Considering the knowledge of English as a mark of social advancement and that of the vernacular as backwardness disenfranchises significant sections of society

In a village in Ghazipur district that borders Varanasi, there is a young man who teaches English and “personality development” to the sons and daughters of local shopkeepers, farmers and truck drivers. The classes are held from 6 to 8 in the morning and again in the evening. This example and two recent events have something to tell us about a silent Indian tragedy. The first of the two events is the controversy over the status of English in the selection of Indian civil servants and the second, the death of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in Boston. What links these far-flung occurrences is a catastrophic story of stunted ambitions and gross social injustice in our part of the world.

Chinua Achebe is rightly celebrated as a writer of great capacities. However, his obituaries also unwittingly point to the conditions of such acclaim. The South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, is reported to have praised Achebe’s skills for its Joycean and postmodern sensibilities. Achebe is thought to be a great writer in as much as he is able to emulate western norms of greatness and cosmopolitanism, and African traditions of story-telling find no place in such systems of honour. This would be a largely academic issue were it not for the havoc this worldview wreaks upon flesh and blood lives. The young women and men in a small, fan-less room with wooden benches in Ghazipur district are the hapless victims of a soul-destroying system of measuring competence and skill. In a gesture of moving futility, they earnestly memorise grammatical nuances and work upon what their well-meaning teacher suggests are crucial aspects of the “modern” and economically successful personality. But the world is against them.

Marker of difference

English language cosmopolitanism is greatly admired in societies — such as ours — where genuine diversity of reading and writing has been downgraded. It is not for nothing that we uncritically admire those who may not have read much (if anything) in a language other than English. We admire English language monoculturalism and the confidence it engenders and the relationship with it is the nearest we have to a national neurosis. This condition has been produced by a combination of colonialism and contemporary globalisation, both of which have helped to make English the powerful medium that it is. In many cases it may even be a more powerful marker of difference than caste: a Dalit with English-language fluency will be much more accepted in upper-caste company (and get “ahead”) than an upper-caste non-English speaking person. For many, this is a good thing since it is seen as signifying how education can overcome inherited disadvantage. However, the peculiar presence of English in India is also the making of a situation of wasted human potential.

Rewarding English

There is little evidence — as the Japanese and the Chinese might agree — that mastery over the English language is any measure of competence and skill. However, increasingly, the public use of an Indian language is seen to mark one as unintelligent and uneducated. It is not for nothing that one meaning of “vernacular” is “slave born in the house of the master”. The vernacular is considered the language of backwardness. This perspective carries on in the sphere of hyper-boosterism that is the world of Indian writing in English. So, if you write one novel in English, it can form the basis of someone’s MPhil. dissertation; two novels attract both a doctoral thesis and universal acknowledgment of one’s ability to represent Indian cultural and social complexity as it has never been done before. The global system of rewards for writing in English translates into a massive loss of cultural memory as well as intellectual laziness. A two-tier educational system, quiescent middle-class cultures, and the pernicious “globalisation” of English have seen to that. The brief hope offered by the Kothari Commission (1964-66) that the “three-language formula” in schooling might lead to linguistically hybrid citizenry has all but withered on the vine.

English, many claim, is now an “Indian” language. And, as is also claimed, it provides access to a better life to previously disadvantaged groups (as, for example, call centre employment). Such claims may be true, but are beside the point, which relates to the extraordinary disenfranchisement of very significant sections of the population from avenues of social and material advancement on the completely spurious basis of language competence.

Western perspective

While the limitations of western academia force it to exclusively posit English writing from India as quintessentially “postcolonial”, there is no reason why we should uncritically accept this perspective. Indian social realities — marked most significantly by an asymmetrical educational system — require policies for social advancement that do not further marginalise those already disadvantaged by a history of uneven development. It is important to recognise that, in addition to being grossly discriminatory, pro-English positions are not even economically meaningful. It is a remarkable fact that many Indians actively seek to lose a skill — the childhood competence in their mother tongue — as they grow older. As older, traditional, means of expressing superiority become less significant, we search for newer ways of appearing superior.

The English language may well provide important avenues for disadvantaged groups to overcome some of that disadvantage, for it is easier for individuals to try to change their class status than to switch caste. However, there are no defensible reasons for thinking that one particular language offers the best medium for cultural and scientific creativity. So, even as we admit that the marginalised will want to be a part of the powerful world of English, it is just as important to recognise that such groups struggle against extraordinary disadvantage and will frequently fail in this effort. And given that there is no connection between ability and a particular language, the youth of Ghazipur district must not be further disenfranchised by social policies that compound their disadvantage. It is perhaps appropriate that Achebe’s end came in the United States. For moving to the U.S. — as the acerbic Gore Vidal was to say — is one way the disadvantaged can overcome their handicap. Given that that option is not open for many, we require more thoughtful policy discourse at home.

(Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.)

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