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