It's judgment time

Kannada At The Crossroads

The Supreme Court is currently grappling with a very fundamental and emotive issue, the outcome of which will have a far-reaching bearing on the country’s language policy and the education of our children. The matter is so complex and the consequences of the court’s verdict having a lasting impact on generations to come so huge that the Supreme Court Bench dealing with the issue would do well to carefully analyse the pros and cons before arriving at a conclusion.

At the heart of the controversy is the Karnataka government’s insistence on “imposing” Kannada as a medium of instruction at the primary level and a stiff challenge to this by a batch of private schools on the grounds that the parents desire their children to study in English medium. It’s not Karnataka’s problem alone as many other states are facing a similar dilemma.

The debate has been going on for over a decade and the Karnataka high court sought to put a lid on it by declaring in its judgment on July 2, 2008 that the private schools had a right to choose the medium of instruction. The State government has invited the high court’s wrath as it dilly-dallied on implementing the order. Finding itself in a tight corner, the state government has now approached the Supreme Court, essentially pointing out that the courts cannot interfere with a “policy” decision which is the domain of an elected government.

Rich heritage

India is a multi-lingual state with a rich heritage of languages which have survived and thrived for centuries. The proceedings of the Constituent Assembly show that there were fierce debates on the need to protect and promote the diverse linguistic and cultural heritage. The decision to carve out the states on linguistic basis was the result of a consensus that a pluralistic society will survive best when each of its individualistic elements is allowed some space to breathe and grow according to its needs and genius.

Education, which was on the State List initially, was shifted to the Concurrent List by the 42nd amendment to the Constitution, but broadly it is left to the state governments to decide on the policy matters. The old Mysore state, which later became Karnataka, was enlarged with the inclusion of many ‘Kannada-speaking’ areas which were dispersed in the neighbouring states, at the time of reorganisation of boundaries on linguistic basis. With over 80 per cent of the people being Kannadigas and a large section of other linguistic groups also being geographically and historically linked to the language, Kannada naturally became the official language of the state. Until perhaps 1970s, there was no controversy regarding the medium of instruction as most children studied in the Kannada medium, whether in the cities, towns or villages. Those who could afford and felt the need, switched over to a handful of English medium schools that existed at the high school level or the college. But with the expansion of knowledge, job opportunities and the rise in economic status of a vast number of people, came the “craze” for English medium schools, which are perceived to be the gateway to better jobs, higher social standing, accumulation of more wealth and so on.

The government should have woken up to the transformation that was taking place in society and taken steps to improve the quality of education across the state. It needed to invest in the infrastructure, the number of schools, the quality of teachers and the overall management of education. The government on its own should have opened English medium schools, wherever the need was felt, while at the same time ensuring that the Kannada medium schools were in no way inferior in the dissemination of knowledge, even if less “glitzy,” but more affordable to a vast majority.

But, whether by lethargy or design, the government allowed the private operators to mushroom, turn education into a lucrative business, squeeze parents anxious to give their wards the “best” education available completely dry. The parents do know that they are getting suckered, sending their children to what are euphemistically called ‘English medium schools,’ but in reality, a vast number of them mere dungeons, dispensing so-called education. But in the absence of better alternatives, the parents are left with little choice.

Mother tongue

Educationists are unanimous that at least in the formative age, mother tongue is the best medium for better comprehension, overall personality development, an understanding of linguistic heritage and also cultural “rooting” of our children. The CV Ramans, the CNR Raos, the UR Raos or the Narayana Murthys of this country surely did not have their basic education in English medium, but their outstanding contributions to the country speak for themselves. What the education in one’s mother tongue in initial stages also does is to help a person learn through reading the richness of indigenous literature, develop love and affection for his own people and become a more well-rounded personality. In the mad rush to embrace the English medium from primary school level itself, we are perhaps in danger of creating “aliens” who will see nothing beyond material gains.

But the government needs to convince the court -- and the people -- that it is prepared to render more than lip service to the cause of Kannada in education. It has to present a credible roadmap with investment plans for improving the government schools and their infrastructure to make the parents believe that their children do have a future even when they study in Kannada medium schools. To the Supreme Court which lamented the other day that those who study in mother tongue will be “unfit even for clerical jobs,” the state needs to gently remind the judges that most of the toppers in the recent IAS exams or Karnataka’s own CET, came from rural, humble backgrounds. The final verdict of the court will perhaps depend on how genuine and persuasive the government can be in its argument.

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