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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 52, December 12, 2009

This Business of English

Saturday 12 December 2009, by Ashok Celly

“In India the cultural imperialism of English had a very decisive impact on my life as English language is a status symbol and a gateway of social mobility. It is hard for those who are born in a family which does not promote or speak English language and does not have means to send their children to English medium schools. In India intelligence of a person is considered synonymous to speaking English with an Oxford accent, which means, those who do not speak English with a desirable accent are routinely denied a chance to prove their intellectual capabilities in the academic world”.

(What Went Wrong With “History From Below”,

K.P. Bagchi Company, Kolkata, 2005, p. 199)

If this is how Vinay Bahl, an Associate Professor of Sociology and the author of the above-mentioned book, feels (and she seems to speak here for thousands of Indian students who have been denied the public school-Oxbridge route), one can easily imagine how millions of Indians who do not know English must have suffered and continue to suffer even after decades of independence.

Thanks to the dominance of English in our public life, 95 per cent of Indians who do not know English are reduced to the position of persona non grata. They are made to suffer from a deep feeling of inferiority, made to feel they are good for nothing and hence not fit to have a say in the governance of this country or for that matter make any worthwhile contribution to its socio-cultural life.

It was precisely this condition of the ordinary Indian—aam admi in the currently fashionable parlance—that impelled Lohia to launch his Angrezi Hatao campaign in the early sixties. Lohia was not a fanatic or an obscurantist. He was an extremely learned man and knew several languages. (In fact, his most significant work—Marx, Gandhi and Socialism—was written in English.) He did not want to throw English out altogether, to hatao Enbglish as is sometimes alleged. Only he wanted regional languages—languages of the people—to have their legitimate place in the corporate life of the country, that is, to replace English as the medium of administration, judiciary, education and so on. As he saw it, empowerment of the people was closely related to the position the regional languages occupied in our corporate life.

More than any other leader, even more than his socialist colleagues like JP and Ashoka Mehta, Lohia understood the power of English as an instrument of exploitation. (Even though the Communists swear by the people and people’s languages, they are really enamoured of English.) As Lohia would put it in his inimitable style, 50 lakh people were sitting on the chests of 43 crore and ruling with the help of bandook ki goli and angrezi ki boli. English, which empowered a few, disempowered so many. The few included the English press. No wonder it ridiculed any attempt to change the status quo and paints the Angrezi Hatao movement as retrograde. It is useful to remember that the eminent physicist, Satyen Bose, was also associated with the movement.

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There is no denying that India’s achievements as a nation, a collective entity are considerable. It has emerged as a major power along with China. Only sometime back it had nine per cent growth rate which is something to exault in. All this has happened when the catchment area is so horribly limited, when opportunities for expression and contribution to social good are restricted to a bare five per cent or less. (Even today not more their five per cent Indians know English—a fact that we who live in the big cities tend to forget. The largest selling English news-paper does not figure among the top ten. So much for the reach of English.) Imagine what would happen when the energy and creativity of 95 per cent people which lies shackled is unleashed. For when the regional languages get their legitimate place in the Republican sun, the mute, obscure Newtons and Miltons will find utterance. Not only would it be a massive blow for social justice, our progress as a nation in all spheres will also take a quantum jump, and we may well leave other nations including China far behind.

The important thing is to liberate ourselves from the vicious myth that equates intelligence and creativity with proficiency in English. If that were so, how would one account for the progress of Japan, Germany, Soviet Russia and now China? We also need to examine dispassionately the widespread notion than English is the big ticket to cosmopolitanism—‘our window on the world’ as the hackneyed phrase goes and a great favourite with the teachers of English in this country. Does English help us to inculcate a truly cosmopolitan view? I am afraid not. The world we look at through the English window is extremely limited. How much of Latin America and Scandinavia, for instance, do we know? And why should I see the world through John Bull’s eyes or for that matter Uncle Sam’s? Just one example will do. Leave without permission is known in English as French leave thanks to the traditional Anglo-French rivalry. When we use this expression, when we describe somebody as being on French leave, we join the British camp, we become their cronies and unwillingly offend the French.

This does not, however, mean that we must discard English. No. English is an asset. We have used it for more than 200 years. But an exclusive dependence on English is certainly not desirable. It leads to a narrow and skewed vision. We need to learn other foreign languages as well for a more balanced perspective.

Even more, our scholars need to learn regional languages. It is bound to enrich Indian scholarship. Our scholarship today is a tame affair partly because of our monolingualism—a strange thing in a country which has so much linguistic diversity. Our knowledge of regional languages will enrich our scholarship. The pursuit of regional languages will impart both substance and colour to our scholarship which it seems to lack today. How can one work on Tagore, Gandhi and Ambedkar without a knowledge of Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi respectively? But our languages are not sufficiently developed, say the doubting Thomases of our intellectual community. It would be a strange thing to say even if it were true. It is like saying since I cannot swim, I must not go near the water. How can one learn swimming without taking the plunge? Languages develop when we use them, when we express ideas in them and interact with others.

And this is not altogether true. It is partly at least ignorance or just prejudice. For I have heard/read people like Kishan Pattanaik and Sachidanand Sinha express the most complex ideas in Hindi with extraordinary felicity. I recently happened to read Nand Kishore Acharya’s Sabhayta Ka Vikalp a masterly exposition of Gandhi’s philosophy and comparable to the very best in English. Then there are outstanding works like Dr Ram Vilas Sharma’s Bhasha aur Samaj, Prof Krishna Kumar’s Raj, Samaj Aur Shiksha, Prof R.K. Agnihotri and Sanjay Kumar’s Bhasha Boli aur Samvad, to mention only a few. The books that I have mentioned here are in Hindi, but I am sure other Indian languages have equally good books. A Bengali friend who is equally conversant with English and Bengali literature thinks very highly of Utpal Dutt’s book on Shakespeare. But such treasures are denied to the anglicised elite who live in a world of makebelieve and pathetically long for an approving nod from their counterparts(?) in England and the USA.

The author, who retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, is now a freelancer.

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