Should India ditch English?

The use of the English language has always been a contentious subject in independent India. 

It was after all the language of the colonialists, imposed on a subject people by force. It was then, as it is now, spoken by a tiny minority of Indians. It never became the Lingua Franca that some claim it to be. In fact, it never could attain, despite Macaulay's dream, the status of Sanskrit or Arabic, as those languages shaped the religious and spiritual lives of Indians the way English never would. In that sense, it was never the equivalent of Latin in England: It was rather like the French of the Normans, a symbol of a scandalous subjugation.

The argument that colonialism civilised India has been long debunked. The import of English education in India was the cultural side of de-industrialisation, an act of destruction rather than creation. It was no mere coincidence that abolition of East India Company's monopoly on India trade moved lockstep with the introduction of English education: The enterprise of turning Indians into consumers of English goods needed reshaping of their tastes. Evangelism was the other half of this enterprise at the beginning, but it was the mill-owners and not the clerics who called the shots eventually. So, English was designed to be the language of higher education and of the professional class, but then, education and profession in India were designed to be separate from cultural and spiritual life. 

It's no surprise, then, that the key argument of retaining English as the language of education and professional life is driven by commercial considerations. India aspired to become the world's back-office, channelling its English-speaking young people into doing cut-price process work. The billion-dollar IT Service companies shaped the new megacities, the imagination of young Indians and further reinforced a model of professional education in English. Nativist tendencies manifested in the preference for vernacular in state education systems in the 70s and 80s were exposed and hopelessly out of date in the new India of the 90s and the new millennium: English, on the back of back-offices, became a very Indian language of opportunity.

But is this great Indian success story really a success story? The smugness of educated Indians about a world-leading IT industry was punctured as the Chinese IT companies arose: Unlike the Indian companies doing grunt work and living on the margin, the Chinese IT companies competed on the cutting edge of innovation. Suddenly, the Indian consumers' affinity to English is a handicap: India's internal market did not allow its companies the same type of launchpad that the Mandarin-using Chinese consumers did for theirs. In fact, the English culture as a whole became anti-innovation, as for the Indians, the 'location of culture' stayed abroad, in London and New York, and lately in Silicone Valley.

Besides, the dominance of English also meant a strangely narrow outlook for the educated Indians. The most tragic consequence of this is the failure of educated Indians to engage in Asia - and the gradual abrogation of third-world solidarity that shaped much of Indian policy-making when the humiliation of colonialism was fresh in memory. In the neo-liberal rush to the market in the Nineties, those ideas and connections, including Indian engagements with Russia (driven by geopolitics), Iran and other parts of Europe, declined or became solely channelled through the English language and world-view. Even the most die-hard racists among the colonial administrators conceded that Indians were good at learning languages, but that was no longer correct in the post-liberalisation India.

All this happened as the Indian society became more unequal, cities grew and a service-sector fetish limited the government's attention to other sectors of the economy. English never became the language of possibility which it was tipped to have been. Instead, the persistence of English facilitated the development of a two-tiered education system, subverting the already-flawed meritocracy with yet another layer. It's not surprising at all that nativism has now taken hold of India's political imagination, rejecting everything foreign.

It may sound paradoxical but India should ditch the English language to remain open and global. My case is opposite that of the nativists - I don't think India was the fountain of all knowledge and all answers can be found in the ancient Indian texts. English language proficiency isn't the same as openness; China does a lot more exports and is more open to outside ideas than India is. In fact, English speakers in India work as gatekeepers and cultural arbitrators, not allowing any direct import of outside ideas into India's vernacular cultures. Therefore, despite the vast expansion of higher education in India in recent years, there are little efforts towards producing translations other than that of the textbooks. The protective layer of English is actually the reason why 'not invented here' syndrome is so common in India and 'WhatsApp university' can sway the public sentiment so easily.

Obviously what I suggest here is against the vested interests of Indian middle classes - and therefore will never be considered. But India is fast reaching a point when it won't be able to squander the productive and creative potential of its people at the rate it does today: The squeeze on the Globalization of the earlier variety, the rise of a Sinosphere next door and transformation of work and business would force it to confront the questions of inclusive development and competitiveness. And, at that point, it will have to look at its own languages for salvation.




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