No one expected that the Human Resource Development Ministry’s draft New Education Policy would trigger such a massive row in southern India.

The government has put the new draft this week on the HRD ministry website. The controversial clause in the NEP recommending the compulsory teaching of Hindi in all schools has become an issue of contention despite it only being a draft. After strong protests from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal, the offending para was dropped within hours on June 3.

The new HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal was not ready for the uproar. Though the PMO tried to step in and do some damage control, the controversy on allegations of Hindi imposition through back door in the non-Hindi speaking southern states is taking time to die down. First HRD minister Pokhriyal as well as his predecessor Prakash Javadekar clarified that there would be no imposition of Hindi and also changed the draft policy.

No doubt the Prime Minister’s political antenna caught the message immediately as he asked two of his high profile ministers – External Affairs minister Jaishankar and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman – who hail from Tamil Nadu to give an assurance that Hindi would not be imposed. Or else neither is the type to tweet on the issue.

Neither of them have any base in Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK was the first to pass the resolution against Hindi imposition and the state government too declared that it would continue its two-language formula of teaching Tamil and English in schools.

The DMK, which has been waiting for an emotional issue before the next Assembly polls, sprang up immediately condemning the Centre for trying to impose Hindi on Tamil Nadu. DMK chief M.K. Stalin hinted that they would step up an agitation if Hindi were imposed. Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president K.S. Alagiri reminded that though the DMK then had only two members in Parliament, India’s first Prime Minister Nehru had assured that until non-Hindi people desired to learn Hindi, the two-language formula would be followed.

In 1965, the state witnessed violent protests against a proposal that Hindi would be India’s only official language. Protests from other southern states came immediately with the Karnataka chief minister H.D.Kumaraswamy joining the chorus. Former chief minister Siddharamaih and Maharashtra Nav Nirman Samithi chief Raj Thackeray also had protested.

In West Bengal the activists associated with the Bangla Pokho civil society took to the streets. Tamil is the official language not only in Tamil Nadu but also in the neighbouring Puducherry and Andaman and Nicobar islands. So why all this hue and cry? First of all, it is an emotional issue, which the Dravidian parties do not want to give up.

Tamil Nadu (or the old Madras state) had witnessed anti-Hindi agitations as early as 1937 and the 1965 anti-Hindi protests led to the growth of the DMK. Since 1969, the state has been following only a two-language formula, which has worked well so far. The Dravidian parties believe that Tamil is not just a language but is their identity.

Secondly, their objection to Hindi is political. Tamil Nadu is anti-Hindi, anti-north and now even anti-Modi. The Centre should understand that the anti- Hindi sentiments in southern states are not just a language affair as they see the imposition of Hindi as an extension of the hegemony of the north that hurts their Tamil pride.

This is one of the reasons the BJP has not been able find its feet in Tamil Nadu despite sincere efforts because the people see the BJP as a North Indian party. Even Modi’s superb oratory did not find takers. The Modi government has handled the emotive issue delicately by not allowing the situation to go out of control. It does not suit the new government to face a new crisis in the first week of its second term.

Moreover, the ruling party does not have a presence in the south barring Karnataka and it did want to be seen as insensitive to the concerns of the southern states especially Tamil Nadu. Since language is primarily a utilitarian tool, knowing many languages is an advantage. But imposition of Hindi on states should be avoided. All said and done, English is still the link language within India and also it provides access to global knowledge.

Finally it is not just language, but many other identities of culture, religion, caste and ethnicity that ensure the idea of unity in diversity. The effort should be to find a broader and more inclusive language policy that meets the aspirations of regional interests. As Congress M.P Shashi Tharoor says, “Whatever the Hindi chauvinists might say, we don’t have one ‘national language’ in India, but several.” Hindi would become a truly national language only when people of the south willingly learn it.