The historic political importance of compulsory Telugu

The fight to preserve State rights is a fight to preserve the unity and integrity of the Indian Union

 

Garga Chatterjee
Telugu is the 15th most spoken mother language in the world. To put this rank in perspective, some of the mother languages that are behind Telugu in rank include French, Turkish, Italian, Persian and Dutch. All of these lesser-ranked languages are official languages of independent states and, with the exception of Urdu, are independent states that are smaller in population than the Telugu linguistic homeland (that is, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh combined). One is a UN language, and some are languages in which hundreds of science journals are published including works that went on to win Nobel prizes in the sciences.
That these lesser-ranked languages are compulsory in their respective linguistic nations is not a question of debate. However, all hell breaks loose from the small but rich, hence influential, Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) school parents and authorities groups when any non-Hindi language is made compulsory in any state of the Indian Union. I stress on non-Hindi since Hindi learning is compulsory in all boards of all schools in each and every state where Hindi is the primary state language and no parent of any CBSE school, irrespective of what the mother tongue of the child is, has ever protested that. Somehow all concerns about ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ emanate from CBSE schools when it comes to non-Hindi languages and never in case of Hindi. In fact, this sort of ‘choice’ rhetoric is quite rich as CBSE is the only board that does not give any choice about what should be first language of the child, which must necessarily be English. All major non-Hindi state boards give multiple choices for the first language.
Compulsory Telugu
It was not surprising when the declaration of Telugu to be compulsory in schools of Telangana saw similar murmurs of unhappiness from some CBSE schools.
In no part of the Telugu homeland has learning Telugu ever been compulsory in the 2 millennia old past of the Telugu language. That changed on 14th November 2017, with a communiqué from Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s office which read, “The CM has instructed all the educational institutions in the state, both private and public, to teach Telugu as a compulsory subject from 1st to 12th standard.”
This move was cemented further on 21st November 2017 in a review meeting of the Telangana government, chaired by the Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Kadiyam Srihari, put its assent to a sub-committee report proposing Telugu as a compulsory subject in all schools of Telangana from Class I to intermediate.
Telugu linguistic nationality never had supreme state power and supreme official language rights in their homeland in the last 300 years. With the passage of the Andhra Pradesh Official Language Act in 1966, the latter issue was partially remedied but barely so. They don’t have that power now either, given Union and concurrent list controls much of Andhra and Telangana affairs as well as Telugu people’s affairs. The life of a Telugu person is governed by subjects controlled by the Union government as well as the State government and the expansive powers and ambit of the Union government vis-à-vis the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh State governments ensures that a Telugu person does not receive most of the linguistic communication necessary for his/her life in Telugu, because the Union government does not speak to him/her in Telugu. It speaks to the Telugu person in Hindi and English and progressively more in the former.
Language & homeland
While the Telangana government decision to make Telugu compulsory in schools was a much belated, yet necessary, step, those who oppose this, but think that Union government’s Hindi imposition is ‘normal’, should get themselves acquainted with the actual political and constitutional reality. The constitution enshrines that no one can be discriminated on the basis of language – this makes all the attempts of Hindi imposition by the Union government on non-Hindi people unconstitutional.
The Indian Union was not formed on the basis of any language. However, most of the non-Hindi States were in fact formed on the basis of language. There is explicit mention of language as a primary basis for the reorganization of states after bigger swathes of the British controlled territories of South Asia was constituted as the Indian Union. In fact, most of the non-Hindi linguistic States have often been sovereign political units much before the “idea of India” existed. In the linguistic reorganization of States, Telugu has a very special place. It was the first State carved out on a linguistic basis from the erstwhile poly-lingual Madras province. Again, Telugu is one of the two non-Hindi languages (the other being Bengali) that is the primary state official language of more than one State.
The bifurcation of the Telugu national homeland into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states was seen as a breakage in Telugu unity. Thus, it is extremely significant that it was Telangana and not Andhra Pradesh that took the lead in making Telugu compulsory in all schools. With this act, Telangana had, consciously or otherwise, thrown the gauntlet towards Andhra Pradesh and it was a matter of time before Andhra Pradesh made the same decision, so that it would not appear to be reluctant and left behind when it came to standing up for Telugu. On 24th November 2017, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu signed an official document setting off the process that ultimately aims at making Telugu compulsory in all schools of Andhra Pradesh till Class XII. United Telugu cooperation, a casualty of the Telugu homeland bifurcation, is thus back in play, albeit in a competitive sense.
Aspiration & response
As a part of his flash in the pan Telugu advocacy, M Venkaiah Naidu said that those having jobs in Andhra Pradesh must know Telugu. This is a pretty amazing statement because only a few days ago he said all non-Hindi students must learn Hindi to be “acceptable” at the “national level”. What is this “national” that he is talking about? Is Andhra Pradesh not part of that nation? Does he imagine a “nation” that is 5-feet above the ground of non-Hindi national homelands and is a product of Union government controlled offices, institutions, mines, ports, airports, highways, CBSE and Kendriya Vidyalaya schools? It is this Hindi-centric cow-belt hegemony-seeking viewpoint that has made compulsory Telugu possible. It is at the same time an aspiration as well as a response.
Telangana and Andhra Pradesh join a growing list of States where the primary State language has been made compulsory in school since 2014. Between 2014 and 2017, official announcements have been made making Bengali compulsory in schools of West Bengal, Kannada compulsory in schools of Karnataka and Malayalam compulsory in Kerala. What is important to note is that these are all non-BJP states, representing a wide political range – from state rights ideology parties like Trinamool to a universalist ideology party with a strong local base in CPI (M) in Kerala.

 

What these states – West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh—have started doing in this short period of 2014-2017 is something that they didn’t do since 1947. Thus, one must look to emergent realities of the 2014-2017 period to understand what this represents, why language and why now. Across the non-Hindi states, there is a realization that soft linguistic nationalism has the potential to be an effective counter to BJP’s Hindi-Hindu nationalism. It is one of the last remaining dykes against all round Hindi imposition, communalization of politics and unprecedented attacks on, erosion of and interference in state rights, with NEET, GST and NitiAyog interference being just a few examples among many others. It is this combination of factors that had led to this moment. In some ways, the language identity fights are essentially a proxy fight to protect the federal structure of the Indian Union. If state rights erode, there is no Indian Union, for the linguistic homelands predate the Indian Union. The fight to preserve State rights is a fight to preserve the unity and integrity of the Indian Union itself.