Monday, January 16, 2012

[ZESTCaste] The question of English

The question of English
A meaningful and enduring bilingualism, embracing both English and the
mother tongue, remains out of reach of the vast majority of citizens,
writes Ramachandra Guha.

• Ramachandra Guha

06 November 2011 - In 1905 and 1906, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, his
wife and their children shared a home in Johannesburg with an English
couple, Henry and Millie Polak. Later, writing of their life together,
Gandhi recalled that "Polak and I had often very heated discussions
about the desirability or otherwise of giving the children an English
education. It has always been my conviction that Indian parents who
train their children to think and talk in English from their infancy
betray their children and their country. They deprive them of the
spiritual and social heritage of the nation, and render them to that
extent unfit for the service of the country."

"Having these convictions, I made a point of always talking to my
children in Gujarati. Polak never liked this. He thought I was
spoiling their future. He contended, with all the love and vigour at
his command, that, if children were to learn a universal language like
English from their infancy, they would easily gain considerable
advantage over others in the race of life. He failed to convince me".

Gandhi added that while he insisted on his children speaking at home
in Gujarati, and learning through that language, "they naturally
became bilingual, speaking and writing English with fair ease, because
of daily contact with a large circle of English friends, and because
of their stay in a country [South Africa] where English was the chief
language spoken".

The private debate between Gandhi and Polak has had very many public
echoes down the decades. In the 1920s, Gandhi and Tagore argued in
print about whether a love for the English language betrayed a
colonised mindset. The Mahatma thought it did, whereas the poet, a
prophet of a rooted cosmopolitanism, argued that Indians could glory
in the illumination of lamps lit in languages and cultures other than
their own.

After Independence, the battle between these positions was truly
joined, when the brilliant, maverick socialist, Rammanohar Lohia,
launched and led an 'Angrezi Hatao' andolan, a movement to banish
English from the face of India. (With a splendid but also somewhat
malicious sense of timing, he chose the occasion of a visit by the
queen of England to intensify the agitation.)

A century after Gandhi and Polak debated the question in Johannesburg,
arguments about the relevance of English to India and Indians

• Poor parents choosing English
• Mother tongue or English
Lohia was answered in turn by Tamil politicians and intellectuals, who
feared that in the absence of English, Hindi-speakers would exercise a
sort of colonialist dominance over the southern, western, and eastern
parts of India. Thus Hindi signs were defaced across Tamilnadu by
followers of E V Ramaswami 'Periyar' - a leader as brilliant and as
maverick as Lohia.

Meanwhile, Periyar's former adversary, C Rajagopalachari, now joined
him in opposing Hindi and in promoting English as the language of
communication between different parts of India and between India and
the world. To the argument that English was a foreign, even an
imperialist, language, Rajaji answered that since the goddess
Saraswati had given birth to all the languages of humankind, we could
and should claim English as our own.

The debate continues. In Karnataka, for example, many prominent
intellectuals - among them the novelist, U R Ananthamurthy - argue
that a child must speak and learn exclusively in her mother tongue
until she enters high school lest she become totally disconnected from
her social and spiritual roots. (Ananthamurthy is an admirer of Gandhi
and a former disciple of Lohia, but, withal, very much his own man,
who makes the argument with a distinctive flair and originality.)

On the other side, Dalit activists suggest that the promotion of
Kannada is an upper-class ploy to keep them away from the fruits of
modern learning. They say that once the Brahmins denied them access to
Sanskrit; now, the descendants of those Brahmins wish to deny the
Dalits access to the modern language of power and privilege, namely,

This subaltern endorsement of the foreign language has taken a most
interesting form in north India, where the writer-activist, Chandra
Bhan Prasad, has chosen to build a temple dedicated to the 'Goddess
English' in his own home state of Uttar Pradesh. Described in the Wall
Street Journal as "a bit of a maverick" (he is also, I might add,
brilliant) Prasad believes that the Dalits can achieve emancipation
via a deeper and fuller engagement with English.

A century after Gandhi and Polak debated the question in Johannesburg,
arguments about the relevance of English to India and Indians
continues. The debate has moved on, of course, since society and
history have moved on too.

One might foreground three significant changes since Gandhi's time.
First, there are now far more inter-community marriages, particularly
among the middle and upper classes. And if a Gujarati marries a Tamil,
or a Bengali weds a Malayali, then the default language of their
children, and of the family as a whole, tends to become English.
Second, although Britannia no longer rules the waves, English
continues to be the major global language, its pre-eminence a
consequence of America having replaced Great Britain as the great
imperial power of the age. Whether spoken in the queen's diction or in
its American or other variants, over most of the world English thus
remains the language of choice for communication between people of
different nationalities.

The third change is, in the Indian context, arguably the most
significant. This is that there is now a real hunger for English among
the poor. As many readers of this column will know, from their own
experience, domestic servants are determined that their children will
not follow them into their profession. They recognise that the best
way to escape hereditary servitude is for their children to learn the
language of mobility and opportunity, which of course is English. The
desire to learn English thus runs deep among all castes and
communities. Poor Muslims are as keen to learn the language as are
poor Dalits or adivasis.

Whether one approves of it or not, this rush to learn English is
unstoppable. Rammanohar Lohia and his followers have lost the battle
to banish English from the imagination or learning experience of the
Indian child.

That said, one might still wish for a sort of historic compromise
between the positions articulated by Gandhi and Polak. We live in a
land of a quite extraordinary diversity of linguistic and literary
traditions. And yet in practice we tend to privilege one language at
the expense of all the others. That so many middle- and upper-class
Indians speak only English is a shame; that so many subaltern and
working class Indians do not have access to decent education in
English is equally a shame.

As for Gandhi's children, despite their father's insistence that they
speak and learn only in Gujarati, they willy-nilly picked up the
lingua franca of Johannesburg, which fortuitously was also the lingua
franca of the world. In the enclaves of class and language that
Indians live in, the promotion of bilingualism and multilingualism is
certainly more difficult. It is easy enough for a child of the elite
to acquire a smattering of Hindi (or Marathi or Kannada) phrases; how
much more enriching would it be for him to learn the language well
enough to read widely in its literature. By the same token, children
from subaltern families are constrained by money and class from
acquiring more than a functional knowledge of English.

Gandhi is not known to have been a model father, but by the accident
of circumstance in at least this respect his children turned out to be
more fortunate than other Indians. Their bilingualism came naturally,
with the language of the home being supplemented by the language of
the city they lived in. In contemporary India, on the other hand, a
meaningful and enduring bilingualism remains out of reach of the vast
majority of citizens.

Ramachandra Guha
06 Nov 2011

Ramachandra Guha is a historian, and a regular columnist with The
Telegraph of Calcutta.

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