Will the South Explode again on the Language Issue?

Yesterday being Hindi Diwas, twitter exploded again on the issue of ‘Hindi Imposition’. Nearly two years ago I had written about whether ‘Hindi imposition’ was a real issue. At that moment I had summarised that while Hindi Imposition was a fact, it was not a big political issue. I continue to hold that position but I am now a little concerned.

Two of the biggest reasons why Hindi Imposition never became a big issue after the 1960s was the following

One, economic growth. Apart from Delhi, Uttarakhand and Haryana, the Hindi speaking states have constantly trailed the rest of the country on economic growth. Had it been the reverse, the whole issue would have been seen from the perspective of cultural domination. To illustrate my point

UP and Bihar together for example have a 25% higher population than the Southern States. Let us compare the economic performance in the last decade.

Last 10 years, UP+Bihar, Total Increase in Per Capita (Current) = 3.1 times

Last 10 years, All Southern States put together, Total Increase in Per Capita = 3.8 times (Kerala is 2018 data)

In reality, the gap could be much larger as I have considered 2011 population figures (all the southern states are growing at an even slower pace in terms of the population compared to the two Hindi Speaking States). The average southern state is now 3.5 times of UP+Bihar on per capita, up from 2.8 times 10 years ago. This is remarkable given the substantial tax transfers to these 2 States.

Two, Political Mobilisation. The Southern States have mobilised politically on language before. And it is not just the language protests of the 1960s in Tamil Nadu. The linguistic states were formed on the basis of protests in Andhra Pradesh. While the Telangana protests were against Andhra domination and protests in Karnataka have often centered around any form of cultural domination, the fact is that south has periodically risen up to assert against any form of cultural domination in the last 70 years. But ‘ Hindi Imposition’ has had no takers over the last 50 years. Southerners in general understand the larger concept of Bharat and how for all the differences, we are one people and have been so for many centuries. They are also quite pragmatic to understand that given the population mix in the country, it is good economics to learn Hindi. So anybody talking about Hindi Imposition wasn’t getting a listen. This changed over the last 12 months.

What has changed?

Political Support: As PM Modi’s domination of India’s political theatre keeps reaching stratospheric levels, many in the South are beginning to notice his rampant use of Hindi in almost every engagement. Southern Politicians have also noticed that much of the policy making of the PM is targeted at the slow growing Hindi Heartland. Lastly, as more Hindi speaking population migrate to the South in ever increasing numbers, the discomfort of the average South Indian has begun to increase (even if marginally). Therefore, it was the Karnataka (a state that perhaps receives the most hindi speaking migrants) assembly election that saw Hindi Imposition being used as a political device after long and in my view producing positive results. The almost complete sweep of the BJP in the 2019 election has only made this issue even more important in the Southern Political calculations

15th Finance Commission: Part of the reason why there appeared to be a more open response to the Hindi Imposition issue was that for the first time in 2018, people looked at the issue of Central tax transfers more closely. This in turn was triggered by change in the terms of reference of the 15th Finance commission (due to in 2 months time). It moved the census criteria from 1971 to 2011.

For example, the share of population of the whole of south in 2011 is 20.7%. This has reduced from 22.1% in 1971. If allocations were to be done only by considering the population criteria (they are not), the average southern state would receive 7% per annum lesser. And since the FC recommendations are used for 5 years, the difference translates to a significant number over the 5 year period. The Southern States (along with Mah, Guj, Pun, Delhi, Harayana, Uttarakhand amongst the larger States) receive substantially lower allocations from the Centre anyways due to differences in per capita versus the poorer hindi speaking states. With per capita gap only increasing, every Southern State will receive significantly lower share than 2014

But it is not just the 15th FC. Almost every central Government program targeted at the poor benefits the population of the Southern States lesser than the Hindi Speaking States. The South in the meanwhile grapples with serious issues around water availability and ageing for which the Central Government policy has not yet gone beyond tokenism.

This political threat of Narendra Modi’s national domination is increasingly pushing Southern Politicians to seek ‘Hindi Imposition’ as a tool to resist the BJP. The unnecessary comments of many BJP politicians is only worsening the situation.

That said, as I mentioned at the outset that while I am not changing my stand (no long term impact), I am beginning to worry a little. My worry is always centred around the economic slowdown. Even as the rest of the country slowed down in 2018-19, the South as a whole did not (AP a little but still one of the fastest growing States). However, the first quarter which was terrible nationally has also impacted 4 out of the five Southern States. This is the first real slowdown since the crisis of 2011 to 2013.

Telangana too now needs GST compensation

Kerala treasuries on a tight leash in the run-up to Onam

GST collections in State miss the target

Tamil Nadu auto industry chokes as low demand cripples production

The slowing economy changes the vulnerability of the average voter making him/her more open to messages around cultural issues. How things evolve over the next 12 months, whether on the economy or on the 15th Finance commission will decide how South India responds to the issue of ‘Hindi Imposition’. There is a clear risk if not a danger that this issue could hurt India.

All Statistics on the Economy are from the RBI web-site. All data on population is from Census India web-site

Subhash Chandra Founder – CrowdWisdom360