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Throwing away English advantage

EducationWorld November 2021 | Anniversary Essay

In turning their backs on a language that’s not only recognised by the Constitution but is the language of global business, India’s myopic politicians are doing the electorate a great disservice, writes Rajiv Desai

Rajiv Desai

English is the language introduced by the British colonisers of India. It evokes mixed emotions. In some middle-class families and schools, you are likely to be criticised for speaking it, as well as not speaking it.

Attitudes are complicated by politics. It was the language of the colonial masters. However, the freedom struggle was conducted in English, partly because it was directed against the British Raj but also because its vanguard was English speaking. The realisation of the nationalist movement was in the freedom at midnight speech by Jawaharlal Nehru: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny… when the world sleeps, India will awake…”

Widely acknowledged as one of the best speeches of the 20th century, it was also affirmation of the adoption of English in Indian public life. Though Hindi has aggressively replaced it in the political arena, English remains a force in the courts, the press, and education system. The truism still holds that to get anywhere in your career, you need to know it.

However in India, the future of English is clouded. It has been a political football for years as politicians played populist games to appeal to and to secure vote banks. While the government in Delhi looked the other way, state level politicians championed regional languages.

Given the political dominance of Hindi-speaking states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar — the so-called Hindi heartland — it’s no wonder it was adopted as the national language. Aggrieved, states of South India challenged Hindi, demanding English also be made part of government business as well as the medium of instruction in schools and colleges.

Things went south when Madras (now Tamil Nadu) threatened to secede. This led to the adoption of the three-language formula in which English, Hindi, and the regional language was included in school syllabuses. Inevitably children suffered under the burden of studying so many languages. Most important, the political confusion deprived young people of English learning in the heartland and states like Gujarat, which were midwifed by linguistic chauvinism.

In the event, thanks to political populism, India has nurtured generations of youth who know no English or very little of it. Teachers of English are not just in short supply but even the depleted lot aren’t proficient in the language.
The result is the incomprehensible garble you read in newspapers and magazines or watch on television. Or the failure of most people to engage in English. This is true from the prime minister downwards. And it’s not just about accent and pronunciation but communication.

For example, Dr. Manmohan Singh with an accent drawn from the earthy sounds of the Punjab or Sonia Gandhi with her Italian lilt are easily understood, but not so the prime minister and many members of his council of ministers. That’s because they mostly read prepared texts. The problem is far more acute in the states where many cannot communicate in either English or Hindi.

You would think the businessmen who run newspapers, magazines, and television, would take steps to remedy this. But neither they nor their readers and viewers seem to care. While many may look askance at this as part of the chalta hai syndrome that had turned India into a mecca of mediocrity, their owners may well be justified in their ‘who cares’ approach. They reckon they can’t recruit people who are fluent in English and the audiences are the same. So why bother!

While it is understandable the prime minister may address international audiences in Hindi because of his obvious problem with English, it is a sad commentary that India has come to be dominated by people who cannot speak, or attempt to speak, an official language used in the courts, government and commerce. In turning their backs on a language that’s not only recognised by the Constitution but used widely around the world, the language of global business, India’s myopic politicians are doing the electorate a great disservice.
This hypocrisy is of seven-decades vintage. All shades of political opinion have trashed English for political advantage. The norm is for their progeny to acquire globally benchmarked education in English-medium schools and colleges while the people pay the price of their populism.

In the end, many middle-class students flee India for real education in the West, where universities are about scholarship and learning. And India is left with the rubble generated by political ambitions of mediocre, myopic, moffusil men and women. You can see the results every night on television, where correspondents and anchors routinely lapse into Hindi because of their patent shortcomings in the English language.

It’s just a matter of time before the English option is closed. Our access to the global mainstream will be curtailed. It’s not as though Hindi or any other regional language has the same international currency as French, German, Italian, Spanish.

A most disconcerting outcome for cosmopolitan Indians.

(Rajiv Desai is president of Comma Consulting and a well-known Delhi-based columnist)

Also read: English through vernaculars: Amit Agarwal

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