In the 60 years since the constitutional debate, few other issues continue to divide India more than this thorny issue of language. A storm was raised last week as the new government, issued a note to its ministers to prefer Hindi in the language of official communication. From the opposite ends, Anglophone intellectuals and regional satraps came together to defend the imposition of Hindi on them.Personally, the debate played out within me as I sat in the Parent Sabha at my daughter’s school. I learnt that the school has an “English only” policy and a few parents even insisted that we speak to our children in English at home.That hurt.
In my business we interact with with people from all over the world. And I am consistently surprised that outside of the former British colonies of United States and Australia, there are very few people who are fluent in English. But they survive and prosper. Since we build a software product, we have also translated our product in many European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages, but we rarely get demand for Indian languages.
Let this fact sink in: India is the only ancient civilization in the whole world that has accepted the hegemony of English. We need to understand why.
According to many historians, the turning point was the English Education Act of 1835. Lord Macaulay, who was a member of the Council of India, a group of Britons who where helping to lay the foundations the British empire, decided that the Indian language and culture were far inferior and went on to influence the British governor to make English the official language of India. His supremacist note on the matter is widely quoted. In his view, India was an inferior civilization and it was up to the enlightened Britons to save us:
The destinies of our Indian empire are covered with thick darkness. .. The laws which regulate its growth and its decay are still unknown to us. It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government, that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history.
Unable to appreciate the depth and variety of Indian arts and literature, Macaulay went on to assert:
A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.
Here is the killer, Macaulay goes on to propose that the British must create a “class” of citizens who will become interpreters for the British and will help them rule over the masses:
We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.
Indian nationalists would call this class of people, us, as “Macaulay’s Children”.
East v/s West
To address the question of language further we must go into the qualities of the cultures.
While there is no doubt that when it comes to human health, freedom and material wealth, Western Civilization has done far better. Starting with the European Enlightenment to the Information Revolution, the west has lead the way. This is also human progress and we must participate in it.
But the domination of the West has also come at a cost. Over centuries they have used their superior armies and politics to accumulate much of the world’s wealth. They exploited and colonized people, enslaved them, destroyed civilizations, conducted genocides and looted their wealth. It is with this accumulated capital that they are imposing their culture on the world. These things are strange to hear because we are only taught a Euro-centric history of the world.
We must really ourselves two questions. At what cost do we want the western civilization and how much of it is acceptable?
The Case For English
The argument for English is two fold:
- By being fluent in English, we get to become a part of Macaulay’s ruling class (which should have been really dismantled after the British left) over the masses, there by ensuring our economic prosperity. Not knowing good English is in fact considered as a handicap within this class.
- In a globalized world, English is the key to knowledge and interacting and integrating with the outside world.
Both these concerns are legitimate. Even as my Marxist alter ego boils at the thought of the ruling class, my pragmatic side tells me that this is a compromise that is acceptable.
My fear is that we do not become so much English that we remain Indian only in blood.
The Case For Native Languages
Even as we learn English to secure our economic future, we must realize that our native languages contain centuries of embedded learnings. The cultural benchmarks and references that are a part of the geography and vegetation and climate can only be understood with the language. Even poetry and classics in English refer to a region most of us have never visited, whether it is Shakespeare’s plays about English aristocrats or monarchs or poetry that is talking about flowers we have never seen.
These remain empty words that we understand semantically but never really feel. Wonder why we give “warm regards” even when our climate is overbearingly hot? Or why insist on hugging when we are probably sweating? “London Bridge is falling down” is one among the favorite rhymes that are taught to children, how many of us have actually seen the bridge?
We risk becoming an empty people without any cultural anchoring to make us soar.
I was taught in a missionary school with English as the medium of instruction. Though English was almost exclusively used in classrooms, with the exception of languages of course, but outside of class there was no imposition on using English. In fact even my Christian and Parsi classmates who were uncomfortable in using Hindi, started using it outside of class. I mean, there is no comparison in the amount of profanities available in Hindi versus English (even though I never had the guts to use them).
Most of my reading was also in English. I grew up reading Enid Blytons and gorging Tintin comics. But conversations in family were always Gujarati and with friends, always Hindi. I think can converse in all the three languages fluently even though my reading is restricted to only one. Thanks to cinema and television, Hindi has retained some of its cultural significance and is even catching up in news television thanks to the anchors like Ravish Kumar. Conversations at work are always Hindi. This is was a conscious decision that I took as a founder. Even our name plate has the Devnagri script above the Roman one.
So why don’t I send my daughter to non English school. Like I said, I have a pragmatic side that is willing to compromise and also the quality of vernacular schools is not too great.
The Right Balance
I feel my cultural foundation has a lot to be desired. Even though my family did not aspire or force me to become an Anglophone, they neither inculcated a taste for native arts and literature. I just don’t want to make it worse for my daughter.
Even though bulk of my conversation happens in Hindi, my English is just fine and I will survive. I hope my language and culture survives too. I strongly feel that all Indians must try and make casual conversation in languages that are contextual to them rather than try and aspire to become Macaulay’s Children. And schools must allow children to make these decisions for themselves. These are hard questions about identity that we must think deeply about.