A case for language rights

Source: By N Kalyan Raman: Deccan Herald

The storm created by the draft National Educational Policy seems to have subsided for the moment, with the government backtracking on the mandatory requirement of Hindi as one of the three languages to be studied at the school level in non-Hindi speaking states. The backtracking was a result of vociferous protest from several states, chiefly from Tamil Nadu, against this attempt at “imposition” of Hindi by the government at the Centre.

The peremptory move was typical of the Modi dispensation, whose idea of governance is to enforce submission to its authority, treating citizens as little more than subjects. And this time around, it meant to pave the way for the establishment of Hindi as the national language or, in other words, the language of the “nation”.

Apart from the emotive aspect of nationhood, the move would also privilege Hindi as the exclusive language of governance, displacing English altogether, and thereby as the central language of knowledge and intellectual discourse. Eventually, the much-despised Anglophone elite, implacable enemies of Hindutva, would be literally crowded out by a Hindi-educated intellectual elite from across the country.

In such a scenario, hundreds of millions of people from the non-Hindi states would be disadvantaged and downgraded to second-class citizens. It is precisely to forestall this prospect that Tamil Nadu has insisted that it would stick to its two-language formula of Tamil and English at the school level.

The two-language policy has been in force in Tamil Nadu since the late 1960s, when the DMK came to power in the wake of the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965. So long as Tamil Nadu, and other states in a similar situation, stick to their guns and hold fast against the forces of Hindutva on the political front, the BJP’s vision of Hindi as the national language is unlikely to become reality in the foreseeable future.

However, it is possible to see this contest more as a fight for supremacy between Hindi and English, both hegemonic languages in their own way, than as a battle for the basic language rights of ordinary citizens. And what might these basic rights be?

To receive accessible and affordable education up to the tertiary level in their mother tongue, or in a language close to it and to live in a society that will honour and reward such education with opportunities and incentives in any field of endeavour. There are longstanding reasons why such a scenario, so important to the future well-being of most of our population, is a distant dream.

Postcolonial laissez faire

Since our education system during the colonial era was the creation of the British, the primacy of English as the language of education and administration was unavoidable. After Independence, the privilege accorded to English continued unchecked. The reasons were partly cultural. As an inherently hierarchical, context-sensitive society, we adapted to English in our own way, as described by AK Ramanujan in his essay, ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?’

When English is borrowed into (or imposed on) Indian contexts, it fits into the Sanskrit slot; it acquires many of the characteristics of Sanskrit, the older native Father-Tongue, its pan-Indian elite character—as a medium of laws, science and administration, and its formulaic patterns; it becomes a part of Indian multiple diglossia (a characteristic of context-sensitive societies).

What we should have done was to reinvent and develop the capacities of our education system in Indian languages, an onerous task by any reckoning. We were taking the right steps during the 1950s and early 60s, but as English-driven, white-collar employment began to expand in the following two decades, the efforts necessary to provide quality education in Indian languages at the college level were given up.

The increasing competition at the school level, combined with progressive privatisation of education, put paid to quality instruction in Indian languages at the school level as well. The result is large-scale disenfranchisement of the rural and economically weaker sections of society. That such a situation has come about in a state like Tamil Nadu, a crusader against Hindi imposition, speaks volumes about the state of language rights in our country. As for English, it is spoken of as a route to better opportunities and a privileged life. This is true for only a tiny fraction of the population.

If, at 24 million jobs (2013-14 Economic Census), employment in the organised sector is about 5% of the labour force of 479 million (World Bank figures for 2014), and jobs for which English is an absolute requirement amount to only a small fraction of that number, it is hard to see how education in English can be ‘aspirational’ for all our children, given such a narrow base of opportunities. Moreover, we simply lack the resources required to provide quality English education on such a wide scale. We are plunging the bulk of our children into a contest that they can never win.

Going beyond the knee-jerk attempt at imposition of Hindi and the equally knee-jerk opposition to it favouring the primacy of English, we need a languages policy with a social vision, policy as if people mattered. This is a programme for the long haul, one that requires the participation, contribution and support of all those committed to our future as a healthy, functioning democracy. It’s time we gave serious and rigorous thought to the role of languages in the development of our society in a fair and equitable way.