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Language and equity

Holding out the promise of equity and inclusiveness, English language education in India signalled for the average Indian a life out of poverty and a climb to power and wealth. It was also the language of culture and "good breeding".

The colonial classroom, the pulpit from where the sermons were administered, pressed into service the power of the English language. To quote Francis Wade, a freelance journalist and analyst covering Burma and south-east Asia, "Language was a less easily discernible weapon of divide and rule: wielded quietly, it helped create hierarchies within oppressed groups." That English language education in India certainly did.

The Indian mind is essentially one that accommodates every excess, every cruelty and gradually from habit, normalises the abnormal and absurdities, and turns them into a norm. That done, it does not even think about it.

We were already a country of people for whom every social crime was absolved in the name of caste, creed and morality. We were a divided society already. When the colonial rulers’ programme of "Civilizing the Native and Educating the Nation" stormed into our midst, one is not sure there was an unambiguous protest against such an "emancipation". A section of the populace did not protest because of the intrinsic economic, social, cultural and educative value they saw in it. Some others did not because they never were meant to understand anything. The poor, the low-born, the repressed, never figure in the list of beneficiaries; they are just sections to whom things get done.

The colonial overlords successfully smoothed the path of rule not just in the more visible political and economic spheres, but in the avenues of the Indian mind which was willing to accede their victory and coronate the European way of life as morally uplifting, spiritually rejuvenating and culturally humanising. Macaulay’s Minutes in 1835 and the Wood’s Despatch of 1854 outlined an educational policy directed at getting rid of everything degenerate, regressive and morally decaying in the Indian education and supplanting that with the European model synonymous with what was going to aid in the formation of a forward-looking, scientific and moral character.

A social structure built on the ubiquitous caste paradigm welcomed with open arms the new education policy. The rich, high-born and the dominant communities in Indian society lapped up English education. All the others who were never meant to and never were in the fray remained outside the orbit of its "civilising" concerns.

A country already fraught with divisions saw the emergence of another caste: the English-speaking upper class to begin with, which soon percolated to the upwardly-mobile middle class, the latter astute enough to see their fortunes catapulted in an unquestioning pursuance of English education. The Machiavellian ruse got carried forward by the post-Independence neo-middle class, who have only widened the socioeconomic fissures unleashed by the colonisers.

G.N. Devy, a former Professor of English at the University of Baroda and a feisty activist-academic, could not have been closer to the truth when he said, "Knowledge tradition in India suffers from two wounds — caste, English colonial rule."

The story comes full circle with this validation. The ancient caste-ridden education and the colonial knowledge systems in India marginalised, forgot and dismissed the languages and the knowledge systems of the oppressed communities in India.

A rewriting of history is required for only this way can we acknowledge the losses, the lacerating wounds and the humiliation meted out to the communities that could never respond to English education or were coerced to do that at the cost of their indigenous cultures, languages, attitudes and memory.

The finest expression of this sentiment is perhaps to be seen in the literary critic Adam Beach’s declaration that history moves on, theories of liberation march alongside it, but without our languages, we will remain trapped in the "English metaphysical empire". Once trapped in it, we become the dominating culture dictating to the dominated.

With linguistic minority and ethnic groups disappearing, another apocalypse waits to visit us — the death of a language. Tribes moving from their homes lose words of the flora and fauna that abounds in their hitherto habitat. This harms the capability function of the human mind causing deprivation of expression and erosion of grammatical structure. Cognitive abilities become restricted and limited. When the dominant language medium is imposed on these people, it curtails their development of capabilities further and perpetuates poverty.

Some chilling statistics are available about 4,000 languages that are predicted to disappear in the next 20 years. And when this happens, the world will lose (permanently) 4,000 ways of thinking, 4,000 ways of engaging with the world.

In India, in 1961, a total number of 1,652 languages were reported. The number shrunk to 109 and was reported in the 1971 census. Out of the 104 languages that existed in India’s coastline, only four or five remain.

David Crystal, an academic, speaking for National Geographic in 2009, said, "With language loss, we lose the expression of a unique vision of what it means to be human." Professor Devy puts it beautifully when he says, "Humans engage with the world through a multitude of languages and attitudes, which will provide a turning point — an entry into the future."

Professor Anvita Abbi, who is an Indian linguist and scholar of minority languages, drives our attention to the Onge tribes and the Jaravas, who rushed into the jungles to save themselves from the tsunami for their language has words that indicate a calamity coming. Also, she talks about the Great Andamanese old man, who knew the tree that would not give in in a tsunami. He put his children on the tree and he himself swam for seven hours to monitor their safety.

It is these knowledge communities we are consigning to neglect, ignominy and oblivion in our pursuit of one-language, one-thought and one-attitude model.

Professor Abbi’s pioneering work on linguistic minorities is a treasure trove of information on the languages vibrant with variety and vigour. She reports the Kasi language has 57 words to describe walking, 59 ways to describe crying and 29 for eating. This abundance merits preservation.

Discussing the native knowledge systems we have lost to occupation and modernisation, Professor Abbi cites the example of the Korapur Orissa people, who grew 1,700 varieties of rice and how with the advent of the Green Revolution, these varieties were lost to us forever. In Tamil Nadu, the Mullukurumbaa tribe was known for the variety of mushrooms they grew. With their forests uprooted, the cultivation of mushrooms ended and their medicinal significance is lost to the world.

Ashwini Kumar Pandey, Professor, Jharkhand Central University, says that the fallacy that languages are dying, languages are vanishing, should end. We have to face the truth that they are being murdered. The Adivasi approach that Professor Pandey upholds, which is that man is part of Nature, is at the heart of the discourse that he will not be rapacious, covetous, grabbing and dictatorial.

Diversity is the best religion known to Nature. And man must learn a thing or two from her. Governments should change their policy towards the teaching of languages and create economic opportunities in those languages.

pranava38@rediffmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 4:46:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/language-and-equity/article33046132.ece

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