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Why Ambedkar Demanded “One State, One Language”: An Overview of His “Thoughts on Linguistic States”

Ranjana Sarkar


In the early 1950s, the issue of nation-building posed the Indian government with several challenges. The first and foremost challenge that had to be addressed was reshaping the notion of “India” – a country that had earned its independence from the British but had faced Partition in the process and was yet to become structurally a fully functional and democratic nation that it aspired to be. The first step taken in this direction was the decision of reorganising the state boundaries. Soon after the independence, the Congress realised that the division of provinces that India had inherited from the British regime was not suitable for easy administration and therefore, had to be revised. Thus, in 1953, the State Reorganisation Committee was appointed by the Central Government, which in its reports accepted that the boundaries of every state should be redrawn based on its linguistic population. The State Reorganisation Act had been subsequently passed in 1965 which led to the creation of 14 states and 6 union territories. However, the years in between were marked with deliberation and hardcore debates in the Parliament on the issue of what should be the basis of state reorganization of an entire country.

It was during these years, specifically in December 1955, that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar wrote “Thoughts on Linguistic States” which sought to make his stance clear in this debate. He originally calls this text a standalone brochure containing arguments on why he stands for one state, one language and not the other way round. The text, edited by Vasant Moon, appears in the very first volume of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches which was published in 1979 by the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra. Ambedkar mentions in the preface that the question of linguistic states must be addressed through “cold-blooded reasoning” and not through “any sort of hooliganism” or “in a manner that [would] serve party interest” (141). The text is divided into 5 major sections that elaborate on several relevant points – that are to be discussed in this article – followed by two more, which contain the statistical reports that Ambedkar refers to in order to support his arguments.

In the very first chapter of the text, Dr. Ambedkar discusses the work of the Commission and the logic behind his view (a very strong one), which supports the Indian states being divided according to the concentration of large linguistic groups in particular regions. He uses the SRC reports to prove that there’s a massive disparity between the states in North India and those in South India, in terms of the area they cover – the northern states are shown to occupy more surface area, and naturally housing a bigger population, than the southern ones. Ambedkar clarifies that such disparity is a consequence of the recommendation of the Commission. He calls the recommendation (which eventually turned into an official decision) a grave error, commenting on the lack of attention given to the matter of uniformity of the size of the states and consequently, their respective populations. For instance, the only state that then had more than 6 lakh people (Hindi-speaking) living within its boundaries was Uttar Pradesh with an area of 113,410 square miles while there were also eight smaller states constituting the federation that housed one to two lakh people each, at the same time. The disparity is enormous.

Dr. Ambedkar points out another fault in this recommendation in the following chapter, i.e., “not considering the North in relation to the South” (142). Given the vast differences between the two regions, he describes the creation of linguistic states in this manner as a consolidation of the North and balkanization of the South. Comparing the situation with an incident had once taken place in the United States of America, Ambedkar refers to a short sentence prayer “O Lord, bless our Nation,” (Ambedkar 143) which was dropped almost immediately after being introduced, for it was felt that the word “Nation” was, as he quotes from Bryce’s American Commonwealth, “importing too definite recognition of national unity” and was replaced by “the United States.” Ambedkar calls the Union of India mentally and morally unfit to be known as the United States of India, suggesting that the true nature of the Union of India is just an idea which was yet to be realised and emphasises “the unity of Indians rather than [the] unification of provinces” (Bhadarge 457).

As a man of reason, Ambedkar also cites the advantages as well as the limitations of having language as the basis for the redrawing state boundaries in the next section. There are three primary reasons he mentions for being in support of the creation of linguistic states. First, a common language brings with itself a strong sentiment of brotherhood, a sense of belongingness, and facilitates, through a shared culture, the intra-group bond to develop into a community-consciousness that outweighs all other socio-economic conflicts between the members, while also propagating inter-community rivalry. Dr. Ambedkar gives instances of seemingly powerful countries like Germany, and France that are built on the principle of one State, one language while contrasting them with the devastation of the multi-lingual and mixed states of old Austrian and Turkish Empires, thereby claiming to prove that it would be impossible for India to evade this fate if it continued to be a “congeries of mixed states” (143).

The second reason that Ambedkar states in his argument is that a multilingual state is bound to be at odds with democracy. He considers the fellow-feeling between people as the driving factor for a democratic country to run smoothly, without which the entire system would be plagued with factional fights along with most sectional interests of various communities comprising the mixed state opposed to each other. He puts forward the case of Bombay as the evidence of the failure of democracy in a mixed state. It was only the rule of Congress, headed by the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, that prevented the bitter enmity between the Maharashtrians and the Gujaratis, the two constituent groups of the state, from erupting into desperate violent struggles demanding separate statehood for each, notwithstanding the ongoing uprisings for the same.

Ambedkar goes on to explain his third reason where he asserts that it is not a natural feeling of antipathy but the social and cultural differences between two communities, aggravated by their forced assemblage into common activities, which worsens the relationship between them. Countering the arguments that might be posed against his, Ambedkar carefully elucidates that any comparison with the bilingual States of Canada, Switzerland, and South Africa is not viable, because of a fundamental difference between them and the Indians – the sheer collective will of the former to unite and the innate tendency of the latter to divide. Thus, having one language, Ambedkar propounds, would make it easy for democracy to function smoothly and eliminate problems arising from improper accommodation of cultural variations.

Moving on to the limitations of linguistic states, Ambedkar elaborates on the inclination of a group, charged with ethnocentricity, towards demanding for an official language of the state, which might subsequently be followed by the demand for independent nationhood. While stating that the lines between the sentiments of independent statehood and nationhood are extremely thin, he opposes this very idea of each state having an official language because he believes that it contains the seed of fragmentation that would tear India, as a nation, into shreds. He comes with a solution to avert such dire consequence by proposing that the Constitution of India should provide for only Hindi and English to be the national languages in place of allowing individual states to have official languages. He writes in favour of the partition that had taken place, stating that hadn’t it been for the separation of Pakistan from India, the Hindus of the country would have been unable to exercise their freedom fully. Ambedkar argues, that similarly, within the national boundaries, each linguistic community in a region must be given their own state, for the sake of easy administration, thereby enabling the state governments to sufficiently meet the needs of every region, to take care of their communal sentiments, and maintaining harmony between the majority and minority populations of the state. Only in this way, he suggests, can the citizens of India become truly Indians and preserve the idea of a nation that is united.

In the next chapter, Ambedkar deals with the interpretation of a linguistic state suitable uniquely to India. Being an ardent advocate of one language, one state principle, he accepts that each linguistic group must have its own state in the country. A different and often confused principle of one state, one language might become the cause and the bone of contention underlying agitation such as those in Bombay or united Maharashtra. On the other hand, Ambedkar also takes care to discuss the course of actions to be taken in case the population of one linguistic community exceeds that of another, and therefore state boundaries encompassing much larger area. In such a situation, Ambedkar proposes – as opposed to the view of the Commission – “people speaking one language may be grouped under many States provided each State has under its jurisdiction people who are speaking one language” (146) in order to maintain a balance between the areas occupied by concerned the states.

However, the lack of enough consideration of the equality of state sizes still renders the risk of smaller states being subjugated by the larger ones. Ambedkar turns his attention to the disparity between the sizes of northern and southern states of India, and to the grave consequences of such a disparity, i.e., the political as well as the cultural problem of “north versus south” followed by “the consolidation of the North and the balkanization of the South” (150), for which he blames the Commission. The North is mostly Hindi-speaking while the South Indians do not speak Hindi, with each of two constituting roughly half of India’s population. As the Chairman of the then Drafting Committee, he explains that, after heated debates and discussion on article 115, which dealt with the issue of Hindi being adopted as the national language, the House was divided into two groups – one in favour of the decision and the other opposing it. After a failed attempt at polling votes that resulted in a tie, Hindi won its position as India’s national language by just one vote. This, in years to come, would allow the northern states to exert an unanticipated but unimaginably huge influence on the decisions taken by the Centre. Thus, Ambedkar, as he agrees with K. M. Panikkar’s recommendation of Uttar Pradesh being divided into smaller parts, also illustrates how a decision such as this and a wrong step taken by the SRC has led to the development of hostile feelings between the two regions, putting the unity of an entire nation at stake.

Furthermore, Ambedkar also brings to notice the warning waged by C. R. Rajagopalachari in an interview taken by Ambedkar himself: “One federation for the whole of India with equal representation for all areas will not work… [where] the Prime Minister and President of India will always be from the Hindi speaking area. You should have two Federations, one Federation of the North and one Federation of the South and a Confederation of the North and the South with three subjects for the Confederation to legislate upon and equal representation for both the federations.” (qtd. in Ambedkar 149-150)

Dr. Ambedkar goes on to provide concrete solutions to the problems that he previously discusses in the text. He writes that one has to take up the difficult task of determining the standard size of a state. Pointing out a couple of reasons to prove that enlarging the southern states is not an option, the author states that the only way to handle the issue is by dividing the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh into smaller parts, each of which would consist of single linguistic communities. Ambedkar proposes that the state of U.P. must be divided into three states, with each region having the centrally located Meerut, Cawnpore (now Kanpur), and Allahabad in these regions as their respective capitals. The states would thereby have an estimated population of 2 crores each, facilitating smoother administration. Moving on to Bihar, the author writes that it should be separated into two halves (today, Bihar and Jharkhand) with Patna and Ranchi as their capitals with a little over one and a half crore people living in each of the two states. As he deals with Madhya Pradesh, Ambedkar differs considerably from the Commission's plan and proposes that there should exist Northern Madhya Pradesh – which includes Vindhya Pradesh and the state of Bhopal – and Southern Madhya Pradesh – that consist of the entire state of Indore and fourteen states of Mahakosal. In addition to this, the author demarcates the borders of the states he suggests should be created, on maps found towards the book’s ending.

It’s no surprise that Ambedkar dedicates an entire section of the text to the controversy surrounding Maharashtra, which then, had been a burning issue for several years. Apart from the usual proposals in the field, Ambedkar puts forth two of his own – first, the Government should do away with the state of Bombay, and second, divide Maharashtra into four parts. The author’s second proposal suggests that the first division of Maharashtra must seek to create Maharashtra City State, which would include the city of Bombay (now, Mumbai) alongside other areas around that would empower it to run successfully. The three other divisions that he suggests, must be created are Eastern Maharashtra, Central Maharashtra, and Western Maharashtra, each of which would involve retention of certain Marathi-speaking regions given over to other states. Ambedkar justifies these two proposals in the following manner. Ambedkar’s reason for his first proposal that asks the Centre to do away with Bombay itself elaborates on the condition of the Maharashtrians under the mixed state. He demonstrates the inequality of representation that the Maharashtrians have had to suffer in the Bombay Cabinet while contending against their Gujarati counterparts. With the help of statistical reports, Ambedkar also illustrates how there had been a growing disparity between the per capita expenditures of the two communities, the former being the subject to suppression and injustice once again, which can be solved only by completely erasing Bombay as a mixed state. Ambedkar’s second proposal is backed by several reasons. The creation of Bombay City State with the inclusion of certain new areas is merely giving back the Maharashtrians what had always belonged to them while changing its name to something that bears more similarity to Maharashtra. He counters the point of Maharashtrians being a minority (48%) in the city by arguing that the influx of non-Maharashtrians has always been very high, thereby constituting a population which is not permanent. Ambedkar believes that employing this strategy would ease the tension between the Gujaratis and the Maharashtrians. Furthermore, he also discusses the issues regarding the yields of Property Tax and Electricity Tax, and which state should appropriate these yields. The division of rest of the state into three Maharashtras is something that, Ambedkar claims, goes back to ancient times, i.e., “Trai Maharashtra” (Ambedkar 160), which also gets along with the language principle. Apart from this historical argument, Ambedkar gives the ease of administration in smaller states as one of his reasons supporting his proposal. Next, he states that this division might help in reducing the economic inequality prevailing in the three parts since the rule of the Nizam. Furthermore, Ambedkar mentions that the strategy would also reduce industrial inequality. The fourth and probably the most important reason for the separation of Maharashtra is that this would be a step towards obliterating the inequality of education prevailing in the Eastern, the Western and Central Maharashtra.

The obvious question that follows is that of the viability of Ambedkar's proposition for creating these states. The author infers from the report of Taxation Inquiry Committee a few major issues that have surfaced under the governance of INC – states have ceased to be viable like before when they faced no deficits, and the fall in the Excise revenue extracted has become inversely proportional to Sales and Income taxes levied on and paid primarily by the urban classes with an anticipated benefit that never materialized, and the failure of the Policy of Prohibition which aggravated the situation. Ambedkar concludes that India has enough capacity to bear taxation. It is simply the will to tax that the Government lacks that worsens the crisis.

In the tenth chapter, while he writes on the relationship between the linguistic states and caste majorities and minorities, Ambedkar rightfully asserts the caste system to be the basis of social structure on which India’s political structure is built. He notes three points about the caste system relevant in this context. First, every region has its own majority and minority caste groups, the latter occupying a lower position in the hierarchy accounting for its small size and its economic dependence on the former. Second, the system is uniquely characterised by, what Ambedkar calls, “graded inequality” (167). Third, an agglomeration of majority and minority caste groups can be called major and minor nations as both the entities are marked by “exclusiveness and pride” (167).

In this context, he briefly mentions several effects it the caste system is bound to have on India’s politics – voting becomes largely communal where the majority community wins the election as the votes polled in favour of the minority community are not enough to secure them a seat. He uses this as the basis of his argument stating why it is only the Congress, supported by its immense popularity, that comes to power after every election. Ambedkar accuses the party of exploiting the first factor mentioned in the paragraph, by nominating candidates who inevitably win the elections because they are from the majority communities. He argues that these effects are worsened when the identity of a low caste intersects with that of a linguistical minority community, accounting for which, people are invariably oppressed, discriminated against, and therefore deprived of equal rights and opportunities. While he distinguishes between the oft-confused caste majority and political majority, the latter being an achieved status, flexible, and subject to changes unlike the former. Once again, Ambedkar proposes two safeguards against such atrocities – one, constitutionally sanctioned creation of small linguistic states in place of large ones, which would reduce the proportion of minority to majority; two, instituting plural member constituencies with cumulative voting, rather than opting for separate electorates and reservation system, for better representation of the minority in the Legislature. This, the author states would be more efficient in eliminating the fear that the minorities harbour against linguistic states.

The last section of the book deals with the inadequacies of having Delhi as the sole capital of India. Here, Ambedkar argues that India is in need of a second capital as it always had in the times of the Mughals and the British. He claims that Hyderabad, Secunderabad, and Bolarum should be constituted as India’s second capital, and mentions three main reasons for his proposition. First, during summer, Delhi as a workplace becomes unbearable to be in and therefore it would always be convenient to shift to a cooler place as those who had ruled prior to our independence have always had, as Ambedkar recalls. Next, Delhi is far from the South, which is why its inhabitants feel distant from the Centre and that they are being ruled by North India. However, the most important reason is the question of defence. Shimla, Calcutta (now, Kolkata) and Bombay (now, Mumbai) come within a distance which is convenient enough for the neighbouring countries to attack. So does Delhi. On the other hand, Hyderabad is equidistant to all the states and therefore within the reach of citizens of almost every major region of the country. Thus, Ambedkar ends the book by stating that among all these cities, it is Hyderabad that hypothetically proves to be the most effective choice for India's second capital. This would also mean better representation of the South, thereby mitigating a large portion of the North versus South problem.

Ambedkar’s insight into the matter of creation of linguistic states provides the reader with several vantage points. Despite many criticisms that he had to face in his lifetime and beyond, one cannot ignore the fact that he had never been an arm-chair philosopher. Apart from commenting on the socio-political, and economic situation of the country, he had also been an activist in its truest sense. Right in the preface, he states that his views are subject to change. Readers and critics might call him inconsistent in his stance, but while quoting Emerson, he argues that responsibility is more crucial when weighed against consistency. Thus, taking all his viewpoints into account, one can argue that Ambedkar’s perspective in this text is based on nothing but statistical evidence, empirical studies, reason and nevertheless marked by certain amount of flexibility.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, B. R. “Thoughts on Linguistic States.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, edited by Vasant Moon, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. 137-201.

Bhadarge, Suresh Kishan. “Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Linguistic States of India.” International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Development, vol. 3, no. 3 (2016), pp. 449-50. file:///C:/Users/91923/Downloads/3-3-113-456.pdf. Accessed 13 March 2020.

Author Information

Ranjana Sarkar studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include classical paintings (Indian and Western), modernist and romantic poetry, and literature of the Beat Generation. Ranjana loves music and plays violin as a member of the Kolkata Symphony Orchestra. Currently, she is also learning two languages – German and French. She is part of the website team of All About Ambedkar.



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