The Moving Finger Writes:Role of English in Contemporary India
One would have thought that the bitter controversy over the role of English in the administration of the country had died a long time ago and quite rightly so. Overnight as it were it has been needlessly re-opened to the anguish and anger of a large section of the population forcing the opponents of Hindi to express their dissent to a government move to use Hindi in social media. The government of Tamil Nadu was particularly upset, with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa firing off a letter to the Prime Minister telling him the Home Minister’s proposal was against the letter and spirit of the Official Languages Act, 1963. Also offended among others was the Chief Minister of Odisha.
Let me start all over again. The British, in their arrogance, may have imposed English as the language of administration but they probably did not realise that India would one day take advantage of it even after the country became independent. English today is more than a language: it is a weapon and more than a weapon it is a language of opportunity and our window on the world. We must keep it with us at all levels as a strategy to challenge the world. Like a mobile which is used throughout the land, so is English, an instrument that brings all Indians together. To argue that English is a foreign language and must quietly be sidelined may appeal to jingoists – but today, more Indians know English than English-speaking people throughout the world. The more the Indians who are knowledgeable about English, the more the chances are of Indians influencing countries the world over, including, if one might add China and Russia.
Till we reach the top grade we will have to make the best use of English but once we are in the world class, then we can look inward and revert to our ancient languages. India has just entered into the post-industrial phase of development and is making its presence felt, for example in the field of Information Technology. Once we excel in technology then we can reconsider the use of English but let us not forget that we are a multi-lingual state that will not easily accept Hindi hegemony. That apart, think of what is happening in the world at large. Many countries in Europe and elsewhere are gearing up the study of English as a grim necessity.
English today is the language in which all contemporary knowledge is accessible. In other words – and Mr Modi must be specially enlightened – English is the language of development which we cannot do without. If our children, especially among the poor are at a loss in English, the fault is not of English but of our state governments. Not enough is spent on education, especially in rural areas where many villages do not even have primary schools to teach even local languages.
The first thing that we have to learn to do is to change our mental block, and to see that schools function. One understands that there are missing departments of education in 12 of 40 central universities in the country.
The point is that we are living in a highly competitive world where without English progress cannot be obtained. Let us remember that in India today we have over 1,650 languages and dialects as mother tongues, including more than 200 classified languages.
English is not the cause of our cultural insecurity. In fact English has turned out to be a unifying language which could be the common property of both the rich and the poor. So relevant has English become around the world that the Peoples’ Republic of China (a nation with just one language) has resumed the teaching of English and it is selling there in any channel – radio, television, correspondence or conventional classroom.
Hindi has its place in India which should be gracefully conceded. It may not be well-known but there are many schools in Tamil Nadu that teach Hindi, as they should. Let us not treat English in geographic or national terms.
India has a job to do to propagate Bharatiya sanskriti through English as Swami Vivekananda did for a beginning.
(The writer is a senior columnist and former editor
of Illustrated Weekly)