Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi wants to ensure that the youth in his state are proficient in English—“the language the world understands,” as he puts it. This is the same man who otherwise proudly wears his cultural nationalism on his sleeve, and revels in taunting all that he considers foreign.
Modi is putting up good money to back the quest to teach English to more of Gujarat’s youth. Over the past few years, many other state governments have abandoned their linguistic pride and accepted the fact that English is the new vehicle of social mobility and opportunity, rather than a lingering colonial yoke. Most recently, Karnataka decided to start teaching English from the first grade even in schools where the primary medium of instruction is Kannada.
These are welcome developments. English does have its immediate advantages—to get a job in a call centre or to acquire social confidence. But there is far more at stake, and it would be short-sighted to merely focus on the advantages it offers in the job market. English is fast emerging as the world’s first truly global language, with China becoming the most recent example of a major country to embrace it. The People’s Daily has estimated that some 300 million Chinese are trying to learn the language of William Shakespeare and Salman Rushdie.
English acts as a window to the world. It is the language of knowledge, much as Sanskrit was many centuries ago. More Indians need to know it. While the spread in the popularity of English does raise genuine concerns about the future of Indian languages, it is up to these languages to stand on their own in a globalized and English-speaking world.
The original intention of the first government of free India was to phase out English by 1965, though Jawaharlal Nehru was fully aware of its utility. That was never to be, and thankfully so. But it could have been otherwise. The 1960s saw language agitations in many parts of India. The Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, launched an anti-English agitation in 1963. Socialist politician Ram Manohar Lohia claimed: “The use of English is a hindrance to original thinking, progenitor of inferiority feelings and a gap between the educated and uneducated public.”
Both the Jana Sangh and the socialists wanted Hindi to replace English in public life. That led to protests in the southern states against imminent Hindi imperialism. These protests kept English going—and perhaps laid the base for the emergence of the outsourcing industry in India two decades later. It would be worthwhile for a social scientist to correlate a state’s growth rate over the past four decades with its policy towards English.
Yet, there is a danger that English could emerge as an elitist language, once again as Sanskrit was many centuries ago. Those who can afford to go to private schools are more likely to be proficient in it while those who go to aided municipal and village schools will be denied meaningful access to the language of the world. This is patently unfair and unjust. Hence our support for all policies aimed at teaching English to more and more children, especially going to government schools. It is clear to us that knowledge of English is useful to break social barriers.
It is not a matter of great surprise that Dalit intellectuals are often the most vocal supporters of English usage, quite in contrast to what socialists such as Lohia believed. B.R. Ambedkar had no problems with English. Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad goes so far as to call English the mother goddess of the Dalits and says that all Indian languages should wither away because they represent oppressive cultures.
That is an extreme view. But it is good to see that a new generation of political leaders are trying to transcend the old prejudices against English.
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