After procrastination for almost five years, when the government finally put out its draft New Education Policy on Sunday, it found itself having to roll back a significant language provision within 24 hours. On Monday, a controversy erupted over Hindi proficiency as compulsory at the school level even in non-Hindi-speaking states. Faced with vehement resistance, most notably from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the clause was hurriedly withdrawn. This is just as well. While the appeal and grasp of Hindi has expanded across India, thanks largely to Hindi cinema, the country still has no consensus on it being made the official language of governance, let alone every child being taught and tested on it. At the political level, there remain many backers of the argument that once stirred a revolt against alleged attempts to “impose" it on the south: If Hindi is made the country’s lingua franca, it would disadvantage those who have a regional language as their mother tongue. So sharp has been the divide on this issue between the Hindi belt of the north and the peninsular south, that even a syllabus shift in its favour raises suspicions of Hindi being accorded hegemonic authority in time to come.
Hindi may be India’s most widely spoken language, but the language of government and business is resolutely English. This happens to be accidental. Since it was equally alien to all Indians at the time of independence and all our laws and protocols were written in it, it assumed the status of the country’s principal mode of communication across all its diversity. An unintended consequence of this, however, was that the vast majority of citizens found everything official incomprehensible. Over time, the language came to separate the haves from have-nots. Today, the market for employment is such that fluency in English could make the difference between a wretched life and a comfortable one. The gap is not only stark, it is evident to the vast upwardly mobile neo-middle-class that has powered the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party this decade. This language schism is a valid concern that the government must indeed respond to.
The question to ask, however, is whether the elevation of Hindi is the answer to the denial of social privileges and career opportunities that non-English speakers complain of. Given how unevenly Hindi is understood, it could create another set of linguistic disparities. A pragmatic way to tackle the problem would be to democratize English by making it the primary medium of instruction in all government schools. Knowledge of English, after all, is the path that large numbers of the poor see out of their poverty. The smartphone era has already begun familiarizing the youth in far-flung places with its syntax and grammar. With so much material accessible online, it would not be too hard for them to pick up the nuances of its use. Most importantly, it would equip them with what they need for a globalized economy. Perceptions of English being a symbol of colonial domination, a legacy of a Raj best forgotten, are also changing. As more and more youngsters access the internet, it’s now regarded by many as a tool, as something that helps them get ahead. As with other tools, beyond a point it ceases to matter where it was invented—so long as it gets the job done.