Sure, it could have been election-time rhetoric, but Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s grievances against the use of the English language and English-medium education—both real and imagined—touch a chord. Last week, Yadav said that if his party won, it would abolish ‘expensive education in English’. He is against ‘the compulsory use of English language in education, administration and the judiciary’. Does learning and working in English mean we neglect regional languages and literature? It’s an old debate—do we make a ‘foreign’ language, alien to most Indians, our nation’s lingua franca? We asked the experts. Edited excerpts:
Marathi playwright, Nagpur
By excluding English, we would be shutting the doors on vast resources of language, literature and knowledge. And, like it or not, it has become India’s link language.
I have taught English in college for 35 years and the problem is that our system of education is bad and we don’t have good teachers. I came from a small village to Nagpur as an 18-year-old and used to pronounce “chaos” as “chay-os” because that is how my teacher pronounced it.
Illustration by Jayachandran / Mint
It was around 1845 that Vishnu Shastri Chiplunkar, the first great essayist in Marathi, called English vaghiniche doodh or the tigress’ milk. It is only after we drank it that we realized we had to be independent. Chiplunkar, incidentally, insisted that he would write only in Marathi, but also said that we should learn English to acquire knowledge.
I know people and families in Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur where both English and Marathi is spoken with great ease—not a word of Marathi is used when they speak English and vice-versa. This attitude—don’t learn English— will only foster laziness; at this rate they’ll say you don’t have to know Marathi or Hindi to join the public services.
We can’t do without English because it is a global language that liberates us from the confines of regionalism. As a writer who has never thought of writing in any language other than Bengali, knowing English has enriched my work. I think in Bengali and express myself best in the language, but my fiction is better because of my exposure to English literature. And without English I would only be read in Bengal.
Yadav's statement rings hollow because he is talking about a ban that has already failed. In 1981, the Communist government in West Bengal (under Jyoti Basu) banned English in all government-run schools. Millions of Bengalis, who lacked the means to improve their plight anyway lost job opportunities to the middle-class youngsters who went to private schools and learnt English.
Lead singer, The Raghu Dixit Project, Bangalore
Instead of setting up more educational institutions and English-medium schools, politicians are shouting slogans. In this age of globalization, English is needed to communicate with the world and within the country. I sing rock tunes in Kannada and Hindi, in addition to English, and now I have listeners in north and south India as well as internationally. Kannada, my mother tongue, has such literary gems and this is one way of making them contemporary. It is important to stay in touch with your roots and not get lost in the potpourri.
But if we were to speak only Kannada, Bangalore would never be an IT powerhouse. Because they don’t know English, the Chinese can’t even sell their products; they are getting Indians to teach them English now.
Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi
I support Yadav’s stand on Hindi. India is the only country where the elite are prisoners of a foreign language like English. Take, for instance, the fact that the majority of Indians are not part of the IT revolution, just because it requires them to be knowledgeable in English.
English as a vehicle for modern communication, international business, global diplomacy and trade is fine. I began my career as an English language journalist with Russy Karanjia’s Blitz. But to be fluent in English shouldn’t mean that we should become copycat Englishmen—that is the curse of India. We are an ugly carbon copy of Macaulay’s version of the English brown sahib that is completely in opposition to India’s soil and fragrance.
A majority of the world’s nations have progressed without English. It is only after reaching the pinnacle that China is now learning English. China runs on Chinese and India runs on English, a sign of our slave mentality.
Publisher, Seagull Books, Kolkata
The fact that banning or opposing English is now part of a political party’s manifesto proves how far our politicians have gone from the real issues. Let’s not blame English for what’s wrong with rural India, where there’s little exposure to English. The experiment has already failed in West Bengal. Many young people in Bengal are jobless because of the ban that was imposed in 1981, although it was later lifted. As a publisher, I have met regional writers who are widely read today because their works have been translated. Translators from all parts of the world are making an effort to discover India’s regional writing. We have our own literature in English and our writers are no longer confined to Indian realities and situations. Some of Kunal Basu’s books, for instance, are set in medieval Europe.
Author and co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival, New Delhi
It is important to use English and not be used by it. It is a link language and is one of the advantages of India. But often, the resentment of non-English speakers is extremely justified. India has 22 national languages, 122 regional languages and 1,726 mother tongues. But walk down Khan Market in New Delhi, and you can’t find a Hindi book.
It is projected that in the next 15-20 years the primacy of English will decline and three languages are set to replace it—Spanish, Mandarin and Hindi. As the saying goes, “Language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” We have to be pragmatic and press our advantages internationally, but the shame attached to our own languages has to go.
Often, technology resolves political problems—now there is translation through the Internet. Once a language can be accessed through technology, it will grow organically.
As told to Himanshu Bhagat and Sanjukta Sharma. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org