A linguistic truth: Now, English is our national language

That what has become one of the country’s popular Hindi songs opens with an English sentence is unremarkable for Indians. So is the truth that Hindi films are now written in English — the instructions in the screenplays are in English, and even the Hindi dialogue is transcribed in the Latin alphabet. Mumbai’s film stars, like most educated Indians, find it easier to read Hindi if it is written this way.

Almost all advertising billboards in India are in English. There is not a single well-paying job in the country that does not require a good understanding of the language. Higher education here is conducted entirely in English. When Hindustan Pencils makes cheap pencils, which it sells to rural children for a rupee apiece, the company prints the brand name, ‘Jobber,’ in English. “A villager has more respect for a brand that is written in English,” said Dhruman Sanghvi, a company director.

English is the de facto national language of India. It is a bitter truth. Many Indians would say that India’s national language is Hindi. They would say it with pride if they are from the north and with a good-natured grouse if they are from the south. But this is a misconception. The fact is that, according to the Indian constitution, the country does not have a national language.

In the years that followed the nation’s independence from the British in 1947, there were efforts to hoist Hindi as the national language, but regional linguistic sentiments were high. In Tamil Nadu, men immolated themselves to protest what they thought was the colonising power of Hindi. As a compromise, Hindi was downgraded to one of the two official languages in which the government would conduct its business.

The other official language was English, which has long been considered a default language, a foreign language. But this is no longer true. Since independence, the influence and reach of English have grown immensely. It is impossible to arrive at a credible figure for the number of Indians who understand English (a lot), who can read it (many) or who can write it (very few). But what is indisputable is that in India today, English has the force and quality of a national language.

Alarmed at the power of English, India’s cultural elite and politicians have tried, through public policy and sometimes violence, to promote Indian languages. In Mumbai, for instance, every shop is required to announce its name in Marathi even though most of the people in the city can read English but not Marathi. In the recent past, thugs have beaten up shopkeepers who did not comply with the requirement.

Nationalism

Accepting that English is the national language would have benefits that far outweigh soothing the emotions of Indian nationalism. It is to emphasise this point that Chandra Bhan Prasad has built a temple to the Goddess English in an impoverished village in Uttar Pradesh.

People like Prasad, who want to liberate the poorest segment of the population, the dalits, through the extraordinary power of English, view Indian culture and all related sentiments with suspicion. It was that same culture that had once deemed the dalits ‘untouchable,’ relegating them to the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy.

The chief beneficiaries if English attained this status would be the children who attend the free schools run by the central and the state governments. An overwhelming majority of such schools are not taught in English. Indian politicians, whose own children attend private English-language schools in India and abroad, want their constituents to marinate in their mother tongues.

Sanjay Tiwari, the son of an illiterate security guard, was a victim of this attitude. Until the age of 16, he studied in Hindi and Marathi-language schools. Then, he taught himself English, ‘and escaped’. He is now a marketing executive who makes a reasonable living in Mumbai, “only because I can speak in English.”

Low-income Christians, who have easy access to English-language schools run by churches and convents because they are granted tuition-waivers and discounts, have benefited immensely over the years. It is not surprising that Christians are disproportionately represented in Bangalore’s call centres.

Raj Thackeray, a pugnacious politician in Mumbai, is enraged by the diminished status of Marathi and the predominance of English in the city. His supporters have been known to beat up people who they believed disrespected the Marathi language. He wants everybody in Mumbai to learn Marathi.

When asked why his own son goes to one of the best English-language schools in Mumbai and not to a Marathi-language school, he replied that the question was not important and was politically motivated.

His followers would no doubt follow his example if they could. For all their laments about the siege of the Marathi language, they would probably put their children in English-language schools, too, the moment they could afford to do so.

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