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Thursday, July 14, 2011

English: An Indian Language

So here we go again. Language chauvinists in Goa have launched disruptive protests against the state government’s proposal that will allow primary and secondary schools to offer English as a medium of instruction. This is in addition to Marathi and Konkani.

A bunch of rabble, associated with the Hindutva forces, stopped traffic in Panjim and threatened to hold the state hostage to their misbegotten worldview. It’s not just about Goa, it’s all over India. Same people who protested against the screening of the film Slumdog Millionaire; same people who assaulted women coming out of a bar in Mangalore; same people who renamed the airport and the railway terminus in Bombay; same people who renamed Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

English, both the language and our cultural heritage, is a convenient horse to flog. Increasingly, though, the burgeoning middle class is embracing it as the key to success in a modernizing country. Thus, while politicians go on renaming sprees, “Indianizing” names of city streets and entire cities, real estate developers across the country sell their projects with Western-sounding names such as “Provence,” “Belvedere” and what have you. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, I have actually seen commercial and residential properties called “Manhattan” or “White House.”

Coming back to the Goa language disturbances, even the normally rational Manohar Parrikar, opposition leader and erstwhile chief minister, backed the obscurantist protest. He said if children are educated in English, they look down on their parents who don’t speak the language. He is right.

The problem with the English language is it subversive. To accept it is to accept the cultural and philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment. For example: reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. In the Hindutva worldview, these are not values that are accepted. Instead the focus is on superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism. Children schooled in the English language do not easily buy into backwardness.

If you look around today, journeyman classes that offer students English-language proficiency are burgeoning everywhere. Parents and their children know that to make their way in the world, English is essential. They have no time for chauvinist arguments against the language. They just want their children to get ahead and like all solid middle class Indians place their faith in education.

This is why the Goa government’s bold move is admirable. Clearly, the state government understands that people want the choice to choose English as a medium of instruction. Given the state’s high level of literacy and per capita income, the pro-English segment is sizable and has rallied behind the government.

English has always been an Indian language. In recent years, the number of people who use English as the lingua franca has increased exponentially. A new form of the language has taken shape that incorporates Indian idioms. We are like this only. And it is increasingly accepted. R K Narayan is an early example; Salman Rushdie thrived on it.

Today global literary salons celebrate Indian writers in English bringing Indian cultural flavours to the world. I can name at least a dozen and their number is probably in the hundreds. So it is bit of madness for people in India to dismiss English as a foreign language. Supreme Court judgments are in English as are government policies. They may be translated into various languages but in the first draft they are written in English.

Vernacular chauvinists, who disparage the use of English in India, are products of a feudal mindset that portrays India as a long-suffering victim of colonial oppression. They draw inspiration from the jingoist ranting of M S Golwalkar in his aptly titled book, “Bunch of Thoughts” and amazingly enough also from the Luddite fulminations of Mohandas Gandhi in “Hind Swaraj.” Their India is a closed and diffident victim of unchaste foreigners. Today, such postures appear ridiculous and out of touch with the new, resurgent India.

Protests like the one in Goa flare up now and again, led by fringe groups that are communal and chauvinist. But they fly in the face of what citizens want. The protestors assume that the vast majority of the Indian population has no use for English. They are right; only a small section of the population use English in their lives. However, English is the language of aspirations. Even a semi-literate family in the rural areas knows that for their children to get out of the rut, the passport is proficiency in English.

Unlike yesteryear, when the language of Milton and Shakespeare was a mark of elite status, in the new India, English is the language of upward mobility. As such, it has captured the imagination of a new dynamic and youthful generation that values merit and effort as determinants of success. Its importance is gauged not from numbers but from its grip on the imagination of the burgeoning middle class.

English was introduced as a medium of instruction nearly two centuries ago by British liberals, hoping to “instruct” generations of Indian youth so they could become adequate civil servants in service of the Crown. Many young people from traditional upper caste families eagerly embraced English and parlayed it into a comfortable livelihood with steady incomes and various privileges.

As India enters a new phase, going from a uniquely-won independence to global recognition, English is again the agent of aspiration and change. And it gives me pause to think about just how prescient Thomas Babington Macaulay was when he said in his “Minute on Education:”

Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.”

Curiously, today’s chauvinists who protest the use of English reserve their worst for those who celebrate it as a dynamic Indian language. They call us the children of Macaulay; one of several “M’s” they hate including Marx, Modernity and Muslims.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, July 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011


Rajan P. Parrikar said...


This piece reveals a profound lack of understanding of Goa and Goans. The pro-Marathi/pro-Konkani forces are not "fringe" per your claim, but are mainstream Goan Hindus, and a large majority at that. It is odd that whenever major figures from the Indian media descend on Goa, the people they seek are almost always D'Souzas and Fernandeses, never a Haldankar or a Bhobe. It is as if we Goan Hindus are invisible to them. When Congress hack Burqa Dutt came to Goa some years ago to do a story, she even had some non-Goans on her panel, but not a single Goan Hindu. I am perplexed why the English-language media thinks that over 70% of the Goan population does not deserve representation.

As you may know (or not), there are culturally two Goas - a Hindu Goa and a Catholic Goa. I do not mean to say these are exclusive groups. To be sure, we share a lot of common habits, traits, mannerisms, and experiences. But there are important ways in which we differ in our cultural expression and modes.

To almost all Goan Hindus, Marathi has been the language of cultural expression. Marathi's impress on the Goan Hindu psyche predates the BJP or as you call them, the "Hindutva forces." This has little to do with the relatively recent political movement to merge Goa with Maharashtra. The association of the Goan Hindu with Marathi are much older.

Take my example: I am a staunch Goan nationalist and I curse the Indian intrusion into Goa - you can see the trash heap that Goa has turned into in the past 10 years. I went to an English medium school from day one. I am also not a BJPwallah but I have the utmost contempt for Congress and wish the worst to scum like Sonia and her spawn - indeed the entire Gandhi clan. Culturally and emotionally I am a Hindu and identify with our Gods, intellectually I am an atheist. I love the English language and it is the only language in which I claim a reasonable proficiency. I give you this unabridged autobiography because I do not fit your caricature of the pro-Marathi/pro-Konkani Goan Hindu.

Even with no formal training in Marathi, that language has always been present to my imagination and to the imagination of my fellow Goan Hindus. We were weaned on the great Marathi musicals, we woke up to Marathi abhangas and natyageetas, shoklas of Dynaneshwar and Ramdas at the feet of our mothers and grandmothers. In short, Marathi was the most important vehicle of our cultural expression and we retain a deep memory of it. Konkani was our mother tongue and an integral part of our being, but the substance and fibre of our cultural diet was supplied by Marathi. Goan Hindus have contributed tremendously to Indian culture and it has been almost wholly through the medium of Marathi.

So I reject your sentiment that those who have come out in support of Marathi and Konkani as the medium of instruction are language chauvinists. We recognize and know our roots and we want to hold on to them. Where did you get the idea that we are anti-English? It does not follow. Au contraire. I think most of this group recognizes the value of the English language and its importance in contemporary civilization. I will concede one minor point: the pro-Marathi/pro-Konkani group has not been very effective in presenting the points I have just made in a coherent manner. Therefore, it is easy to misrepresent them, and worse, to amplify the words of a few fringe elements who can always be counted to latch on to a hot button issue to further their own agenda.

What is odd is that you haven't recognized that the guy who is Minister of Education is Goa is a semi-literate thug whose rightful place is in the Tihar jail. And this guy is making education policy! What a friggin' joke!

(The above was written quickly and in one go. Please excuse any typos.)

Anonymous said...

Rajiv Desai wrote:
English: An Indian Language
The problem with the English language is it subversive. To accept it is to accept the cultural and philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment. For example: reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. In the Hindutva worldview, these are not values that are accepted. Instead the focus is on superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism. Children schooled in the English language do not easily buy into backwardness.

1) I fully agree with the last sentence of the above paragraph.

2) While I am not familiar with the Hindutva worldview, it seems almost every religion is opposed to change. The one that really cracks me up is the view that the Koran can only be studied in Arabic. Back in Alabama, I have seen farmers encourage their kids not to do well in school as some of those good Christian folks are scared that their offspring will get too much education and then leave the farm and family.

3) There are people in this world who are scared of being exposed to new ideas or ideas from another language or culture. The danger is when these people get control of the education system.

Mervyn Lobo

shri8131 said...

You are factually wrong Desai. 'state government’s proposal that will allow primary and secondary schools to offer English as a medium of instruction.'

Secondary education (i.e. in Goa from 5th to 10th) MOI was always in English and no one has objected to it.
म्हणजेच तुमच्या या लेखाच्या म्हणपातलो गाभोच फटींग पणाचो आसा.

Sandesh Anvekar said...

Language is a vehicle of Culture. If you do not understand such a simple fact, then stop bothering yourself and people around you

Kiran Mazumdar said...

Just tweeted your blog regds Kiran

Victor Carneiro said...


Excellent article. I enjoyed reading your very well written article. It accurately reflects the status of English in India, particularly in Goa, in my opinion. Kudos.

Victor Carneiro
Edmond, Oklahoma

Mariano Pereira said...

Thanks Rajiv for your fascinating insights into the current language conflict prevailing in Goa.

Mariano Pereira

anil desai said...

Dear Rajiv Desai

You have demonstrated through your article that ignorance is bliss indeed. In your attempt to malign people who are fighting for Goan regional languages, i.e. Konkani and Marathi, you pretend that Goa government has just proclaimed support for English medium schools at primary and secondary school level. I did my secondary schooling in Goa in late sixties and early seventies and my school like scores of other english medium schools across Goa have always been fully supported financially by the Governments of all parties and in fact the very first Goa government led by Late Dayanand Bandodkar should be given credit for it. I, like thousands of other Goan students did my primary education in Marathi and secondary education in English. I believe this has served me well. It did not stop me from getting top position as a doctor in England and yet I feel fully connected to every Goan I come across either in the UK or during my visits to Goa. I feel proud that both my children, educated in the UK, have learnt both Konkani and Marathi and can communicate freely with their elders in Goa as well as our distant relatives and friends who have either not learnt English or are not fluent English speakers.
The biggest problem facing educationist in Goa is the high drop out rate in secondary schools. In some villages it is up to 60%. Instead of tackling this major issue or improving infrastructure of schools, a corrupt Kangress government has ignored majority hindu opinion and provided sop to minority catholic population.

Anil Desai

sam_the_ram said...

I studied konkani in primary, and I aspired and got the best! Shame on you to call people like us "feudal".
Ravindra Kelekar, gyanpeeth award winner for konkani, aptly put it when he said that English intellectuals are like bonsai trees --- dwarfs. They will never be able to connect with the masses of India.

You seem to be a living example of it!


Selma said...

As usual Rajiv Desai has said everything that needs to be said and said it well.

The usual saffron sourpusses will no doubt chastise you. Mind you Rajiv, all the Desais and other "Kar" in the UK and US are happy becoming Europeanised and voting Democrat/Labour/Liberal while holding India itself hostage to their self-serving conservatism.

The truth of this matter is only this, "liberalism, enlightment,capitalims and democratic values" only for them and their children. The rest of the country can go to hell in a hand-basket being the victim of their conservatism in their self-appointed role as the custodians of cultural values.

Rajan P. Parrikar said...

I see that Selma Carvalho has deposited the products of her metabolism - 100% drivel, not pretty. This is the same anti-Hindu frothing-at-the-mouth Selma Carvalho firing blanks from behind her non-gated community in London who claimed on Goanet that an entire generation of Hindus have been raised to hate Catholics. Expectedly she has nothing of substance to add to this discussion.

Rajiv's basic premise has been shown to be false (see Shri8131's response). Will Rajiv do the intellectually honest thing and admit his booboo, and his ignorance of the Goan cultural dynamic? Or is he going to hide behind Selma's "secular" bikini" and take more potshots as us "saffron" types.

Rajan P. Parrikar said...


There is another sidelight I wanted to address but deliberately gave it a pass in the interest of keeping this discussion focused on the current Goan language issue. It is your reference to Macaulay.

Deracinated English-speaking urban Indians are legion. These are the people who look down upon the 'dehati' types who cannot speak English or sport their phony accents. This is the brown trash who can hold forth on Sergei Prokofiev and feel smug but who have never heard of Tyagaraja or Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. They pat themselves on their own backs for being "well-read" if they can quote some obscure dead white guy but who wouldn't know Kalidasa to save their sorry pustulated behinds. Mention of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd makes them all wet but KL Saigal is an old unsophisticated runt to them.

This breed I am very familiar with. Macaulay succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Yet you make light of it. Why?

anil desai said...


In response to the arguments put forward by Rajan and myself, Selma Carvalho has yet again demonstrated her intellectual bancruptcy on a public forum. Her hatred of Hindus is well established on other fora but here in her haste she forgot that you are also a Desai when she included all Desais in her criticism.
Does Ms Carvalho accept the simple truth that the first government of Goa was led by Late Bandodker and it was this government that made secondary education in English medium available in virtually every nook and cranny of Goa? Shashikala was the education minister in that government and if she hated English as it is now claimed, I doubt that she would have supported English as MOI for Secondary and higher education in Goa.
She claims that we and people like us ( add saffron to please other like minded catholics and Kangress wallahs like you) do not want others in Goa to have the same education as us. Before this sorry decision was made by Digambar kamat, the current spineless CM of Goa with the blessing of Soniaji under threat by a movement called 'Force' led by some convicted catholic criminals or others who are facing serious criminal charges, students all over Goa have had the same educational opportunities as my self or Rajan Parrikar, i.e. good foundation of regional language education in primary schools and excellent secondary school education in English medium schools, both financed fully with government grants.

Therefore, dishonest distortion of facts may get accolades for Ms Carvalho in her circle of admirers but unless she is able to counter the points that we make, she should just stay away from this debate.

Anil Desai

Sandesh Anvekar said...

From the comments it is crystal clear which section of the society is anglicized. Fie on them ... They should rather take efforts to read a little about Indian culture and civilization

Rajiv N Desai said...

rajan, your comments are so stilted and prejudiced...in so many dimensions...that to respond, i would have to descend to the rabid level of declamation that you have achieved. there is no special place in heaven or in the after life reserved for those weaned on the simple and righteous ways of hindu culture and religion. i grew up in a gujarati home steeped in conservativism but we were not tradition-bound. as such i grew up respecting the enlightenment that set the west free and scornful of hidebound indian mores that are the source of inequality. and this lack of an egalitarian ethic is the evil that has sapped, saps and will continue to sap india.

timestopper said...

I suggest reading 'The Argumentative Indian' by Baratratna Amartya Sen in which he demonstrates the Indian and Hindutva worldview of subversion, reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. This is the very opposite of superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism which can be bred even without a language!
Much before the recent democratic nations, Indians pioneered the concepts of democracy (King Bharat), women's equality, encouragement of subversion alogn with tolerance to other worldviews. Of course, as in every cultural history there were good times and bad times.

In fact Hinduism is probably the only religion that fully accepts atheism. Unlike most other religions, one does not need to believe in God to be a good Hindu. It is perfectly acceptable to be intellectually agnostic or atheist and simultaneously be a "good Hindu".

In the words Sen "In some ways people had got used to the idea that India was spiritual and religion-oriented. That gave a leg up to the religious interpretation of India, despite the fact that Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than what exists in any other classical language. Madhava Acharya, the remarkable 14th century philosopher, wrote this rather great book called Sarvadarshansamgraha, which discussed all the religious schools of thought within the Hindu structure. The first chapter is "Atheism" – a very strong presentation of the argument in favor of atheism and materialism.

Pierre said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pierre said...

The article might have got some facts wrong, but the truth is Konkani will help us only in Goa, and as far as I can see no one wants to work here anymore. Only English will work outside. I have people in my class doing first year engineering who can't converse properly in English. Even when I was in the 5th standard all my classmates had a difficult time adjusting to the new MOI, it was easier for me since I was raised by being taught both Konkani and English which I feel is the only way out. Making students study in Konkani in the primary and then suddenly burdening them with English is unreasonable.