Sunday Anchor

English, ticklish

Illustration by Satwik Gade.

Illustration by Satwik Gade.  


English is the passport to upward mobility in the modern, aspirational India, but many political leaders seem to be out of touch with this new reality. This disconnect has led to friction in the nation in transition.

Rosy Chopra starts work at 7 a.m. every day. In a tiny room measuring less than five feet by five, crammed with her desk and cheap plastic stools, she teaches English to a motley mix of students. This is no regular tuition class, and the students no regular school or college students. She teaches them to converse in English.

Chopra’s Institute — the signboard outside proclaims — promises a minimal level of English proficiency through a three-month course. The institute, with a barber shop and an electrician’s store for neighbours, draws most of its students from its locality of Sarai Kale Khan, one of South Delhi’s oldest slum-rehabilitation colonies.

In the course of a day, Ms. Chopra teaches nearly 60 students, most of them first-generation Delhi dwellers and migrants from villages and small towns across the country in the pursuit of better prospects.

Among the group is Sonia, in her early twenties, who works as a domestic help. She saved for two months from her monthly wage of Rs. 6,000 to pay the Rs. 1,600 fee for the three-month course. She had studied till Class VIII and moved to Delhi from a village in Raurkela a decade ago.

Ms. Sonia hopes that learning to speak English will land her a better paying job as a housekeeper in a nearby locality, the upmarket Nizamuddin or Sundernagar areas. “I have heard that English-speaking maids get paid Rs. 10,000 and a weekly off,” she says.

Her class include drivers, salespersons and others who want to learn to speak English quickly. “There are many graduates and diploma holders who come to me after having studied English for years in school and college, but hesitate to speak the language because they studied in the regional language medium,” Ms. Chopra says. “They aspire to do better by being able to speak English, something that they never did in school and college.”

Ms. Chopra’s tiny coaching shop claims to offer a solution to the anxiety of her students born out of not being able to speak English fluently.

Politicians too offer a way out of this anxiety, but through a different route. Former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh offered the “Banish English” campaign to voters. “Leaders go to people to seek vote in Hindi, but in the Lok Sabha, they speak in English. I challenge them to seek vote in English and they will forfeit their deposits,” Mr. Yadav said at a function organised by the Hindi Sansthan in Lucknow last week.

In November 2013, he demanded that English be banned in parliamentary proceedings. “I have always advocated replacing English and not for doing it away. If someone wants to study English, he can. I talk not just of Hindi but of all Indian languages. If work is done in Indian languages, Hindi will be promoted automatically,” he said at the function.

This anti-English stance is central to Mr. Yadav’s politics rooted in the anti-elite, anti-upper caste movement. It denotes a rejection of the supremacy of the English-speaking elite. The Left Front government in West Bengal kept English banned at the primary school level in government and government-aided schools for two decades. The Karnataka government’s protracted legal battle over imposing Kannada or the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary schools was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year. The court held that the order violated the Fundamental Rights.

During the anti-colonial movement, Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-English stance offered a means of fighting colonialism and the English. In the 1960s and the later decades, the resurgent rural elite stood at loggerheads with the urban elite as cities grew at the expense of the villages and development overlooked the vast countryside. The English-speaking elite became the villains of this lopsided development. The heavily Sanskritised version of Hindi that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the Sangh, propagate offers a counter-elitism rather than an anti-elitism. It breeds exclusivist tendencies of a different hue found in the Jan Sangh’s slogan of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.” The attempts to impose Sanskrit or Hindi each time a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government comes to power are not merely a coincidence.

“In the mid-1960s, an attempt to impose Hindi was made and Tamil Nadu went up in flames. We ought to have learnt our lessons,” cautions Mridula Mukherjee, Professor of Modern Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “National integration in a democracy has to be a voluntary process. There should no attempt at coercion.”

With English becoming the global language of commerce and communication, greater stress should be laid on the way the language is taught rather than on creating meaningless controversies. “It is not as if people give up their language. There is no contradiction between learning English and knowing your own language. There is recognition today of the fact that you need a common global language,” she says.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 10:34:19 AM |

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