Is English an illness?

Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s dubbing of English as ‘an illness’ is ill-conceived. One will not be mistaken in perceiving incipient symptoms of the Centre pushing the agenda for lingual singularity for the nation even while maintaining a pretence of support for the mother tongue.

If one were to look for factors that unite the modern Indian nation-state, it is not difficult to glean that English provides the maximum glue, notwithstanding its extra-territorial roots.

Amidst the plurality and diversity of our cultures, languages and faiths, English being the language of elite consensus, serves as the major link between them all. To a lesser extent, Bollywood films and cricket also strengthen the emotional bonds across cultures. It is only through English that one gets a pan-Indian picture and national perspective on issues that afflict us all.

Take out English, and India’s image as a modern nation would take a severe beating among the comity of nations. But a greater risk lies in reckless dissonance and divergence of opinion and ideas within India on issues crucial to the nation’s progress.

Fondness for one’s mother tongue is natural and understandable. There is also no gainsaying that primary education through mother tongue enhances efficiency of learning. Yet, one cannot simply escape the fact that it is English that opens the door for the influx of new ideas, provides access to cutting-edge technologies, facilitates higher education, enables average educated Indians to rise above petty regional and linguistic chauvinisms, mitigates burden of unemployment on the native soil by helping the surplus talents to look for jobs and economic prospects overseas, and helps maintain active links and align with global trends.

Even more importantly, it is English that supplies the catalytic contact between regional languages. English cuts through biases, provides a firm bulwark of reason and logic to discern issues clearly. It becomes extremely difficult to clothe narratives with any kind of prejudices.  

Notwithstanding their glorious literary heritage, no single Indian language measures up to all these roles and tasks. Hindi, despite its vast demographic spread and official patronage, is no match to several South Indian languages in matters of acceptance of new ideas, let alone being comparable to English.

Hindsight reveals that while the issue of reservation for intermediate castes had been implemented in most southern states decades before the presentation of the Mandal Commission report, it met with stiff resistance when Prime Minister VP Singh announced the 27% reservation for the OBCs in 1990.

Progressive measures such as midday meals for schools, universal literacy, economic integration of occupational groups through cooperatives, three-tier democracy, agrarian reforms, etc., found easy penetration in non-Hindi states as the groundwork had been done for decades by litterateurs, playwrights and filmmakers in regional languages much ahead of their Hindi counterparts.

Hindi being the lingua franca of a landlocked region did not have the privilege of creative interaction through coastal inlets and maritime merchants. Dislodging English from the current position would only seal prospects of Hindi enriching itself and graduating itself to be the sole official language of the Union in the foreseeable future.

Naidu’s suggestion for North Indians to learn a South Indian language is equally illogical as well as impractical. It is doubtful if it would promote national integration in any substantial measure. It would be grotesque to equalise the burden of learning languages across the states.

Although a Hindi-speaker settled in, say, Trivandrum may benefit from learning Malayalam, teaching of a South Indian language to school kids in North India does not fetch them equal benefits. To the contrary, the North Indian states would greatly enhance the employability and linguistic skills of their students if English is taught to them under the time-honoured three-language formula.

The fact is, this formula was sincerely implemented only in the South Indian states. The North Indian states, principally Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar (and their offshoots like Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand) were neither serious nor sincere in implementing it. While Uttar Pradesh totally dislodged English, Bihar introduced “pass without English” as a new category of ‘successful’ candidates.

The students got proficiency in no language other than Hindi. Even local languages like Urdu and Maithili, which were born and nurtured in the Indo-Gangetic plains, were denied a place. Some states even went further and incorporated Sanskrit in the formula, although it is a classical language and not a Modern Indian Language.

It is time the nation embraced its plurality without getting into debates of what belongs to us and what does not. The enormity of unemployment does not allow us the luxury of exiling English or dubbing it ‘an illness’. If nothing else, English’s capacity to homogenise opinion on crucial issues across the nation alone should be enough to legitimise its continuance as a link language and pride of place in our scheme of things.  

(The writer is a Bengaluru-based journalist)

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