It is clear that in the subcontinent, colonialism is a convenient bogey for the anti-English lobby, writes Amulya Ganguli for South Asia Monitor
A section of educationists sets great store by the mother tongue as the medium of instruction at the primary level. Like the pitch for nationalism, the case for the mother tongue appears foolproof. After all, what better language is there for a child at school than the one he or she speaks at home?
If anything, it is expected to enable him or her to imbibe what is being taught with greater ease. The nature of this acquisition is, therefore, believed to be beyond the scope of a language with which a child is unfamiliar although all languages can initially fall into this category.
So far, this argument is so unconvincing. For a start, this approach to teaching works apparently satisfactorily in either a small country, as in Europe, or in a large homogeneous one like, say, China, even if this homogeneity is coercively achieved. It is unworkable in a multilingual nation like India.
'Mother-tongue policy' will increase communication gap
Any effort to follow a ‘mother tongue only’ policy up to Class V - as recommended in India's New Education Policy (NEP) - or above carries the danger, therefore, of forming isolated, state-based, linguistic islands where children will not find it easy after some time to communicate with those of other states. For instance, a Tamil speaking person will be unable to understand someone from Bihar and vice versa.
By the time a child grows up and begins to learn both Tamil or Hindi under a three-language framework, the task will not only be onerous but can begin to seem rather pointless and an unwanted imposition in the midst of coping with an increasing number of other subjects.
The imposition may seem all the more of a burden if the child has to learn a foreign language like English. The result will be that he or she will never succeed in earning any proficiency in the language unless the person happens to be highly talented. For the average student, English will always remain ‘foreign’ both in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation.
These deficiencies might not have mattered if English had not acquired the status of a highly favoured global language which provides easy access to higher knowledge and is a passport to upward social and professional mobility virtually all over the world.
Importance of English
It is this undeniably fact of life which has made parents in urban and even rural India send their children to English-medium schools, ignoring the frowns of educational stalwarts. It is an accident of history and circumstance that the patois of a small island in Europe (and that, too, mainly of its southern part) has gained this unique position in the world of linguistics.
To deny its importance and practical utility is tantamount to swimming against the tide and deliberately depriving young Indians of an advantage of learning it from an early stage by perversely deciding to wage the anti-colonial struggle all over again.
In the 1970s, the Marxists of West Bengal followed this path of banning English up to the secondary stage with one of the most vocal of them – Ashok Mitra – equating the advocacy of English with a desire to revive colonial rule.
It did not take long for the negative fallout of the ban to be felt with Bengalis from ordinary families being unable to find employment outside the state, for they were ignorant of both Hindi and English, while those who were privileged enough to have studied in English-medium schools leaving in droves for Delhi and Mumbai, for no jobs, were available in their home state.
By the time the Marxists realized their mistake and allowed the return of English to the primary classes, several generations of Bengalis had been crippled in terms of being able to earn their living outside the state.
But it isn’t colonialism alone which is the bugbear of the pro-mother tongue and anti-English lobby. Just as the Marxist objective was to exploit Bengali chauvinism for their political advancement, the union government’s current focus on the mother tongue is not quite an innocent academic exercise devoid of a political motive.
English language alien to Indian worldview?
Not surprisingly, the great votary of this line of thinking is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mentor, the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). With its emphasis on advancing the cause of its favoured religion/culture, the RSS sees an advantage in the secluded enclaves of a mother-tongue-based learning process in every state, each with its own lingo.
The apparent belief in the RSS camp is that such a restrictive environment will help in the propagation of its sectarian values in a closed setting where there is no interaction with other languages which, if allowed, would have brought in alternative concepts. English is one of the most prominent of such dialects with its own distinctive ethos which, according to the RSS, is alien to the Indian worldview.
This is the reason for the antipathy of fundamentalist groups towards English. As a Pakistani columnist has pointed out, the Imran Khan government is favouring the madrasa –based system in Pakistan over the English-medium and Urdu-medium schools so that the religious orthodoxy of the ‘traditional’ schools can prevail over any liberalism which the two other academic processes promote. It is clear that in the subcontinent, colonialism is a convenient bogey for the anti-English lobby.
It can also be argued that along with the Ayodhya temple, the withdrawal of Kashmir’s special status, the new law which emphasizes religion as a means of identifying a foreigner desirous of acquiring Indian citizenship, the proposed register which can hang like a Damocles sword over the heads of Indian Muslims even at it ferrets out illegal immigrants, the spotlight on the mother tongue is a part of the RSS/BJP’s Hindutva agenda.
(The writer is a current affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal)