In February 1940, Governor Erskine issued what was perhaps his last order, and one close to his heart, before demitting office. It was a communiqué retracting compulsory Hindi tutoring in Madras schools.
It was three years before, in one rare lowering of the barriers by the British, that the Congress came to power. The Governor assured his Viceroy in Delhi that the victory was not due to anything amounting to sedition “but on promises that a sort of utopia in which nobody need in future pay taxes and where hospitals and wells would spring up like mushrooms in the night.”
Indeed, the pledges made at election time remained confined to the manifesto and developments had to wait while the new rulers wielded the power bestowed unwisely. Hindi was imposed from classes VI to VIII in 125 schools which had predominantly Tamil students. But to sweeten the deal, a student didn’t have to pass the Hindi paper to get promoted. The Chief Minister Rajaji even assuaged the worried students “it’s like the chutney on your plate, taste it or leave it”. But the analogy failed to sell.
Rajaji’s opponent was ironically a long term friend, EV. Ramaswami (who had headed Erode municipality when Rajaji headed Salem). EVR had just gained control of the Justice Party from a bunch of anti-Brahmin Zamindars. Hindi was just the rallying-point EVR was waiting for. The ensuing agitations involved mass protests and rioting students. Black flags were shown to Rajaji and footwear hurled at him. EVR successfully tagged Hindi with Brahminism and soon the agitators were ridiculing the tufts and sacred threads of that community.
The nation was at war with itself. Rajaji confused about what to do, borrowed a gun from the enemy’s armoury — Section 7 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which the British had used on Rajaji himself when Congress picketed toddy shops. Using it, the government responded with a crackdown resulting in the death of two protesters. Even Mahatma Gandhi, in his Harijan newspaper editorial, called the response obnoxious. Lord Erskine, used to unleashing draconian laws himself, issued an official warning. He wrote to Viceroy Linlithgow that “Compulsory Hindi is certainly contrary to the wishes of the bulk of the population.”
Erskine would privately write on Rajaji. “He was too much of a Tory for me, for, though, I may want to go back 20 years, he wishes to go back 2000 and to run India as it was run in the time of King Ashoka.”
In an unrelated development, on October 29, 1939, Rajaji’s Government resigned protesting the involvement of India in the World War. The Madras provincial government was placed under Governor Erskine who heaved a sigh of relief. Three years of agitations was taking his mind off the World War effort. Keen to restore equanimity in the state, the Governor sought to repeal the Hindi act and was appalled when the Viceroy asked him to consult Rajaji on the move. Rajaji made it clear that a rescind would amount to a declaration of war. Whining on whether he had to govern by the kind permission of Rajaji, unrelenting Erskine again wrote to the Viceroy, this time mentioning that Rajaji was ‘a cunning Madarasi Brahmin’ and finally got his permission just before he demitted office.
The Governor’s order caused jubilation in Justice Party circles. Posters with slogans “defeat to the Brahmins and victory for the Tamils” cropped up on the city walls. The Congress, on the other hand, demanded the publishing of the favourable opinions of the headmasters of schools where Hindi had been taught. The issue died down in a few days, but nobody learnt their lessons. A persistent imposition of Hindi and the immediate response of the agitators was a familiar feature over the next half century.
Rajaji had a last potshot at the Governor when Erskine retired a few months hence. On a handmade paper he wrote an unsolicited letter of farewell “May you both have a safe return home. May your enemies be confounded into goodness. A bramhin’s blessing may have some potency still”. If Erskine thought of a satisfactory repartee, he didn’t utter it.
The Erskine Hospital in Madurai was renamed as the Government Rajaji Hospital in 1980s, making one wonder, “Was it by someone who had read his history thoroughly?”
— Venkatesh Ramakrishnan is a historian and author