An English Goddess

English in India

T Vijayendra

Indian Society Is Deeply fissured. The fault lines lie along caste, sub caste, class, religion, region, language and several other overt and unstated domains.

The linguistic division of states and thereby of Indian society has generated linguistic chauvinism. At the pan Indian level, one hears of Hindi chauvinism but there are regional chauvinisms originating from the four power centres of the country, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai. One sees Bengali chauvinism in relation to Oriya and Assamese and then there is Tamil chauvinism and Marathi chauvinism as well.

However, English is indisputably the most powerful. Proficiency in English determines the power dynamics amongst individuals, communities and regions. Arguably it has also been the cause of turbulence in the nation.

Whatever association with English, one can never overlook the fact it was an instrument of colonial power and was used to groom and foist upon lackeys who would “refine” Indians and the “vernacular dialects” of the country.

Here is the oft quoted segment from Macaulay’s Minutes:

“I feel … that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. Thomas Babington Macaulay, 2nd February 1835. 1

Framers of the Indian Constitution envisaged that by 1965 Hindi would be developed enough to replace English as official language. When this did not happen, zealots from the Hindi belt, particularly the socialists took to the streets and went on a rampage destroying property that carried sign boards in English. This created a huge reaction in other regions, particularly in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and Hindi chauvinism was born.

There are other aspects to the situation. Schools in India have a mandatory three language curriculum which includes the mother tongue, Hindi and English. States in the Hindi belt opted for Sanskrit as the third language instead of choosing one of the vernacular tongues. The non-Hindi speaking states resented this and ultimately it affected school education in India adversely.

At the other end many under privileged groups—Dalit and Bahujan Samaj—look at English as a language that will help in their struggle to get out of poverty and oppression. Paradoxically a visible manifestation of this began in the year 2011, in the Hindi region with a temple for the goddess of English! Here are some excerpts from BBC News: The Goddess of English is a symbol of renaissance for the Dalits of Banka. (Source/BBC)

The Dalit (formerly untouchable) community is building a temple in Banka village in the Northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to worship the Goddess of the English language, which they believe will help them climb up the social and economic ladder. About two feet tall, the bronze statue of the goddess is modelled after the Statue of Liberty. ‘She is the symbol of Dalit renaissance,’ says Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer who came up with the idea of the Goddess of English. Mr. Prasad says ‘In 20 years no jobs would go to anyone in India who doesn’t know English. If we don’t do something now, the Dalits would not be job worthy. ’ ‘Ambedkar said, ‘English was the milk of a lioness, only those who drink it will roar,’ Chandra Bhan Prasad says.

October 5 is the World Teachers’ Day. Author, academic and activist Dr. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd has been proposing since 2016 that people should celebrate October 5 as Indian English day. On October 5, 2016, he wrote, ‘In 1817, sometime in the month of October, English teaching was started in Calcutta by gathering together a few Brahmin male children both by British educationalists and Indians. Today, in 2017 we need to celebrate the 200th year of English education in India.’ He goes on further to say that in Calcutta there was no scope of Dalits getting English education those days. It was only in Maharashtra, the land of Shivaji, a Shudra ruler, that some anti Brahmin changes began to occur. It was Shivaji’s grandson Shahu Maharaj ‘who took a serious step towards the anti-Brahmin mobilisation of Shudras and Dalits. Thus, that land became the land of the Dalit-Bahujan English Education also. If Calcutta province represented the Brahminical English, the Bombay province represented the Dalit-Bahujan English’. He sees English as an aid to liberation of Dalit Bahujan Samaj. He also says that the upper castes send their children to private English medium schools whereas the Dalit Bahujan Samaj children have to study in government ‘mother tongue’ medium education schools.

Most people who have studied up to class 10 and above have some access to English. This access is directly proportionate to the level of education one can secure. Those who have grown up in larger urban centres also have more exposure to the language. An exception to this can be seen in post-independence industrial townships in India that enjoy a higher per capita income and higher levels of education despite their relatively smaller size.

The elite of the country mostly comprise those that have been educated at the top most old prestigious colleges across the country and in newer institutions like IITs IIMs and centres of Science, technology and communication. By and large they are favoured in the job market and on a lighter note they are the ones who will buy and read books in English.

In the last couple of decades it has become possible for the affluent but not necessarily “elite” members of society, business people and others to educate their children in “English medium” schools which in India are the hallmark of “good education.”

There is something unique about English in India. It exists alongside fairly developed Indian languages like Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Hindi and many others, all of which have literary traditions of around 1000 years or so. Nowhere else in the world does one see such a situation. In Latin America, for example, Spanish (Portuguese in Brazil) has almost wiped out local language traditions and there is no comparable literary tradition. Same is true about English in the US, Canada and Australia.

Unlike authors in those places, the Indian English author draws from the literary tradition of his (her is implied) local language and the life of the local people. Consequently, almost all of them have a very good access to local literary tradition. He is bilingual at the very least and very often multilingual for reasons of interest or location. All great Indian English authors—from Toru Dutt, Mulk Raj Anand, RK Narayan, and Raja Rao to Amitava Ghosh have a deep knowledge of their traditions. Conversely, it is very difficult for one to be a good Indian English author if he has poor access to Indian languages and their literary traditions.

Speaking fluent English is a common and significant aspiration in India. In the beginning only schools run by Christian Missionaries used English as the medium of instruction. Privileged Indians who sent their children to these schools also ensured that they have a good grasp of Indian languages. Private tutors (Pundits for Sanskrit, Maulvis for Arabic and Persian) and teachers well versed in the vernacular would complement the learning that happened at school.

Sometime in the seventies as the demand for English education increased non- missionaries lay persons set up private schools and it became a profitable business.

As business its primary motive is to generate a surplus and so the owner promoters pay their teachers and staff rather poorly and are quite unconcerned about the quality of education on offer in their schools.

Many of these schools are “English Medium” in name alone. Most interaction within the school happens in the local language and examinations demand and assessment memorised/retained learning that is barely understood.

The availability of teachers who can offer standard instruction in English, has not kept pace with the demand. It is an impossible project for India. The only people who seem to be profiting are the text book publishers and tutorials.

Whichever way one critiques it, all students regardless of caste / class / location are getting substandard education. Students from “good schools” are monolingual and often unaware and non-comprehending of their own literary traditions, even in English translations.

For the less privileged their own lack of resources gets compounded by the paucity of resources that their schools face. It is worth mentioning here that NGOs in the country have contributed immensely to enriching and enhancing the learning experiences of less privileged learners across the board, both in mainstream and remote areas.

A way out of this impasse is to have local language medium of instruction say up to class 8 and have English as a subject from class 1. After class 8 one can have an option to change over to English medium in all subjects or for science subjects only. This way there will be enough teachers and everyone will get a chance to become proficient in English.

What has suffered is the Indian language literature and literary magazines. Today, in A P and in Telangana it is difficult to find any good literary magazine. Sunday supplements of regional newspapers are the only places that still see some literary effort. It may not be so bad in all Indian languages, but the trend is there. AP and TS shifted focus to cater to the demand for engineers, IT sectors and in medicine. So, academies for coaching in related disciplines mushroomed and literature and social sciences suffered. Many states followed the Telugu experience and IIT and IAS academies have mushroomed.

However, Indian languages are still flourishing in smaller towns and among the educated of lower and middle classes and Dalit and Bahujan Samaj. They have a need and hunger for knowledge and need to express themselves. And they are not adequately proficient in English. These are the people who are buying Indian language newspapers and popular magazines. Since they are the Bahujan (majority) the print orders are respectable. The future Indian language authors will be those who have come from these small towns or at least have spent their school years there.

The elites will remain proficient both in English and one or the other Indian language. Leading the pack will be intellectuals from Bengal. Generations of them have benefitted from the leisure generated from the Permanent Settlement wealth for 300 years. Then there are elites from Delhi, Bombay and Chennai which have been seats of power for more than 200 years. Delhi of course has been a seat of power since historic times. These upper caste/upper class elites will continue to hold important positions in academia, government and in business.

Indian languages will continue to flourish in smaller towns and among lower middle classes and among Dalit and Bahujan Samaj. Overtime they will acquire better proficiency in English and will be good bilinguals. The future will be with those who are good bilinguals!

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Vol 54, No. 27, Jan 2 - 8, 2022