English has helped unite the diverse 'cultures' of India

Controversy characterises Rajnath Singh, BJP chief and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s recent remark that English language negatively impacted Indian culture.

The rightist political leader put his foot in his mouth to say, “The English language has caused a great loss to the country. We are losing our language, our culture as there are hardly any people who speak Sanskrit now. We are forgetting our religion and culture and now there are just 14,000 Sanskrit-speaking people in the country".

However, he later clarified that he did not have anything against the language in terms of learning or speaking English -- but the problem arises when Indians tend to get anglicised; especially feel proud of carrying English books while travelling by air or train, according to the BJP leader. While north India did not embrace Christianity with the same fervour that south India did -- through trade due to its coastline -- this conditioned two different sets of attitudes to the English language. Clearly therefore the north Indian resentment versus south Indian defence of the language, takes shape over the controversy.

Evidently the use of the English language in the country has not created ‘Anglicised’ individuals either. Though Macaulay wrote in his minute “we must at present do our best to form a class of persons Indian in blood and colour and English in taste, opinions, in morals and in intellect,” as a reason for introduction of English language and literature in India, what evolved was a class of Indians, with refined tastes, intellect and opinion with proficiency in the language. Eventually the English language became a potent weapon to oust the British from the land and an empowering tool to negotiate and associate with other perspectives and cultures. Remember that slogans like “Simon go back” to protest against the Simon Commission and ‘Quit India’ were emblematic of the use of the English language as a rallying point during the struggle for freedom.    

If only 14,000 people speak Sanskrit in India today, as mentioned by Rajnath Singh, it is because of various reasons which have nothing to do with the use of English in the country. Sanskrit was supposed to be the language of the Gods -- not for the common man.  If Buddha chose Pali and Mahavira opted for Prakrit, 2,500 years ago, it would be safe to say that Sanskrit had already lost favour. On the other hand, English managed to creep into almost all Indian languages and borrowed heavily from other tongues it came in contact with like Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Swahili, among others. The fact that English was never exclusive and catered to the masses rather than the classes contributed to its stupendous spread. There is nothing wrong in reviving Sanskrit as a language but there is danger in making it the touchstone of Indian culture.

Classis case

The politics of language is not new to the country with attempts to revive dead languages like Sanskrit was undertaken in the name of culture and tradition. In lands that the English language was entrenched owing to British colonial rule, such endeavours to revive indigenous languages in the name of nationalism proved futile. Sanskrit is a classic case in point. Similarly Urdu which was associated predominantly with the Muslim community had to compete with Hindi which was favoured by the Hindu majority in the post-partition phase of nation building.
During the 1960s Tamil politics centred largely in opposition to Hindi. So much so, Hindi never reached Madras when it was pushed with a political agenda. Madras changed its name to Chennai in 1995, which implied an assertion of the Dravidian identity and to that extent made the Tamil people always resentful of accepting Hindi, though the opposition to the language has subsided.

The era of standardisation of the English language like the ‘received’ or correct pronunciation is over. While British English and American English are well known lesser known ones would be: Malayalam and English, Tamil and English, Hindi and English, besides Chinese and English. To that extent there would be as many versions of English as there are speakers. What then will survive is English spoken with the rhythm of the local language.

No language needs protection but acceptance to evolve. Modern India’s unique selling proposition to attract FDI is obviously what can be called, “the English speaking dividend” that has aided the economic growth. English is not a foreign language anymore in India. For instance, when the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages at Hyderabad was elevated to a university, it was renamed English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad -- a clear indication that English is no longer foreign in India.

Today English is perceived as a language which helps its diverse population to communicate in a country endowed with over 6,500 languages/dialects. Moreover, marriages in a socially emerging India are not just between two people -- but between two states. The bond between such couples therefore becomes English. This blurs the linguistic demarcation which was the basis for state formation after independence. So much so, English is symbolic of the language of opportunity, while their mother tongues are often the language of expression.

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