The English language has been a great survivor in India. From being labelled as a scheming, rootless tongue of the oppressor, and served a termination notice after independence, the language has not merely survived over 70 years of the republic, but has, quite strangely, come to acquire an emancipation role.
English is now like the levitating “great Indian rope trick" that not only unites the nation when Hindi faces rancour, but has also become for millions an aspirational symbol and an omnipotent tool to achieve the egalitarian promise of the Constitution: of modernity and economic prosperity.
The latest to buy into this English magic is the Andhra Pradesh government. It has introduced the “global tongue" as the medium in schools from Classes I-VI, while students are expected to pick one of the two local languages, Telugu or Urdu, as compulsory subjects. This would mean that English will now principally mediate the exposure of the child to most knowledge, while local languages will be restricted to gently adding colour to the process.
It is a string of ironies here, but the unmissable one has to do with the fact that after independence it was the Telugu country that led the demand for linguistic reorganization of Indian states. It had sought unflinching primacy to the regional tongue. The fast unto death of Potti Sriramulu in 1952 had forced Jawaharlal Nehru to constitute the States Reorganisation Commission in 1953.
However, in 60 years, by 2014, the Telugu country split into two as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, owing to cultural differences. And now in 2019, English has been decisively brought in to compete with the regional tongue. This has, naturally, led to widespread debate and dissent in the state.
Social justice in Andhra Pradesh
English medium in schools has been brought in under the familiar air cover of social justice and a level playing field. In an interview to this paper a few days back, Andhra Pradesh education minister, Suresh Audimulapu, posed a question to the critics of his government’s policy: “Why have the children of affluent people studied in English medium? But when it comes to protecting Telugu language and culture, is it only the responsibility of the downtrodden and rural youth? This is not fair, we have to give everyone a level playing field. Most of the people from the SC/ST (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes) communities are celebrating today."
The implication here is obvious: the minister assumes that affluence and English are natural allies. He also assumes that English has the power to pull the backward out of their backwardness, and that English is embedded with an egalitarian intent.
The expected counter to the English instincts of the Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy government has been a cautious peddling of Telugu nationalism. Learning English is packaged as deliverance from a fickle present to the rural lot, other backward classes (OBCs) and SCs/STs, who constitute the majority.
Instead of leaving millions to devices of destiny and spirals of hopelessness, which is what religious ideologies do, they are apparently being offered a definite key to prosperity, not immediately though but in a foreseeable tomorrow. Minister Audimulapu in the interview predictably said, the government is “getting students ready for employment by 2041".
But interestingly, there has been one stream of reaction that has attempted to instigate communal polarization around this policy move. It has accused English of carrying the seeds of a “hidden agenda". The true reason for the introduction of English, it is being ridiculously claimed, is to proselytize the poor of Andhra Pradesh into Christianity.
In his column, the owner-editor of a Telugu broadsheet wrote that introduction of English could bring “religious strife in the state". He argued that this was a cheap move to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu outreach in the Telugu terrain.
The fact that chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy is a Christian by faith adds grist to this speculation. The recent enhancement of financial package by the government to Christians undertaking pilgrimage to Jerusalem and other places of Biblical interest further emboldens such propaganda.
Lessons from Karnataka
Anyway, returning to schools, the Andhra government has offered statistical evidence to justify its thinking and policy solution. It has said when 39.2% of ST students and 49% of SCs study in English medium schools, the contrasting figure for the upper caste is 82%. A “welfare government" has to endeavour to bring this on par and make children “industry ready", it has been argued. The government will not stop with Classes I-VI, but in the next academic year will begin introduction of English medium from Classes VII-X.
The previous Telugu Desam Party government of Chandrababu Naidu, from N.T. Rama Rao’s original party of Telugu pride, had introduced the idea of English medium education as a pilot in select schools, but Jaganmohan Reddy, who junked mega infrastructure projects of his predecessor, has not done so with this idea. That makes English medium education an imperative for any government under pressure to generate employment and dangle symbols of progress.
The English medium debate in AP may have gathered wings now, but in neighbouring Karnataka it has been flying around for over a decade. The H.D. Kumaraswamy led Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress government made a decisive intervention in October 2018 to introduce English as a medium in Karnataka’s government schools. Kumaraswamy came under similar pressure as Jaganmohan Reddy when he put out his original plan of starting 1,000 English medium schools in semi-urban and rural pockets. Finally, he tempered his idea to introducing English medium sections in existing government schools.
The core reasoning for English medium in Karnataka was no different from that in Andhra but a graver crisis was presented to the people. In an assembly debate in December 2018, Kumaraswamy said that in 3,919 government schools “the enrolment rate was less than 10%". The number of Kannada medium schools had dropped from 47,670 in 2010-11 to 43,895 in 2017. On the contrary, English medium schools had gone up from 10,215 to 13,438 in the same period.
Therefore, the way to retain government schools, which perform the basic duty of providing access to education, was to make an attractive offer of English medium sections. The government introduced the new scheme in 276 public schools in quasi-rural centres, and in 724 other government primary schools. The results by August 2019 were encouraging. As per government reports, around 26,156 students had opted for the new English medium sections.
When privatization is the norm, and education does not seem to be the welfare priority of state governments, what has primarily pushed them to rescue schools under their charge is the scare of employment erosion in rural, semi-rural and fringe urban areas. If parents start sending children to private English medium schools, then government teachers will be left with dwindling students, which will eventually sink the feasibility of running government schools.
If jobs evaporate in an already volatile environment, then the backlash on sitting governments would be huge. Therefore, willy-nilly, English has become an alibi to save jobs. While there is a resistance to the imposition of Hindi in the south, there is an embrace of English because it is less threatening with regard to racial and ethnic dominance, and more promising of an economic future. English, by virtue of being a foreign language, has claims to neutrality when it comes to caste and religious violence. That makes it especially attractive to Dalits and OBCs.
The iconography of blue Ambedkar statues is a study in contrast to that of Gandhi. One is with aspirational Western attire, while the other is with a stick and a half dhoti. English is aspirational. The job loss fears engulfing governments and the aspirational element in the masses it appears has forged a pragmatic policy.
It may be recalled that around 2011, a section of Dalits even floated the idea of an English goddess. A two-feet tall statue was modelled after the Statue of Liberty and was presented as a symbol of Dalit renaissance. Dalit writer and activist Chandra Bhan Prasad had said then: “Ambedkar said English was the milk of a lioness and only those who drink it will roar."
Effectiveness of English
But how real can the enthusiasm for English be? One major query is about how effectively will English be taught in a non-native setting, and what is the quality of resources and training that the government can impart? To this a lot of figures are again put on the table. For instance, the Andhra education minister has said MoUs are being signed with language universities and institutes to train the nearly 98,000 teachers.
Similarly, Kumaraswamy had said that the government had recruited 1,715 new teachers for the English project and would recruit a 1,000 more, besides imparting fresh training for the existing ones. But there are questions beyond these practical aspects of training and recruitment, which governments may think is from an altogether different realm. Those questions have got to do with the “many Englishes" and the differing identities they create among their users.
It is not automatic that the moment a person gets acquainted with English, he transgresses the barriers of discrimination. Certain kinds of English come with a cultural capital which opens doors to elite institutions and company, while certain kinds of English freezes you at a particular point in the social ladder. You may be academically competent, but not so socially.
A perceptive study that the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, had conducted in 2006 had concluded that the IT industry had not been inclusive in the sense that its workforce came primarily from middle class, urban and upper caste backgrounds because they possessed social capital that the firms desired. The study led by Professors Carol Upadhya and A.R. Vasavi said: “Several HR managers made an association between language and social background, and identified the ones from small towns with ‘communication problems’ because of their heavy mother tongue influence. So poor communication skills need not necessarily mean unfamiliarity with English but lack of appropriate skills and cultural knowledge."
This study should lend balance and perspective to the axiomatic understanding that English mitigates social and economic discrimination. However, governments will continue to argue that this is precisely why they want to catch them young, at Class I. The argument is dotted with many ifs and buts, however, governments, which often function like technocracies, cannot be bothered with deeper cultural questions because they are determined to use English education as a fig leaf to feign progress and development.
A lot of research over the years has repeatedly asserted the benefits of mother tongue or local language instruction for children. The model that the experts have suggested is actually a reverse of the Andhra model: local language as the medium with English as compulsory language.
But governments and the oppressed both dismiss these assertions as elitist. The state is engaged in creating an interesting splinter between the head and heart in a child’s mind. If English moves ahead as planned, then there will be some kind of bipolar anguish in the child to speak science, commerce in one language, and emotion, heritage in another.
However, the massive movement of people within India has pushed us to rethink ideas around mother tongue education, local languages and a child’s natural linguistic habitat. There are also islands of linguistic diversity that have become drivers of economy, like Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Then, the idea of the linguistic state may itself be threatened. Migration has indeed kicked in a new dynamic.
Sugata Srinivasaraju is a senior journalist and author.