National Language and Constitutional Deference

In India, the issue of the national language is one of the most controversial issues of pre as well as post-independence era. It has been a matter of debate in the past few months also. With huge diversity in culture, language and dialects, attempts in bringing uniformity in the pretext of ‘national unity’ have always resulted in violent protests. The members of the Constituent Assembly of India had heated debates while discussing the language issue. Adoption of Hindi as the official language of the Union and resistance to linguistic reorganisation was part of an integrated strategy to build common national citizenship that would sustain the unity of the country.[1] After the country was divided on the basis of religion which led to the formation of Pakistan with Urdu as the national language, there were arguments for bringing uniformity in India. There was a sigh of relief in some corners as the country got rid of the ‘ill part of the body’ which was proving to be a hurdle in the quest of national unity.

Uniformity vs. unity in diversity: A conflict (of interest?)

The Hindi-speaking members of the Assembly demanded that Hindi be declared the national language and that it should replace English immediately. They claimed that a multilingual society was incompatible with the unity of the country and a national language would further the cause of national unity.[2] Seth Govind Das while representing the Hindi-speaking position explicitly stated, ‘we want one language and one script for the whole country. We do not want it to be said that there are two cultures here’. He argued in favour of decision through voting and reasoned that a democracy can only function when the majority opinion is honoured without any bitterness. However, Syama Prasad Mookerjee pointed out the issues in imposing a majoritarian decision on the minority. He was of the opinion that it will not be possible to make the whole country accept one language by (coercively) imposing a language through a provision in the Constitution. It can be argued that imposing national language could have compromised the legitimacy of the other provisions of the Constitution. The non-Hindi-speaking members contested the necessity of national linguistic homogeneity. Shankarrao Deo was of the view of attaining unity in diversity and not mere ‘uniformity’.

While analysing the Constituent Assembly Debates, Hannah Lerner argues that the members clearly appreciated the link between apparent consensus in adoption and the legitimacy of the Constitution.[3] She highlights the position of Dr. Rajendra Prasad wherein he approached the issue in a wider sense instead of focussing on the implementation of a single provision. He stated that if the Assembly makes a choice which was not approved by a section of the people then implementation of the Constitution (as a whole) would be rendered perilous. He opined that the choice of national language would have to be carried out by the whole country. It was recognised that a choice regarding the identity of the country could not be made simply by drafting a provision in the Constitution.

Although Jawaharlal Nehru was of the opinion, ‘no nation can become great on the basis of a foreign language’, he recognised the practical difficulties in adopting Hindi as the national language. As the majority of the population did not speak Hindi, imposing the same on non-Hindi-speaking population was virtually impossible.[4] With regard to the status of English in India, Maulana Azad stressed the central role of English as the de facto language of law and government. He suggested that any change from English should be ushered in only when a (national) language becomes mature enough for the expression of highly technical subjects and can be read and written in every part of the country. Nehru also argued that Hindi lacked the appropriate modern vocabulary required to govern a modern State.

It has been argued that it is neither possible nor important to decide whether reason or interest was dominant and the motivating impulse. Both reason and interest had at least limited causal efficacy in shaping the positions on the issues and the subsequent choices the framers made.[5] In such a complex issue like this, there were many factors involved which resulted in its deferral.

‘Official language’: A convenient solution?

The members could not reach a consensus but as it was not possible to ignore the issue, the Assembly opted for an ambiguous formulation to preserve the conflicting opinions while avoiding a clear pronouncement in the Constitution. The Assembly overwhelmingly approved a compromise resolution, known as the ‘Munshi-Ayyangar formula’, which later became Articles 434-451 of the Constitution. By using a ‘tactful euphemism’, they provided that Hindi should be the ‘official language of the Union’ (also to be used for inter-provincial communication) while English was to be used ‘for all official purposes’. However, for an initial period of fifteen years, English was to continue to serve as the official language after which Hindi would supplant English unless Parliament legislates otherwise.[6] Additionally, they also recognised fourteen other languages for official use, listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. In this way, they sustained the balance between their pragmatic realisation and the nationalist aspirations of the Assembly.[7]

With regard to resolving language-related issues, two ways have been identified. First is to choose one national language while marginalizing those who identify as speaking the other. Second is to arrive at a compromise by either allowing the use of both or defer it to future legislatures. Rosalind Dixon identifies three different modes of constitutional deferral viz. using abstract constitutional language to defer the issue to future judges or legislators; adopting express ‘by-law’ clauses requiring future legislators to take action on the issue; using relatively specific but conflicting provisions which implicitly require future judges or legislators to resolve concrete constitutional conflict.[8] Thus, it can be argued that the framers adopted the last mode to defer the controversial issue to future legislators. As per Lerner, the Indian framers opted for ‘constitutional incrementalism’ rather than ‘revolutionism’.[9] The solution was to adopt an incrementalist strategy in the hope that the issue could be resolved in the future. She argues that the framers intentionally formulated provisions choosing to defer controversial choices to the future. It can be argued that in the circumstances when the country was witnessing bloodbaths in the civil riots after the partition, such deferral was the right thing to do. It may be termed as a ‘convenient solution’ but it would be difficult to deny it as the most appropriate solution in the given circumstances. It was proper on the part of the Assembly to defer the issue as choosing one language could have contributed to even more violence. As deferring such issues prevents undue delay in drafting of the constitutions, exploring other solutions in the given circumstances would have only added to the bloody legacy of the partition.

[1] Sujit Choudhry, ‘Language’ in Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (Oxford University Press 2016).

[2] Vatsal Naresh, ‘Pride and prejudice in Austin’s cornerstone: passions in the Constituent Assembly of India’ in Udit Bhatia (ed.), The Indian Constituent Assembly: Deliberations on Democracy (Routledge India 2018) 60.

[3] Hanna Lerner, Making Constitutions in Deeply Divided Societies (Cambridge University Press 2011) 145.

[4] Robert D King, Nehru and the Language Politics of India (Oxford University Press 1997).

[5] Naresh (n 2).

[6] Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a nation 266 (Oxford University Press 1966).

[7] Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India 175 (Penguin India 1999).

[8] Rosalind Dixon, ‘Constitution design deferred’ in David Landau and Hanna Lerner (eds.) Comparative Constitution Making (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd 2019) 182, 183.

[9] Lerner (n 3) 112.

Shantanu Pachauri is an advocate registered with the Bar Council of Uttar Pradesh. He did his LL.M. in constitutional and criminal law from National Law University, Delhi and completed B.A.LL.B.(Hons.) from National Law Institute University, Bhopal. His research interest lies at the intersection of constitutional and criminal law.

One response to “National Language and Constitutional Deference”

  1. […] strategy to build common national citizenship that would sustain the unity of the country.[1] After the country was divided on the basis of religion which led to the formation of Pakistan […]


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