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Updated: May 1, 2013 15:52 IST

English can’t be blamed for all the ills of this country

Vivek V. Narayan
Comment (20)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

The increasing disparities in the country cannot be wished away by blaming English as its roots are far more deep-seated and lie in social realities

It is true that in India, speaking only English is often the surest sign of privilege. Post-liberalisation, the service sector boom has indeed led to the mushrooming of English-language classes all over the country. While these starting points of Sanjay Srivastava’s article in The Hindu (April 3, 2013, Op-Ed, “Alphabetical order to discrimination”) cannot be contested, the assumptions he makes are alarmingly similar to those sold by the very English-language classes he attacks: that the reason for the destitution of the lower classes is an inability to acquire English! While the sellers of English argue that therefore the lower classes must acquire the language post-haste, Srivastava argues that these “hapless victims” must not be subjected to “a soul-destroying system of measuring competence and skill.”

In thus erecting the straw man of English, Srivastava’s arguments mislead on many counts.

One, he isolates language from its social realities. Two, by failing to define “vernacular,” he does not consider how vernacular/regional languages have a history of standardisation that has denied the existence of dialects based on regional, caste, religious differences. Three, he ignores powerful Dalit critiques of the vernacular vs English debates. Four, he places undue faith in the powers of English to transcend caste/class barriers! Five, he perpetuates the rural-urban divide that plagues studies of contemporary India.

Language and social realities

The history of English in India is such that no meaningful discussion is possible without consideration of vernacular/regional languages. The earliest speakers of the language in the subcontinent in the 17th and 18th century, were trade middlemen known as dubashis: literally, bilinguals. This fact points to the cultural history of English as a language mediated through the vernacular/regional. Even today, amidst the relatively new middle and affluent class of exclusive English speakers, the influence of the vernacular/regional can be heard in their idioms/accents. What connects the worlds of the 18th century dubashi middlemen and the 21st century exclusive English speakers are the worlds of commerce and caste. Both classes, inevitably upper castes, depended on English for trade. What enables the 21st century English speakers to be entirely ignorant of other Indian languages is merely the changing nature of capital, globally, and the growing acceptance of English, nationally. This fact shows that the currency of the language itself is dependent on existing social realities. To read it the other way around is neither counter-intuitive nor progressive; it is merely incorrect.

By failing to define whether “vernacular” stands for standardised regional or dialects, Srivastava elides over the history of standardisation in vernacular/regional languages since the onset of printing technology. This standardisation has been critiqued in nearly every Indian language as equating the Hindu uppercaste Sanskritised versions of the languages with the standard form, often marginalising the flourishing literatures of other classes/castes. In fact, it has been the project of Dalit literatures to reclaim these marginalised linguistic histories.

Ignoring Dalit critiques

It is unfortunate that Srivastava ignores Dalit contributions to the vernacular vs English debates. Analysing that discrimination stems from the imposition of English and arguing, therefore, that one must not resort to such imposition, would render it near-impossible for anyone from marginalised sections to enrol in higher educational institutions, nearly all of which are English medium. Such an argument seeks to rollback the social gains brought about by educational reservations.

Language of transcendence

Excluding Dalits from the “desi” knowledge production through standardisation and canonisation and then accusing them of adopting “Western” ideas is an old argument. As Gopal Guru has argued, faced with centuries of linguistic/cultural/material marginalisation from desi society, Dalit political movements have been left with few pragmatic alternatives. But, so what? If language is conceived not as a hallmark of “hallowed culture” in timeless/spaceless/classless isolation and is instead seen as a tool to negotiate political/cultural/social power, any available language becomes a viable option. If language is understood in these terms, the problem becomes instead one of finding the right linguistic dialects amongst the marginalised sections; here, there can be no meaningful debate of English vs vernacular. Srivastava writes: “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.” If this were true, we would be better employed simply teaching these “hapless victims” English, thus ending all discrimination! The reality is that this remains mere wishful thinking. Srivastava’s point would make it impossible to understand the fact that the average waiter at an upmarket restaurant in Bangalore, often Dalit, can speak English, while many landlords, typically Reddys, are often unable to do so. Must we infer, therefore, that these waiters have gotten “ahead” of the Reddy landlords? Such a significant error stems from a rural/urban logic.

Rural/urban divide

The very first anecdote Srivastava begins with is telling evidence of his rural/urban logic. He chooses an English speaking class in “a village in Ghazipur district.” When he chooses a faraway hinterland as his setting, ignoring the fact that there are more English speaking classes in urban India, he signals this rural-urban divide. This myth of the rural-urban divide obfuscates the nature of our peculiar social hierarchies, which exist as much in urban India as in its villages.

The question fundamentally boils down to how we understand language. If we understand language as existing independent of all social realities, it is possible to talk of an English vs. vernacular divide. But if we view language within social realities, it is important to weigh its politics — cultural and material. The project then becomes one that goes beyond the reductionism of English vs vernacular into the social oppressions specific to our time and place. Naturally, these social oppressions reproduce themselves in the realm of language, and they must be fought. But it is not by quixotically arguing that these “hapless victims must not be further disenfranchised” that one can set right these oppressions.

Sanjay Srivastava responds

(Vivek V. Narayan is a playwright and theatre director, currently working in Bangalore with Theatre Counteract.)

More In: Comment | Opinion

@Amar Chaudhary- For someone who seems to object to the article on
grounds of empirical support, it is a little surprising to find that
your own comments seem to have no grounding in it. These are some:
1)The term 'Dalit' was not used by the British. The term they used
was Depressed Classes. Dalit meaning the oppressed or broken people
was a term that emerged from within the anti-caste movement, to not
only help understand the history of the community but also to move
away from terms such as harijan that were patronising in nature.
2) Gopal Guru is a political scientist and not a sociologist.
3) It is a little confusing as to why you assume a political scientist
or even a sociologist has no understanding of history.
As for the rest of your argument, if you were truly concerned about
ending casteism you would realise that not talking about caste does
not solve the problem. Confronting it in its varied forms does it. And
recent work in sociology does exactly this.

from:  Gayatri
Posted on: May 2, 2013 at 13:02 IST

Our education system, technological innovations and recently, even societal make-up are being influenced by the English speaking section of the world. It seems pitiful that we, as a nation, strive relentlessly to rub shoulders with our western counterparts, and have deliberately chosen their language as the guide. English is not even the most widely spoken language in the world; yet the rush to master it and prove our worth has become commonplace.
Should the blame be laid on the language itself? Of course not. It is in fact, the Indian mindset that needs a thorough revival. The urge to cover up lack of skill with a fluency in English portrays a deep rooted complex within our minds.
English isn't compulsory for our existence as a nation, or even for our progress in the future (We are not a group of Englishmen, no matter how skillfully we ape the West). It can sure be wielded as a useful tool, though, provided we remember to give an equal (if not more) importance to our own languages.

from:  Arati Nair
Posted on: May 2, 2013 at 11:37 IST

We must strive to be multilingual, lets not just stop at learning English, Hindi and our mother tongue's. Lets learn languages from neighboring states, lets learn Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Russian etc...
The medium isn't important ..what's important is to be able to express yourself and make sure the other person understands you.

from:  Vinod
Posted on: May 2, 2013 at 11:16 IST

You're both missing the point. Here are the
real issues: 1. A script (allows
asynchronous written communication), and a
language (vocabulary, grammar, usage,
idioms) are distinct issues. America has one
script and one language, as does Japan,
Korea, Russia, and China. Europe has one
script (Roman) and multiple languages. India
has multiple scripts and multiple languages.
Notice a pattern? The Indian language model
makes inter-citizen difficult and
asynchronous communications expensive. These
factors slow the spread of information in a
knowledge age, and make misunderstanding and
conflicts more likely. 2. Since the
Gutenberg Bible was printed, written
knowledge has become far more important and
voluminous compared to the oral tradition.
The vast majority of the world's modern
knowledge is codified in Roman script, and
is stored and generated in the English
language. Everyone (French, Germans,
Scandinavians, Africans, Chinese and
Japanese) is rushing to learn English. Let's
beat them.

from:  B. Rohith
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 19:39 IST

In response to Ms. Popli's comment I would like to say that Hindi is NOT the national
language of India (whatever that would possibly have meant). It is an official
language just like many others including English.

from:  B Chowdhury
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 19:39 IST

Only in the Hindu is the idea that English is the reason for social
disparity in India taken the least bit seriously. All other serious
newspapers would have realized that the idea is ridiculous and English
is a great social leveler.

from:  Mitra
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 19:18 IST

Like it or not, ENGLISH has become the de-facto official language of
India;which infact is a good thing. India is way too diverse and
fragmented. If a marathi is forced to learn tamil or vice-versa,it
would obviously be unacceptable to everyone.But if both are forced to
learn ENGLISH,it would be acceptable to both. ENGLISH and ENGLISH
WRITING is a part of OUR CULTURE. Like it or not, the BRITISH did rule
INDIA for nearly 2 centuries and hence, english has become a part of
our common heritage. The best way froward would be the 3 language
formula,wherein everyone learns the local language,hindi(not because
it is the national language,but hindi and it's dialects are spoken by
majority of people residing in india) and english.

from:  praveen swaminathan
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 18:33 IST

Hello Mahesh
You are saying correct that English does play a major role in helping people from different parts for India to communicate with each other. I am from Delhi and living Chennai. So English has helped me over here.

And regarding an Identity as an Indian. You cannot accept a single language in a multicultural country like India to be mother tongue of the whole country. Each culture over here have it's own mother tongue. Here you can keep your identity as a Indian only by keeping your own culture and the best way of doing this is by keeping your mother tongue intact and respecting the other languages.

Knowing English will not the degrade the identity but insulting your language and your culture will degrade it .

Swami Vivekananda,a saint, was one the finest person India ever had. He taught us to feel proud to be an Indian. But he use to speak flawless English. So I am not saying English is bad but not respect your language ( whatever that may be ) is bad.

from:  Varun Raj Sharma
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 18:28 IST

Every one will undoubtedly acknowledge the fact that we do live in a
world that's global.Globalization has got huge impacts on our lives in
all the ways we could imagine,and so has got the language.English has
emerged to be a global medium of conversation,even the most powerful
resource in our lives,the internet,is too all English.All the
industries today interact for all their purposes in English,so whether
we accept it or not but English is indispensable.Therefore,learning
English is vital for development of any class,caste or individual and
at last we can't blame the English for any ill,moreover English is a
wonderful language to learn.

from:  Prashant kumar kannaujiya
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 18:12 IST

We need English for our development. Every Indian should be able to
speak and write in English.
If I know Tamil only then I cannot communicate with a Marathi guy. So,
the claim that is being made here that vernaculars give us our
"identity" is false one as it doesn't give us identity of being an
"Indian", which English alone can give. Tell me, how will you
communicate with Mizo people?
English, for being an alien is devoid of Indian caste and class
biases. So, it has inherent unifying qualities in it. English gives us
tool to earn livelihood in today's globalised world.
And about the Dalit waiter in Bangalore's restaurant is less respected
than Reddys.. let me tell you that, the "prestige" of Reddys or any
other upper castes is not an outcome of the one generation. Most of
these Dalit workers first generation English speakers. They are still
getting mainstreamed.

from:  Mahesh J
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 16:13 IST


Oddly enough a part of this discrimination is because of the people who are discriminated against. ask a child why he wants to learn English and in many cases you will hear " because it develops my personality" because I feel bad when i hear people talk in English on the train/ metro/ bus etc. I am not against learning English and agree that's its benefits, economically are great. But why cant we take more pride in our own language? Why do we need to feel inferior? The Chinese don't feel bad because they speak only Chinese, the Portuguese don't feel bad they speak only Portuguese, so why us?

from:  Arun Ganapathy
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 15:10 IST

vastava does not blame English as a language at all. He blames a
particular evolving mindset. If you choose to present his article as
an attack on English, it would be you who is erecting a strawman
argument. Yet another: "unfortunate that Srivastava ignores Dalit
contributions". What do you mean by "ignores"? Well, can I say that
you *ignored* definition of genuine progress of Chinese and Japanese
vs. fake progress of Indians? Consider "ignoring the fact that there
are more English speaking classes in urban India, he signals this
rural-urban divide". You call this divide a myth, but where does
Srivastava refer to it? It is fine for you to add more aspects to the
debate but do not accuse the opponent of ignoring them unless he
actually does so. Here is one more: "by quixotically arguing".
Narayan, what are you up to?

Without going into the merits, I say that is important that the
debates are carried out logically without colouring the opponent or
the subject.

from:  Ank
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 13:57 IST

It is true that people do get discriminated if they don't speak
English. But it is also true that India's industries are service oriented. And for communicating people from outside India, like UK and US clients of IT companies, we need to know English. But this just for communicating with them.

But using English as a standard of judging a status of a person is shameful but is happening here.

We need to know English for communicating but we cannot leave or insult our mother tongue as it is our identity.

from:  Varun Raj Sharma
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 12:38 IST

It should have been understood by now that though Hindi is our
national language which should not lose its glory by comparing it with
any other language, English can not be treated as an unimportant
language. English, being the universal language, should be imparted
from elementary level to each and every one. Wherever we go, be it
school, college or for interviews, English is a mandate. At school
level, both the languages should be made compulsory. After it, one can
decide what to opt for future. Comparison of languages is utterly
absurd. We can not compare Tamil with Telugu. Both have equal

from:  Rinki Popli
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 10:49 IST

Dear editor I don't know why every debate in this newspaper end in
dalit debate. Do writers have some kind of dalit/upper caste fetish?
Don't know! Anyways not only dalits almost everyone from Hindi medium
who goes for higher studies has to face difficulties because of
English standard higher studies. First of all we need to make these in
hindi(40% population speak hindi). All developed nations have higher
studies in their national languages. But India still remains a slave
of english. Discrimination is pure rural/urban logic. Rural
discrimination is mostly normally caste logic while in urban settings
it has do with student's frustration with reservation system which
denies him chance to get a good education after years of toiling at
home while the rich student from dalit category goes to same college
without even lifting an arm. It is a kind of caste system in its own.

from:  Brij Krishnan
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 09:30 IST

People should stop politicising on this issue. Usefulness of English
language can not be denied in todays information age of globally
connected world. Even China has realised this and is on a fast track
to impart language skills at the school level itself. If India could
take best advantage of the business opportunities in IT sector , it
is due to English language. This unique advantage may not last for
ever as other countries too are catching up. So, our effort should be
to retain this edge and not slip up thru retrograde thinking that
dwell on turning the clock back .

from:  GopalB
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 09:29 IST

(1) This debate about role of English appears to be influenced by
political views and inclinations of those who are participating in it.
This of course is understandable. However we cannot ignore the ground
realities. (2) The unwritten rule is: If I wish to communicate
something to others in any language, I must communicate it in a manner
which can be clearly understood by my audience. Hence, those who
speak and write any Indian language should be ready to adhere to some
rules even as we recognize strengths of dialects of Indian languages.
Otherwise there will be chaotic situations with different
interpretations. (3) It is worth noting here that those who claim that
dialects of Indian languages are victims of standardization imposed by
the upper caste are not unwilling to accept the rules of English
grammar and usage.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 08:05 IST

Language connects two minds. Mind has analytical power. Resultant analytical power of two connected minds can not be taken necessarily as simple arithmetic sum. Power of dead minds is still accessible through their writings.

When a language has a large collection of writings, then minds should not prevented to access the analytical power for their on own training / endeavor to increase the analytical power, which is a social issue. Percolation of a language is prevented to control opportunities and deny equality.

Are we in a position to create a larger collection of writings in any other language quickly enough? If we cannot then, we should accept English without arguments as well as liberate it from custodian classes, for the benefit of deprived classes. Spoken languages had hardly made any upliftment of user class.

from:  kharat
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 06:16 IST

Oh Ing Leash (English!) is full of crazy pronunciations and perplexing
spelling and sound ! Past tense of sink is sank, drink is drank, BUT
that of think is NOT thank ! nor blink - blank !! Vice versa, thought is
past tense of think, by same token, it should be drought for drink and
sought for sink eh !! Some and Sum same almost in speech; cum and come
different meaning; Endless examples can be given; all we
have to do is try understand, accept the lack of logic and try to make
other person follow we mean to express; NO literature honors degree pl!

from:  Rita Jaisingh
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 06:09 IST

The author serves up a great deal of theatrics without any empirical support or even good logic. There is no question that the "dalits" were created by the British themselves and the term itself did not come into existence until the 1930s. Citing Gopal Guru is very convenient, except that Guru is a sociologist and not a historian. Unfortunately, most of Indian sociology merely reproduces the colonial categories even today. The author does very well reproducing the casteism whose production took place in the colonial laboratory via Orientalist scholarship.

from:  Amar Chaudhary
Posted on: May 1, 2013 at 04:37 IST
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