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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: The language of the land

The last thing the government should have done in the row over the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams was to promise an all-party meeting. That amounts to throwing good governance to the mercy of the mob. The National Democratic Alliance has an unparalleled opportunity to redeem Narendra Modi’s promise of “development, good governance and stability” by recasting Indian society. English has been the language of privilege all these 67 years of independence because it was so under the British. It was taught in only a handful of elite institutions whose products alone succeeded in UPSC exams and bagged the best corporate positions. Opposition MPs rightly complain of exclusion and discrimination.

Now is the time, therefore, to meet grievances by announcing the introduction of a new schooling system, in which English won’t be confined to the children of rich parents. Now is the time to destroy once and for all the conspiracy to ensure that 300 million people who are blest with a knowledge of English lord it over 1.2 billion Indians. That can be done by enabling, nay obliging, everyone to acquire equal mastery over English, so that India has just one class, albeit with wealth providing inevitable gradations.

One hopes that Prakash Javadekar’s promise of an all-party meeting will lead to some such positive development and is not a smokescreen for ruinous fanaticism. Being an astute strategist, the prime minister may hope to use the furore to promote his government’s commitment to Hindi and Sanskrit and a majoritarian agenda. Nothing can be more detrimental to India’s long-term interests than a bigoted plan to elevate Hindi and further reduce the importance of English in public life.

As it is, the level of English in India is atrociously low. There’s no comparison with Japan or China, which didn’t have the heritage (call it curse or blessing) of English. They were forced to develop their own languages not only for national unification, but as the instrument of modern education. For historical and demographic reasons, this was not possible in India. English is the most powerful unifying force we have, the only means of communication between Kerala and Kashmir. It is our only outlet to the world, and the only means of ensuring that Indian school and college education doesn’t fall even further short of global norms.

Modi must know there can be no effective administration except through English. Dispensing justice in a court, governing a district or running a department are very different from making patriotic speeches in legislatures. Speeches can be in Bengali, Gujarati or any other Indian language.

Much is made of the fact that the careers of lakhs of young Indians are at stake, and that 900,000 candidates will appear for the UPSC’s preliminary test on August 24. But this is nothing compared to what is really at stake – stability, administrative efficiency, the rule of law and everything that makes for a caring and responsible government.

Politicians alone can’t provide that, not even if they are honest, efficient and blest with the best intentions in the world. They need a supporting infrastructure, which means streamlined, competent and incorruptible civil services. The infrastructure will be further weakened if Hindi is a recruit’s main asset. This is not only because far from being the majority language, Hindi is used only by some 420 million Indians. It is because Hindi is not sufficiently developed for judicial, administrative or scientific purposes.

National integration will suffer if a language that South India associates with cow belt imperialism is foisted on the entire country. Even the north-eastern states will object. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s demand for “question papers in all Indian languages” will mean multilingual chaos and administrative breakdown. The government’s craven decision to ignore marks for English language comprehension skills make the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) exams meaningless. The objective should not be to ensure that exams are “language neutral” – quoting Jitendra Singh – but to insist on the highest possible standard of English while making sure every child can attain it.

Abolishing the CSAT may buy immediate peace. But all-round social and economic growth can be ensured only by committing far more resources to using English as the medium of instruction (or, at least, teaching it as a compulsory subject from the lowest class) in all state schools throughout the country. That alone will end discrimination and elitism by giving all Indian children, whether at Doon School or in the humblest village pathshala, the equal opportunity that underlies a meritocracy. English must be the language of all educated Indians.


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