Language expresses and constructs identities, and it often takes precedence over nationalism, gender, religion and race in defining identities. Within national boundaries, individual and collective identities are often shaped both by membership in regional groups or in the nation itself. In South Asia in particular, the tongue has proven more powerful than the flag. From the separation of Bangladesh into a new nation to the constant demands for secession that have threatened to tear India apart, language has both united and divided the people of South Asia. This region of the world has experienced many cries for secession, and it is important to understand that an extraordinary number of these movements were motivated by linguistic differences.

Tamil War Cries

Sri Lanka is the homeland for two major ethnic groups: the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Although these groups have frequently lived together in harmony, in recent years language has served as a significant division. After independence from colonial rule, the power of language as a force for a change in the country manifested itself through anger at the continued use of English as an official language. At the same time, Tamils held a disproportionate share of power in the civil administration of the country, due to unequal educational opportunities in the colonial era. At the intersection of these two trends, Sinhalese nationalism after independence sought to curb Tamil influence, sparking the confrontation between Sinhalese and Tamil forces.  

In 1956, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike ran his Prime Ministerial campaign on the promise of making Sinhalese the official language of the country, and, when he was elected, he delivered on this promise by passing what is referred to as the “Sinhalese Only Bill” (Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956). Violence broke out upon the passage of this bill, and its notable exclusion of Tamil. New education policies in the 1970s ensured that the quota for speakers of a language qualifying for university entrance would be proportional to the number that appeared for the examinations in that language, meaning that Tamils would have to score much higher than other groups to get the same position. In 1987, an act declared that Sinhalese was the official language but that “Tamil [should] also be an official language.” This move, which was meant to be conciliatory, made many Tamils feel like second-class citizens. Barriers to employment in civil, administrative and professional ranks decreased the number of “over-represented” Sri Lankan Tamils to only 5.9% of those employed in state services, according to the 1990 census.

Ethnic and linguistic violence between Tamils and Sinhalese broke out in periodic riots, most notably in 1958, 1977, and 1981. The violence of July 1983 was a watershed moment, after which sporadic violence was replaced by more institutionalized violence by political parties. Additionally, Tamil youth began to organize themselves into armed guerrilla groups with the purpose of seeking an independent Tamil state. One of the most notorious groups was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Political violence included bank robberies, massacres of Sinhalese and Muslims in border villages and disputed areas, assassinations of Tamils who were deemed to be traitors, and indiscriminate bomb attacks in the Sinhalese south, especially in Colombo. In 1983, the conflict escalated into a civil war with periodic intervention by the Indian Army. A ceasefire was signed between the government and the LTTE in 2009.

Protests by the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Photo by Gnangarra, CC-BY-2.5, accessed via WIkimedia Commons.

Language Triumphs Over Religion

British India was partitioned based on the logic that the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims would never allow them to live peacefully in one nation, but that the same religion could unite non-contiguous zones of Pakistan despite the 700 miles between them. The architects of Partition failed, however, to properly account for the major linguistic divide between the Urdu-speaking Western half and Bengali-speaking Eastern half of Pakistan. East Bengal––renamed as East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh––is often considered the first country in the world to be borne out of linguistic demands. The Bengali Language Movement, launched in 1948, began as a cultural movement, turned political by the 1950s, and eventually inspired Bengalis to take to the streets in the 1971 War of Bangladeshi Independence.

The Bengali Language Movement had similar demands to those in Sri Lanka, primarily asking for Bengali to be included as a state language of Pakistan. In 1948, when Urdu was designated as the sole official language, massive protests were launched in East Pakistan (at the time East Bengal), including a massacre of student protestors at the University of Dhaka on February 21, 1952. After the widespread unrest caused by this incident, the government gave in and granted official status to Bengali in 1956. To honor this movement and those who died protesting, UNESCO declared February 21 International Mother Language Day.

Soon after, language became the primary determinant of East Pakistani nationalism. Because it was a conglomeration of multiple ethnic identities including Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists, the main unifying factor in Bangladesh was a profound love for the mother tongue––not religion, as the fathers of partition had presumed. With a strong heritage created by Bengali writers such as Rabindranath Tagore and Kaji Nazrul Islam, Bengali nationhood was definitely rooted in language. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a Bengali, was denied the position of Prime Minister despite his party having won the largest number of seats, the Liberation War of 1971 was launched and, with help from Indian forces, won.

Calling for Secession

India has been racked by secessionist movements since its birth, many on the basis of language. The Hindi language has been promoted as the lingua franca and is more widely spoken than any other language in the country, but this has been opposed by other major groups. The situation is made more pressing by the sheer diversity of Indian languages––the Indian constitution recognizes 22 official languages written in 13 distinct scripts, and conservative estimates propose at least 720 different dialects.

One of the primary linguistic distinctions in India is that between Dravidian South Indian languages and Indo-European North Indian languages. Even before Indian independence, Southern India saw protests centered in Tamil Nadu against the imposition of the Hindi language. The Congress Party under C. Rajagopalachari attempted to impose Hindi on the Madras presidency in 1937 by making Hindi education mandatory in schools, leading to outrage. Simmering resentment grew, eventually reaching great proportions. In 1968, the Tamil Nadu Students Anti-Hindi Agitation Committee met with Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister. They handed her a letter which threatened to fight for independence for Tamil Nadu if the imposition of Hindi continued. Later that year, students in Coimbatore hoisted a flag for an independent Tamil Nadu, arguing that independence was the only way to maintain their mother tongue against the imposition of Hindi. With the rise of regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakham dethroning the dominant Indian National Congress, resentment began to subside as local leaders started to look after local interests. This reduced the feeling that the Hindi-speaking North and Union government were imposing foreign languages on the South. This issue remains salient for many, especially as India tries to include Hindi as an official language of the United Nations and increase its use in state services. Fortunately, however, open hostilities between opposing linguistic groups have died down.

This anti-Hindi agitation was not just limited to the South, also appearing in the state of Punjab in the North in the 1970s. The roots of this insurgency were in the inadequate recognition of the Sikh religion and the Punjabi language. All schools in Punjab were required to teach Punjabi children Hindi, even after the states in India were divided along linguistic lines by Nehru in 1956. A civil movement called the Punjabi Suba movement began with the purpose of restoring Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script as the official language of the state. Later, however, it was banned because of their violent activities. Violence in the state increased as well, with peaceful protestors beaten and arrested and temples raided. In 1966, Punjabi was finally recognized as the official language, but by this time the linguistic demand had escalated into a religious demand for more rights for Sikhs. Sikh and anti-Sikh violence consumed the state until the 1990s, including the infamous Operation Blue Star. After weeks of violence, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi commanded forces to shoot on the Golden Temple, the holiest monument in Sikhism. In response, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. After her son and political successor Rajiv Gandhi accepted many Sikh demands, the tension deescalated temporarily––but the lives that were lost are never coming back. Tellingly, Rajiv Gandhi was himself eventually assassinated by Tamil extremists.

In Assam, a state in Northeastern India, separatist movements are also rooted in language. Many Assamese-speaking people disliked the overrepresentation of Bengali-speaking groups in state services and in professional jobs because Bengalis had had greater educational opportunities under British rule. Proficiency in an official language was needed for those aspiring for public employment and access to higher education, so in 1960 the legislature made Assamese the sole official language in order to limit opportunities for the Bengali population. After a mass influx of Bengali refugees following Bangladeshi independence in 1971, major agitations began against the Bengali community in Assam. This culminated in the Assam Agitation from 1979-1985, which attempted to compel the Indian government to expel undocumented Bengali immigrants. Many Assamese groups like the United Front for the Liberation of Assam (ULFA) led insurgent movements, but their efforts never came to fruition.

Identities in South Asia have long been shaped by language. While language is a product of the socio-historical experiences of the group, it is also an instrument for forming and changing the existing social order. In South Asia, the strengthening of collective identities through a common language led to demands for autonomy and secession from other linguistic groups, which were seen as oppressing their cultures and languages. These linguistic demands have changed the way South Asia looks, utilizing their power to create new countries and tear apart old ones.