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Rethinking ‘One State, One Language’: Reading Ambedkar's “Maharashtra as a Linguistic Province”

Soham Adhikari


“Maharashtra as a Linguistic Province” is a statement submitted by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar to the Linguistic Provinces Commission set up in 1948. It was first published in 1948, and was later included in Volume One of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, published by the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra in 1979. The text was reprinted by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation in 2014. This short text is sub-divided into four parts, respectively titled as “The Problem of Linguistic Provinces,” “Will Maharashtra be a Viable Province,” “Should the Maharashtra Province be Federal or Unitary,” and “Maharashtra and the City of Bombay.”

Ambedkar begins the statement by outlining the various problems related to the idea of Linguistic Provinces and the possible solutions. He states that the people who “advocate the creation of Linguistic Provinces … believe that the Provinces have different languages and culture … (and should) have the fullest scope to develop their languages and cultures” (101, 102). However, there are multiple difficulties in the creation of Linguistic Provinces. For the future Government of India, creation of such Provinces would cast it in a dual form – a Central Government and multiple Provincial Governments with indigenously inter-woven Legislative, Executive and Administrative functions. “The Central Legislature,” he argues, “will be a League of Nations and the Central Executive may become a meeting of separate and solidified nations.” However, the Linguistic Provinces, according to him, “may develop the mentality of political insubordination … (which) is not to be altogether discounted. If such a mentality grows it may easily make the working of the Central Government impossible” (2). Another difficulty is the issue of official language. If every Linguistic Province decides to adopt its own language as the official language, then it will be highly problematic and nigh on impossible for the Central Government to correspond since they will have to correspond in as many official languages as there are Linguistic Provinces; the very unity of India shall thus be threatened.

However, the creation of Linguistic Provinces has various advantages too. Primarily, it would make the working of democracy better, through the creation of social homogeneity – the absence of which in a State might give rise to “cases of discrimination, neglect, partiality, suppression of the interests of one group at the hands of another group which happens to capture political power” (Ambedkar 103). Power, in a heterogeneous society, is used for the advantage of one group at the detriment of the other. But in a homogeneous society, there are no social antipathies that might lead to or cause misuse of power – which might be a viable alternative for the construction of democratic Provinces in India.

But how to resolve the difficulties and disadvantages? As Ambedkar points out, the solution to the problem of establishing Linguistic Provinces must satisfy two primary conditions – “… (firstly) while accepting the demand for the re-constitution of Provinces on linguistic basis, the constitution should provide that the official language of every Province shall be the same as the official language of the Central Government” (104). He justifies it by saying that “a Linguistic Province has nothing to do with the language of the Province” (5, 6). Cultural unity can be maintained without the use of language too. Language is an important, but not a necessary piece in the jigsaw of Provincial unity and identity. Creation of Linguistic Provinces with Provincial languages as the official language would become very problematic and might cause the ruination of United India through the creation of Provincial nationalities. Secondly, imposition and usage of All-India official language on a Linguistic Province shall not hinder or barricade the maintenance of Provincial culture. “Official language will be used only in the field occupied by Government. The nonofficial field,” Ambedkar continues, “will still remain open to the Provincial language ... There may be a healthy competition between the official and non-official language … Such a position cannot be said to be intolerable…” (105, 106). However, his solution is not an ideal solution, but merely makes the democratic working of the Provinces viable. It does not enhance the possibility of the democratic working of the Centre, because homogeneity is an amalgamation of many other factors apart from linguistic unity. All said, the best solution is the one closest to the ideal, and this solution by Ambedkar ticks off most of the boxes.

Next Ambedkar raises the question of whether or not Maharashtra will be a viable Province. For a Province to be declared viable it must not only be self-supporting, but it must also generate enough revenue to provide a minimum level of efficient administration and social welfare. In the information and statistics Ambedkar gathered from various sources, he confirms the viability of Maharashtra as a province in the following manner: “(In its unabridged form which means if all the area occupied by the Marathi-speaking people was constituted in one single Province the area and the population of Maharashtra will be 1,33,466 square miles with a population of 2,15,85,700. In its abridged form which means that if the area and population of the Marathi-speaking people comprised within the States was for the moment omitted, even then the proposed Maharashtra Province would comprise an area of 84,151 square miles with a population of 1,54,33,400” (108). Furthermore, the estimated revenue to be generated by the proposed Maharashtra Province during Ambedkar’s contemporary times would be approximately Rs. 25,61,51.00.

Ambedkar then goes on to the topic of whether the Maharashtra Province should be Unitary or a Federation divided into two sub-provinces – “one sub-province to consist of the Marathi-speaking districts of the Bombay Presidency and the other of the Marathi-speaking districts of the present Province of the Central Provinces and Berar” (109). However, Ambedkar is vehemently against the creation of such Federations and instead says that efforts should be made to create larger provincial units. He proposes the unification of all the parts of Maharashtra into a single province.

The final part of the text is all about the controversy regarding Bombay and its inclusion in the Maharashtra Province. “(In light) of the decision to be taken over the future of the city of Bombay,” Ambedkar, according to Asha Sarangi, “expressed his views both in support and opposition to the Bombay city’s exclusion or inclusion in the state of Maharashtra, claimed that history did not help very much to decide this issue whereas geography favoured Bombay’s inclusion in Maharashtra” (Sarangi 154). Historically, Bombay was never really a part of the Maratha Empire. Also, as Ambedkar claims, the “past of the present” (112) is of more importance than an absolute past which is invariably fluidic enough to not give any viable conclusion. Over the years, the most spoken or the most useful languages have always supplanted the other languages. Conquest has basically no value and importance in deciding over this matter. “The Musalmans conquered Hindus. But the Musalmans,” Ambedkar argues, “remained Musalmans and the Hindus remained Hindus. The Gujarathis were conquered by Maharashtrians … (but) Gujarathis have remained Gujarathis and Maharashtrians have remained Maharashtrians … The history of internal upheavals as well as of external aggressions has been nothing more than a passing show” (112). Geography seems to be a way less problematic parameter to judge Bombay’s belongingness in Maharashtra. “The Province of Maharashtra,” Ambedkar observes, “will be triangular in shape. One side … is formed by the Western Coast Line of India between Daman in the North and Karwar in the South. The City of Bombay lies in between Daman and Karwar. The Province of Gujarat starts from Daman and spreads northwards. The Kanada Province starts from Karwar and spreads southwards … If the unbroken territory between Daman and Karwar is geographically part of Maharashtra, how could Bombay be held not to be a part of Maharashtra?” (112, 113).

As for the issue regarding whether or not the Marathi-speaking population in Bombay is a majority or a minority, there is no clear unanimous answer to this question. Various scholars have given varied figures. Also, the figures might not really give a comprehensive picture of the actual state of things since India had always been a country where free movement and internal migration was a basic right – which meant that people from various parts of the country might have come and settled in the city, thus adding to its heterogeneity. But then again, Ambedkar was also willing to separate or divide Maharashtra into four separate states. “To those opposing the idea of Bombay being a part of Maharashtra, on grounds of non-identity of Bombay with Maharashtra,” Sarangi notes, “Ambedkar asks them what kind of identity does Madras city have with Tamil Nadu or Calcutta with West Bengal? If the latter two could continue to be integral cities of the two states, he asked, why couldn’t Bombay be with Maharashtra? … Marathi could become the language of all three states of Maharashtra that Ambedkar proposed. He even suggested transferring of six districts of Maharashtra – then part of the Bombay state – and making them part of Marathwada” (Sarangi 155). Ambedkar also felt that a single Government would be insufficient and inefficient in administering such a huge state as a united Maharashtra, and therefore “Samyukta Maharashtra” wasn’t a viable option. Instead of a single Maharashtra, he opts for a separate Maharashtra. A separate state isn’t necessarily a single state which cuts and alienates itself from the other states of the nation, but rather is a contrast to the notion of the problematic single state which suggests that “only Maharashtrians or Marathi-speaking would form a state whereas they could be spread out in other states or regions as well” (Sarangi 155).

Next comes the question of the nativity of the Gujarathis in Bombay. They didn’t come to Bombay voluntarily. The officers of the East India Company brought them to serve as Adatias – the go-betweens. Furthermore, the Gujarathis came to Bombay, not to trade on the basis of free and equal competition with other traders, but as privileged persons with certain trading rights exclusively provided to them by the East India Company. The trade monopoly that they established in Bombay was due to the profits that they had garnered on the basis of the trade profits and privileges given to them by the East India Company. In spite of all these facts, Ambedkar believed that the question of “who built up the trade and industry of Bombay” is irrelevant to the issue regarding the inclusion of Bombay in Maharashtra. Although the minority Gujarati capitalists might face discrimination from the hands of the majority Maharashtrians, one must also remember that not only can this situation arise in other provinces as well (apart from Maharashtra), but also there is ample provision made in the Constitution of India to counteract such instances of discrimination against minorities. Asha Sarangi explains this issue of the minorities by remarking that, “… by empowering and educating them politically, there can be some hope for the progress of this backward community otherwise Ambedkar feared that Maharashtra too could soon become a Brahmin dominated state” (Sarangi 155).

In light of the question of minorities, we may also bring in the multiplicity in the meaning of the word “Maratha” as explained by Ambedkar. The word “Maratha” was a mix of both linguistic and cultural meanings. Not only did it include people who spoke the Marathi language, but also those people who were Maratha by caste. Ambedkar elaborates on the issue in the following manner: “… in a country like India in which society is throughout communally organized … in every area there will always be one community which by its numbers happens to be a dominant community. As a dominant community it becomes a sole heir to all political power, which the area gets. If Marathi-speaking people in a unified Maharashtra with Bombay thrown into it will become dominant over the Gujarathi-speaking people, will this prospect be confined to Maharashtra only … Will it not be found in Gujarat if Gujarat became a separate Province? I am quite certain that … the Marathas being a dominant class will reduce both Gujarathi-speaking and the non-Marathas to a subject condition. In the same way in Gujarat in some parts the Anavil Brahmins form a dominant class. In other parts it is the Patidars who form a dominant class. It is quite likely that the Anavils and the Patidars will reduce the condition of the other communities to subjection. The problem therefore is not a problem peculiar to Maharashtra. It is a general problem” (Ambedkar 123, 124).

According to Ambedkar, the future of linguistic states in India lie in making them more stable, viable and competent both financially and politically. Furthermore, he persistently argued that with the passage of time, the proposed Linguistic State, in this case the Province of Maharashtra, would become socially more homogeneous and politically more democratic. As Sarangi notes, Ambedkar proposed the formation of linguistic states based on his democratic impulse “…to accord political and cultural recognition to the term region, otherwise defined predominantly in a geographical spatial sense” (Sarangi 151). He wanted Bombay to be a separate city-state, while Maharashtra would remain a broader representative of Marathis and Gujarathis. He believed in the concept or idea of “one state, one language” over the idea of “one language, one state” and was inherently propelled by his thirst for development, justice, equality and freedom for all the backward and trampled-over classes of society – the Dalits and the untouchables and even the linguistic minorities who would have an opportunity to learn the ways and the language of the state and take part in its political and administrative affairs. Ambedkar probably felt that reorganizing states and Provinces based on the parameter of language would subvert the danger of communalism based on caste and religion that had adversely affected and enveloped the political environment of the country at that time.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Vol. 1, Edited by Vasant Moon, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp 101-127.

Sarangi, Asha. “Ambedkar and the Linguistic States: A Case for Maharashtra.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 41, no. 2 (2006), pp. 151–157.

Author Information

Soham Adhikari studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata.



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