governments, would be available mostly to those who knew English. Thirdly, knowledge of English began to be synonymous with education. There were at least signs of this tendency in the form of power wielded by the English-educated Indians and the growing higher status accorded to them in the processes of decision-making in public affairs. Also by the time the Indian National Congress was established, the flow of information from the English language into Indian languages, which was only a trickle earlier, became much more continuous and stronger.

Earlier the flow was from the Indian languages into English, giving information on Indian classical works and works of similar nature meant mostly for an understanding of the Indian culture. Both in literary and nonliterary endeavours, English was slowly being accepted as the model. In, many Indian languages, English education led to various additions and innovations in the forms of literature and in the nuances of expression, and, slowly, English was accepted as the major donor language. By the time the Indian National Congress was established, it was, indeed, an established fact that for generations to come a new class of people, with English playing a crucial role in their lives, would be the dominant force in India. By the time the Indian National Congress was established, it became a settled fact that recruitment to government jobs would be through English.

Recognition that language could be an important factor for the unity and/or division of the country was emerging only slowly in the manifest actions of the British. The 1833 Act of British Parliament, called also the Charter of Equality of Races, made it clear that no native of the said territories, nor any natural born subject of His Majesty resident therein, shall, by reason only of his religion, place of birth, descent, colour or any of them be disabled from holding any place, office or employment under the said Company.

The court of the East India Company conceived this section to mean that "there shall be no governing caste in British India; that whatever other tests of qualification may be adopted, distinction of race or religion shall not be of the number; that no subject of the King, whether of Indian or British or mixed descent, shall be excluded, from the posts usually conferred on un-covenanted servants of India, or from the covenant service itself, provided he be otherwise eligible."

Note that, in the scheme of things proposed here, differences based on race, caste and religion, apart from the economic factor; were alone pointedly referred to. Differences based on language or the possibility of language acting as the mark of identity for several factors such as race, caste, and religion was not emphasized.

Perhaps this was based on the assumption that each race/caste/religion had its own language, or, labels such as religion and race subsumed under them distinct languages. Since, in the matter of language for governance, the trend was well-settled in favour of English, it was perhaps assumed that more than the vernacular identity and its use, it was the other factors, such as race religion, which came to regulate the happenings. There was not much of a recognition that language could easily cut across the factor of religion or race. Also it was perhaps difficult for any European power to concede the possibility of one nation having many languages of power and administration. There was, however, some recognition that communication in Indian languages could be more damaging to the British Raj than the same in English. This was revealed in Lord Lytton's muzzling of the Vernacular Press in 1878, long before the control sought to be imposed by the British on the English language Press.

The Act of 1833 had made Indians eligible for all posts for which they were qualified. However, although thus the Act of 1833 theoretically made Indians eligible, they had not been, in practice, given any posts which they would not have occupied before the Act. The system of competitive examination for the Civil Services was introduced in 1853. It way pointed out that, although the competitive examination was a good thing, it had put a great handicap on Indians as they would find it practically impossible to come to England to compete with English boys in an examination in English language and literature (Sitaramayya 1935).

In spite of these handicaps, Indians had crossed the seas and succeeded in the examinations. Hence both Indians and the British did not consider language as an important issue, since it had by that time became a settled fact that English would be the medium of instruction as well as administration. Adoption of English was thought natural and was not considered to be a medium of discrimination. The demand was generally not against using English as the medium of examination, but the demand was only for holding the examination in English in India also simultaneously, so as to remove the handicap of crossing the seas to appear for the examination in England.


It is necessary also to describe the linguistic geography of India, prior to the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Between 1833 and 1853, the Punjab and Sindh had been conquered. The policy of Lord Dalhousie resulted in the annexation of the princely states of those rulers who died without issue. It also led to the annexation of Oudh on the ground of mal-administration by the then ruler. These policies had added considerably to the territories of the Company, which more or less remained the same until the partition of India.

An important aspect of the linguistic geography by the time of 1857 War of Independence or prior to the founding of Indian National Congress was that there were Presidencies as well as princely states which were by and large multilingual. Only very small states had monolingual populations. The acquisition of the territories by the Company was not based on language considerations. Accordingly, the organization of various territories under the Company was also motivated more by considerations other than the linguistic composition of the populations, which occupied various territories in India.

As already pointed out, the Charter of 1833 emphasized equality of the races, and never considered language as a dominant factor influencing the decision of the Raj. While the Raj did not consider language as an important factor in the organization or reorganization of the territories, or in the pursuit of education, trade and commerce, the Raj certainly looked at Indian languages as an important factor from the point of view of administration. Accordingly, with the introduction of the civil services, provisions were made for the civil servants to learn Indian languages through an incentive scheme.

The India Office in London had been considering the question of the specific oriental languages to be studied in England by the candidates selected for the Indian Civil Service. In a letter dated the 12th August, 1881, Her Majesty's Under Secretary of State for India, India Office, London that wrote to the Secretary, Civil Service Commission, London, that, based on the reference made to the Government of India, which was communicated in the Government of India Despatch No.21 of 17th April 1881, it was decided that in future selected candidates should be required before leaving England to qualify in the following languages:

For Madras, Tamil and Telugu
For Bombay, Marathi and Gujarati
For North Western Provinces, Oudh and the Punjab, Hindi, Hindustsani
For Lower Provinces of Bengal, Bengali and Hindustani
For British Burma, Burmese and Hindustani.

This made two vernacular languages compulsory, and left out the study of the classical languages, Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit, optional, but apparently encouraged. The communication stated further:

"The Secretary of State for India in Council has given to this important subject his careful consideration. He is disposed to agree generally in the principles, which have guided the Government of India in their recommendations, and he assents to their opinion which is that of the Civil Service Commissioners and also of the several local Governments in India, that the Vernacular languages are those which should be obligatory on the candidates rather then the classical languages.
"He has at the same time been much impressed by the value of the suggestion mace by the Civil Service Commissioners that 'the candidates should, in future, be relieved from the necessity of passing at the final examination in more languages than one, viz., the chief vernacular of their several Presidencies,' and to meet this view, he thinks, it will be desirable, to some extent, to modify the recommendations of the Government of India, so as to make one language only obligatory on any candidate, that language being a vernacular language.
"Applying this principle to the circumstances of the several presidencies, His Lordship in Council would propose, in the case of Lower Bengal, to prescribe as obligatory on each candidate the Bengali Language, leaving optional with the candidate the second vernacular Hindustani; but giving it express encouragement by prizes and marks.
"In a similar manner he would make Hindi obligatory in the North-West Presidency, Oudh and the Punjab, and leave Hindustani to the option of the candidate, but with encouragement as in lower Bengal.
"In the case of Bombay, somewhat different conditions have to be met. There can be no doubt that the first or compulsory vernacular for Bombay candidates should be Marathi; opinions, however, differ as to the second. The Government of India recommends Gujarati. But His Lordship in Council has been advised that, as a vernacular, Gujarati is certainly not of equal importance with Marathi, and is probably not more important than Canarese or Sindhi, both of which are vernacular in parts of that Presidency. On the other hand, the adoption of Gujarati as the second optional language for Bombay, would exclude Hindustani, which, though, as the Government of India, truly say, not in any part of Bombay, a vernacular, is yet more or less current nearly everywhere, and is of great importance for communication with Native, and particularly Mahomedan gentlemen, and for transactions with Native Courts, and the many petty chiefships which so largely scattered over the Presidency in question. On the whole, therefore, and as a choice in a case of some difficulty, His Lordship in Council would, in the case of Bombay, accept Hindustani as the second or optional language, to be encouraged by marks and prizes.
"In Madras, the Tamil and Telugu languages are unquestionably the most important vernaculars, and should, therefore, be first considered. Tamil may, by general consent, be taken in the first order and made compulsory on Madras probationers. For the second, and optional, language, it would seem impossible to pass over Telugu as coming next in importance, and in currency to Tamil, and, therefore, in that Presidency, far exceeding Hindustani in usefulness.
"With respect to the classical languages, His Lordship in Council is disposed to direct that they be left options but encouraged by marks and prizes; only one such language, however, being allowed to be taken up by any probationer, and that one, whichever of the three, Persian, Arabic, or Sanskrit the probationer may select.
"The results of these proposals reduced to tabular form would be as follows:
Presidency or
Language Obligatory
on candidate
Languages optional
but if taken up to be encouraged
by prizes and marks
Lower provinces of Bengal Bengali Hindustani and one classical language
North Western Provinces,
Oudh and Punjab
Hindi Hindustani and one classical language
Madras Tamil Telugu and one classical language
Bombay Marathi Hindustani and one classical language
Burma Burmese Hindustani and the classical language
"In addition to the above, His Lordship in Council would suggest that at the time of the final examination a special prize should be offered for proficiency in Hindustani to candidates proceeding to Madras, and for proficiency in Gujarati to candidates proceeding to Bombay.
"Should the civil Service Commissioners, on consideration, see reason to concur in the above proposals, His Lord in Council would further request their opinion as to the manner or encouraging the optional languages, and as to the prizes proper be offered for that purpose."


The British administrators presupposed and retained English as the only official language of the British Raj. However, the British administrators, as attested in the above communication, did not fail to recognize the importance and relevance of Indian vernaculars for administrative purposes. The decision of His Lordship in Council resolved the conflict between language of ancient culture and language of convenience in favor of the latter.

The Lordship in Council actually foretold the subsequent trends found in all the Education Commissions of India when he provided also for the learning of classical languages in addition to the vernacular.

The British took a regional, zonal or provincial view when they arrived at the domineering vernacular to be taught to the civil servants based on the ranking they perceived as regards widespread/non-widespread use of competing vernaculars in a region, zone or province. The widespread use was not defined in terms only of numerical strength of the population using a vernacular as its first language or mother tongue; there is reason to believe that the then existing representation of linguistic groups in services could have also contributed to the perception that a. particular vernacular had a widespread use in a province.

Another notable feature of the decision was the inauguration of the policy of encouragement given to learning additional languages through certificates, awards and other incentives. Yet another interesting point is the tacit recognition that Hindi had acquired or was acquiring a lingua-franca status within most of the provinces of India. There is also an assumption that Hindi and Hindustani, though related, were different from one another functionally.

In a nutshell, the order of His Lordship in Council had within it the salient features of a realistic and accommodative language policy and recognized the ground realities. The order perhaps reflected not only the thinking of the British but also the thinking of the Indian elites at that time.



Prior to the founding of Indian National Congress in 1885, there were many associations of natives in the Provinces. The British Indian Association in Bengal, the Bombay Association of Bombay, and the Mahajana Sabha of Madras were all predecessors to the Indian National Congress. There had been a growing urge to come together to seek remedy for what the educated classes thought as defects in the political system prevailing then in India.

All these Associations were, however, originally associations of Indians representing only their respective regions. There is no record as to what language they used in their deliberations. One could safely assume that the deliberations might have been in English most of the time, since all the Provinces were multilingual in character. They may have used the Indian languages of the region occasionally at the informal levels, but English appears to be language of choice. Even today, this is the model we follow.

In addition to this, there appeared to be a trend in which the provinces were looked at as separate entities having direct links with the Centre without much interrelationship between them. The Provinces had some autonomous existence of their own and people used to talk more about their provinces than about the entire nation.


There was a general feeling which recognized the need for some sort of all-India organization. It is not clear as to who and how the original proposal for an All-India Congress was proposed. Sitaramayya writes that the Great Durbar of 1877, the international exhibition in Calcutta in 1844, or a private meeting of 17 men after the Theosophical convention held at Madras in 1884, or the Indian Union started by Mr. A.O. Hume might have had their influence on the founding of the Indian National Congress. Whatever might be the origin and whoever might have given the original idea, we come to the conclusion, as Sitaramayya (l935) points out, that the idea was in the air that the need of such an organization was being felt, that Mr. Allen Octavian Hume took the initiative, and that it was in March 1885 that the first notice was issued convening the first meeting of the Indian National Union in December 1885 at Poona, that what had been a vague idea floated generally in the air and influencing simultaneously the thought of thoughtful Indians in the North and the South, the East and the West, assumed the definite shape and became a practical programme of action.


Actually Mr. Hume conceived the Indian National Congress as an association meant for leading Indian politicians to meet together once a year to discuss social matters and be on friendly footing with one another. He did not desire that politics should form part of their discussion, for, there were recognized political bodies in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and other parts of India. However, as Sitaramayya points out, it was Lord Bufferin, the then Governor-General of India, who told him that there was no body of persons in this country who performed the functions which Her Majesty's Opposition did in England. He suggested that, in the interests of the ruled, the Indian politicians should meet yearly and point out to the Government in what respects the Administration was defective and how it could be improved.


In March 1885, it was decided to hold a meeting of delegates from all parts of India at the ensuing Christmas. The first sentence of the circular which announced the meeting was A Conference of the Indian National Union will be held at Poona from the 25th to 31st December 1885. This formed the first paragraph.

The second paragraph also consisted of a single sentence, which was as follows: The Conference will be composed of delegates - leading: politicians, well-acquainted with the English language (italics mine) from all parts of Bengal, Bombay and Madras Presidencies.

The Conference was conceived to form the germ of a native Parliament. It may be noted that in the first circular itself, knowledge of English was prescribed as a qualification for the delegates who might attend the conference.


Perhaps it was assumed that English would be the language unifying the various segments of British Raj speaking different languages, and hence the participation in the first Congress was, indeed, open to delegates who were well-acquainted with the English language. Since the delegates had all known one common language to communicate with one another, and since everyone perhaps thought that English had been settled as the language of administration and education, and since the purpose of Indian National Congress was not, at that moment, to enable or demand the emergence of an independent India, the question of the use of Indian languages did not play a crucial role then.

It may, however, be noted that one of the resolutions, namely, the seventh resolution of the very first Congress, protested against the annexation of Upper Burma and the proposed incorporation of the same with India. One of the reasons for this approach might have been the realization that whereas there was so much similarity between the various parts which constituted British India then, there was clear divergence between the ethos of Upper Burma and India.


The first President of the Indian National Congress, Mr. W.C. Bonnerjee, laid down four objectives for the Congress. The first objective was the promotion of personal intimacy and friendship amongst all the more earnest workers in our country's cause in the various parts of the Empire. The second objective was the eradication by direct friendly personal intercourse of all possible race, creed, or provincial prejudice amongst all members of our country and the fuller development and consultation of the sentiments of national unity. Note that there was no indication specifically about language pride or language prejudices in the four major objectives listed by the first-ever President of the Indian national Congress. Perhaps the prejudices relating to languages were assumed to be covered in the categories of provincial prejudices as well as the relationships between races. Since the country itself was then organized into territories which, in their turn, were multilingual, it was strange that no specific reference to language had been made.

While problems that might be created by choice and use, or non-use, of Indian languages were not considered in the First Congress, the organizers appeared to have very carefully worked out a balance in regional representations in the Congress from the beginning, from the very first Congress in 1885. For instance, the first-ever President of the-Indian National Congress was from Bengal, Calcutta then being the capital of India, whose name was proposed by Mr. A.O. Hume, a Britisher representing Anglo-Indian interests, seconded by a South Indian, Mr. S. Subrahmania Aiyar, and supported by Mr. K. Telang of Bombay.

There is no record to indicate that the delegates of the first Indian National Congress ever used an Indian language in the deliberations of the Congress. Ironically, while the delegates were required to have been well acquainted with the English language, the first-ever Congress was held in Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College and Boarding House in Bombay!


An assessment of the deliberations of the Indian National Congress in its first-ever sitting in Bombay clearly indicates that, while the Indian national cohesiveness was considered important, the view that language policies could either contribute to the cohesiveness of the country or to the evolution of the Indian nation was not considered. The participants had with them a language, English, which they all knew, and with which they could communicate with one another. Hence it was only later on that the Congress strove to give a distinctly national turn to the thoughts and ambitions of the Indians, and made attempts to enable them to rediscover their common language and literature and their common crafts, and arts and, above all, their common aspirations and ideals. And yet, the need for balanced regional representations and preservation of regional interests were recognized in the first-ever Congress, when it demanded in its third resolution the creation of Councils in the N.W.P. and Oudh, and in the Punjab. Till then, the Councils were in existence only in the three Presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.


The emphasis on Indian languages and the emphasis on the rediscovery of the common language and literature, to use the words of Sitaramayya (l935:35), came into vogue only later on as the membership of Congress became more and more broad-based. But this growth of a broad base did not lead to an assertion of the languages of the Provinces/Presidencies. It led only to the growth of a dogma that a nation must have its own, and, possibly, a single common language. This assumption appears to have been taken for granted and taken as a basic principle in all later-day Congress discussions. Be that as it may, the emphasis on Indian languages, or, "the rediscovery of the common language" could not be avoided once the Congress accepted regional representations and demands for the creation of Provinces in areas with less influence and facilities for English education, such as the demands made in the third resolution passed in the first Congress of 1885 in favour of the creation of separate Councils for THE North West Province and Oudh.


That, in the perception of leaders, religion dominated as the most important candidate creating divisions between peoples of India was borne also in Mahatma Gandhi's speech as late as in 1931 in the Second Round Table Conference. While claiming that the Indian National Congress is truly national, it is what it means - National, it represents no particular class, no particular interest and it claims to represent all Indian interests and all classes, Mahatma Gandhi delivered his speech focusing on the religious representative character of Indian National Congress. There was no reference to diversity in linguistic character of the constituent peoples of India; there was also no appreciation of fear of the potential of linguistic diversity as a threat to Indian unity.

In other words, while religion was viewed to be an instrument that could be used to divide Indian people, language was not considered in the same light even in 1931. Hence, the fact that language issue was not considered significant in 1885 should not surprise us.


The earliest resolutions, both in the first-ever Congress of 1885 and in subsequent ones, did not speak of languages; the deliberations and discussions were concerned with social reforms, political (public administration) and service matters, religious cohesiveness and regional representation.

It is also true that, as the Concise History of the Indian National Congress 1885-1947 points out, the Congress, from its inception, was alive to economic problems, which engaged its serious and constant attention, in a manner and to an extent that far exceeded the attention paid to them by the pre-Congress associations.

However, a look into the resolutions adopted up to 1892 reveals that the objectives were limited to liberalization of the administrative pattern on a modest scale (pages 37 and 38 respectively in the Concise History). During this period, language was not considered an impediment for any of the issues before the Congress. In fact, of all the matters that were perceived to be impediments to national identity and progress, it was religion that received highest priority in subsequent Congresses, and it was religion that was singled out and chosen as an effective instrument to divide the Indian Nation by the British as well.

A great lesson here, for all of us.



As we have pointed out earlier, acquaintance, rather a competent acquaintance with the English language was specially mentioned as a pre-requisite for the delegates of the Congress sessions, in the first circular. We will see in due course that, even in the resolutions of the Congress in 1912, knowledge of English was made a qualification for membership in the Legislative Council.

While this was so, there are also evidences that show that, from the very beginning, the use of the vernacular could not be avoided in the deliberations of the Congress sessions. The native language efforts came to the fore very explicitly from the third Congress held at Madras in December 1887.

Thirty thousand copies of a Tamil booklet titled "Congress - Question & Answer" were sold before the Congress began and the proceeds of the sale were used towards meeting the expenses for the session at Madras. Rao Sahib Mookannachary, an iron merchant, spoke in Tamil in the third Congress at Madras which had a large number of representatives from the mofussil districts of present Tamil Nadu, unlike the previous Congresses at Bombay and Calcutta which were attended mostly by people from urban centers and capitals of Provinces.

The delegates to the Third Madras Congress (l887) were not nominated or chosen by individual leaders but were elected by various bodies including those representing craftsmen, small businessmen and workers. Thus, a large number of delegates from the Madras Presidency happened to be those who did not know English - a clear violation of the original understanding that membership was generally open to those delegates well-acquainted with the English language.

Within a short period of three years, the Indian National Congress had accepted the use of Indian languages in its deliberations, at least as a concession to the dominant spirit of the occasion. Later we see this trend, nurtured by local compulsions, getting strengthened, even as the Congress' original insistence on knowledge of English was retained for obvious reasons of mutual intelligibility and convenience.


We find, at the Nagpur Congress of 1891, only six years after the founding of Indian National Congress, Lala Murlidhar speaking in Urdu, an emotional speech, full of satire. Consider the translated version given in Sitaramayya (l935:67). (The passage below is so relevant that the opponents of globalization can easily use this now!)

You, you, it seems are content to join with these accursed monsters in fattening on the hearts blood of your brethren (Cries of No, No.). I say Yes: look around: What are all the chandeliers and lamps, and European-made chairs and tables, and smart clothes and hats, and English coats and bonnets and frocks, and silver-mounted canes, and all the luxurious fittings of your houses, but trophies of India's misery, mementoes of India's starvation. Every rupee you have spent on Europe-made articles is a rupee of which you have robbed your poorer brethren, honest handicraftsmen who can now no longer earn a living. Of course, I know that it was pure philanthropy which flooded India with English-made goods, and surely, if slowly, killed out every indigenous Industry, - pure philanthropy which, to facilitate this, repealed the import duties and flung away three crores a year of a revenue which the rich paid, and to balance this wicked sacrifice raised the Salt Tax, which the poor pay; which is now pressing factory regulations on us to kill, if possible, the one tiny new industrial departure India could boast of. Oh, yes, it is all philanthropy, but the result is that from this cause, amongst others, your brother are starving, Not 30 years ago, wheat sold for 1 mounds and gram for 2 mounds for the rupee, for our grain was not exported to foreign lands. Now it is six times as dear, and six times as hard for the poor to fill their bellies, because our philanthropists have conjured up the phantasm of free trade to drain our granaries. Free-trade, fair play between nations, how I hate the sham (emphasis mine). What fair play in trade can there be between impoverished India and the bloated capitalist England? As well talk of a fair fight between an infant and a strong man - a rabbit and a boa-constrictor. No doubt it is all in accordance with high economic science, but, my friends, remember this - this, too is starving your brethren! (Sitaramayya 1935:67).

Note that Indian languages came to play a role, which has not been fully explored by the use of English language: Emotive appeal, pungent metaphors closer to the hearts of the audience, the satire and cynicism, daring personal attacks, with the power to arouse the passions of the audience.

There came to be established a functional separation between cool and calculated deliberations on the one hand, and the arousal of passions for an effective building up of a following; the former function of cool and calculated deliberations being assigned to English and the latter function of arousal of passions to the Indian languages of the locality.

Even today, a functional separation of this sort is maintained in most of the political organizations which have members from regions speaking different languages, English for mutual intelligibility among peoples of different regions, English and local Indian language for instant communication with the local population. In it there was recognition of the fact that English could not be expected to perform all the functions of communication; it was effective in certain spheres, and worthless, or handicapped, in several others, wherein only an Indian language could perform certain functions more effectively.

It appears that Indian languages intruded unobtrusively into the deliberations of the Indian National Congress in its earliest phase, and they were implicitly assigned certain functions such as the above.


There was yet another area in which the use of Indian languages was seen to be important by the Congress delegates in the early years of Indian National Congress.

The Indian National Congress passed resolutions in 1886 for the extension of trial by Jury and for giving finality to the verdicts of Juries. Earlier the Government of India introduced the system of trial by Jury, but in 1872 made a change in the system which deprived the verdicts of Juries of all finality, and vested in Sessions Judges and High Courts powers of setting aside verdicts of acquittal by the Juries.

W.C. Bonnerjee, the first President of the Indian National Congress, argued in 1895 in favour of the Jury system as follows:

"A judge, translating in his mind the vernacular of a rustic witness, was too engrossed with the language to attend properly to the witness. Indian jurymen understanding the language would watch the demeanour of witnesses and would distinguish truthful speech from false."

This excellent point made by W.C. Bonnerjee was in favour of retaining and extending the Jury system which, earlier introduced, was just then curtailed by the British India Administration, and ultimately dropped never to be revived even in free India.

Note that the argument was not intended to support the use of Indian languages in judicial processes and administration, but was in favour of the juries who would, through a better knowledge of the vernacular, be able to arrive at an appropriate verdict. While the value of Indian languages in administering justice was recognized, the idea that Indian languages could be the medium of administration of justice in courts was yet to be raised.

This was not surprising since at that point of time the judges themselves were mostly British. The value of Indian languages in arriving at appropriate verdicts was also recorded indirectly by A.O. Hume who in 1879, before the Congress was founded, recommended that rural debt cases should be disposed of by summarily and finally on the spot by selected Indians of known probity and intelligence who should be sent as judges from village to village to settle up, with the aid of village elders, every case of debt of the kind referred to in which any one of its inhabitants was concerned. These judges would be fettered by no codes and forms of procedure and they would hear both parties stories Coram Populo on the village platform of the debtors own village. It is needless to tell any one who knows the country that while, when you get him into court, no witness seems to be able to tell the truth; on his own village platform surrounded by his neighbours, no villager in personal questions like these seems able to tell untruth. Everybody knows every body else affairs. Let the speaker deviate perceptibly from the facts, and immediately outgo tongues all-round, and hisses and cries of wah, wah, remind him that he is not in court, and that that kind of thing will not go down at home (Sitaramayya).

While the claim of Mr. A.O. Hume would be treated more as a statement coming from a well-meaning admirer of India and its villages and culture than as a correct characterization of an infallible procedure to extract truth, there was no denying of the potential for extended participation of the village folks when the process was conducted through the local language.


Sir William Wedderburn, in his biography Allen Octavian Home, describes several of the traits of Allen Octavian Hume and his matchless contributions to Indian National Congress, and through the Indian National Congress, to the Indian Nation at large. While Allen Octavian Hume's original circular announcing the first Indian National Union (later called Indian National Congress) in 1885 spoke of the acquaintance with the English language as a qualification required of the intending delegates to the Congress, Hume did, indeed, appreciate the limitation of this condition.

For, after the Madras session of the Indian National Congress, and perhaps before the next session in Allahabad in 1888, Sir William Wedderburn reports, "A.0. Hume set to work with his wonted energy, appealing for funds to all classes of the Indian community, distributing tracts, leaflets and pamphlets, sending out lecturers, and calling meetings both in large towns and in country districts. Throughout the country, over 1000 meetings were thus held, at many of which over 5000 persons were present; arrangements were made for the distribution of half a million of pamphlets, translations into twelve Indian languages being circulated of two remarkable pamphlets, A Congress Catechism and A conversation between Moulvi Fariduddin and one Rabaksh of Kambakthpur, showing by a parable the necessary evils of absentee landlordism, however benevolent the intention may be" (quoted in Ram Gopal [1967:62]). Note that early enough the role and function Indian vernaculars for mass communication and radicalization of Congress programmes was recognized, in spite of its tilt in favour of English in its proceedings.


The Concise History of the Indian National Congress remarks that the year 1892 may be said to mark the first period of Congress history. The period was one of slow growth (p.39). However, to a major happening in the Congress of 1892 held at Lahore, one should trace the subsequent policy making processes of the Indian National Congress as regards even the two-nation theory.

Faced with strident criticism that India was not a single nation and that the growth of the Indian National Congress would be detrimental to the interests of Muslims, (vide Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's assertion in 1888: "I do not understand what the words "National Congress" mean. Is it supposed that different castes and creeds living in India belong to one nation, can become a nation, and their aims and aspirations be one and the same? I think it is quite impossible. You regard the doings of the misnamed National Congress beneficial to India, but I am sorry to say that I regard them as not only injurious to our own community but also to India at large. I object to every Congress, in any shape or form whatever, which regards India as one nation (Ram Gopal 1967:82-83), the Indian National Congress of 1889 passed a resolution stating that wherever the Parsees, Christians, Mohammedans or Hindus are in a minority, the total number of Parsees, Christians, Mohammed or Hindus, as the case may be in such electoral jurisdiction bear to the total population.

This preference for proportional representation to religious groups in Councils later on was to play havoc upon the Indian body politic.

When Lord Cross India Bill was in the debating stage in British Parliament, several speakers on the Bill argued in favour of allotment of seats in Councils to different communal and professional interests. This was largely agreed to by the Congress. The Bill became the Indian Councils Act of 1892. As Ram Gopal (1967:86-87) points out, the Congress was avowedly a secular body; and yet it proposed a system of election that would ensure proportional representation to Muslims as also to other religious communities.

This non-secular approach was forced upon the Congress by the prevailing attitude of some leading Muslims, the most considerable of them being Sir Syed.

Hume was one of those who did not like the "minority clause" and asked it to be cut out. "Indians are Indians," he said; "why should there be majority or minority?" The Congress was caught up in a dilemma had to take notice of the undesirable parties arrayed against it and ensured the continuance of Muslims in the organization by incorporating communal representation in the reform resolution.

This spirit of accommodation in the Indian National Congress noticed in 1891-92 became also the hallmark later on of the language policy of the organization is seen in the policy relating to the use of the Devanagari and Perso-Arabic scripts of the Hindustani language. It became also the hallmark of the organization's policy as regards the delimitation of provinces on linguistic considerations later on. Thus, the outlines for a future policy of language and culture were drawn in the very early phase of the Indian National Congress.



The early period between 1885 (the founding year of the Indian National Congress) and 1905 was a period of petitions for the Indian National Congress. As Sitaramayya remarks, "there is no doubt that the progress of the Congress from its inception in 1885 to 1905 was one even march based on a firm faith in constitutional agitation and in the unfailing regard for justice attributed to the Englishmen" (Sitaramayya 1935:100). This period, as already pointed out, focused its attention on social reforms, service matters, regional representation and religious cohesion, rather than on any serious thought or effort for the discovery, rather, in the words of Sitaramayya, for the rediscovery of, a common language, or, for the adequate status, recognition and use of Indian languages.

We have already pointed out as to how the membership in Indian National Congress was encouraged only among those who were well acquainted with the English language in 1885, how, in subsequent Congresses, part of the membership was subscribed by those not well-acquainted with the English language, and how, in the Madras Congress of 1885, and how, in the Nagpur Congress of 1891, speeches in vernaculars were delivered. We also pointed out that there was a functional separation in the offing with serious deliberations taking place in English, and the espousal of causes done in an Indian rhetoric through Indian vernaculars.


The agitation against the Act of 1894, the Government of India notification relating to the Press in the Indian States, was an agitation against curtailing the freedom of expression via the vernaculars. Both the British India Government and the Congress recognized the potential of vernaculars for what it was. The Congress opened unconsciously its doors for the use of vernaculars in its mass communication performances as it happened in 1888 in Madras or in 1891 in Nagpur, and as was done by the translation of tracts into 12 Indian languages and distribution of the same in various regions of India, by Mr. A.O. Hume.

In other words, the potential for and efficacy of Indian languages far mass communication was rather readily agreed to by the Congress even in its early phase, but its application to the fields of education and administration was not yet recognized decidedly in its deliberations during the period of 1885-1905. The concepts of Swadeshi, boycott, self-government, and national education were in the air, but had to take definite shape strangely through a linguistic phenomenon, namely, the Partition of Bengal, that affected the people's linguistic identity and sensitivity.



The proposal for the Partition of Bengal was mooted as part of the redistribution of various provinces for administrative reasons since 1867-68, but such proposals did not materialize in full scope until Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, took up the matter and announced the government's intention on 3rd December 1903.

The Madras session of the Indian National Congress which met in December 1903 resolved:

"This Congress views with deep concern the present policy of the Government of India in breaking up territorial divisions which have been of long standing and are closely united by ethnological, legislative, social and administrative relations, and deprecates the separation from Bengal of Dacca, Mymensingh and Chittagong Divisions and portions of Chhota-Nagpur Division, and so separation of the District of Ganjam and the agency tracts of the Ganjam and Vizagapatnam Districts from the Madras Presidency."

The 1904 Congress session recorded its emphatic protest against the proposals of the Government of India, for the partition of Bengal in any manner whatsoever. The proposals were viewed with great alarm by the people, as the division of the Bengali nation into separate units would seriously interfere with its social, intellectual and material progress, involving the loss of various constitutional and other rights and privileges which the province has so long enjoyed and would burden the country with heavy expenditure which the Indian tax payers cannot at all afford (Resolution at the 1904 Congress session). But the plan for the partition of Bengal was made known to all on 19th July 1905 to become effective as from 16th October 1905.

Thus began a turbulent period in Indian politics that awakened the Indian masses and brought in the radicalization of politics and participation of Indian masses in the ultimate struggle for Indian independence.

It was the decision of Lord Curzon to divide a linguistically homogeneous community into two religiously heterogeneous groups that was responsible in shaking off the lethargy that had set in, in the Indian National Congress as an organization. The organization and the masses at large throughout the length and breadth of India were galvanized into action by the partition of Bengal, of which we shall see the details in another article.

It is sufficient here to say that Indian language which had, until now, not been given any crucial role in the conduct of the deliberations of the Congress sessions and in its programmes of action, came to dominate the scene almost as an uninvited guest for the next six years in the history of Indian National Congress.

G.K. Gokhale, the President of the Indian National Congress in 1905 at Benares, declared that the partition of Bengal was not an issue relating only o the people of a single province; it was upper most in the minds of all Indians. He said in his Presidential address:

"A cruel wrong has been inflected on our Bengali brethren and the whole country has been stirred to the deepest depths of sorrow and resentment as has never been the case before. The scheme of partition, concocted in the dark and carried out in the face of the fiercest opposition that any government measure has encountered during the last half a century, will always stand as a complete illustration of the worst features of the present system of bureaucratic rule -- its utter contempt for public opinion, its arrogant pretensions to superior wisdom, its reckless disregard of the most cherished feelings of the people, the mockery of our appeal to its sense of justice, its cool preference of service interest to those of the governed."

The 1905 Benares Congress resolved against the partition of Bengal and asked for its reversion or modification of the arrangements, in such a manner as to conciliate public opinion and allay the excitement and unrest present among all classes of people.

We will discuss the genesis of the partition of Bengal and the response of the Indian nation to it, and how the response led the Indian National Congress into wider agitational politics. And all these were instigated by an attack on the linguistic consciousness of a sub-nationality by the British rulers.




M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany Collge of Missions
6820 Auto Club Road, Suite C
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA

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