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