India: Tongue twist of fate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 30 13:55:25 UTC 2006

Tongue twist of fate

Jaithirth Rao
Posted online: Monday, October 30, 2006 at 0000 hrs IST

The familiar adage is that there are many Indias. Given our ancient Indic
obsession with pairs of opposites, our academic and popular journals are
full of bi-polar descriptions. Rich vs. poor, rural vs. urban, Bangalores
silicon plateau vs. Bihars badlands, Gurgaons sleek shopping malls
(islands of consumerism) vs. Vidarbhas crop-less farms (islands of death),
soaring stock markets vs. barefoot children, spiralling real estate values
vs. horror-stricken slums, new-found materialism vs. eternal spiritual
values... the list goes on.

Id like to make my wise sage-like contribution to this litany. We have two
labour markets. One where wages increase at double digit rates, where
mobility is the name of the game (if you dont switch jobs every year there
is something wrong with you), where resumes gain in value each month,
where placement agencies make a fortune. The other where joblessness is an
endless fate, where years of despair pass you by as you keep waiting for a
job that never turns up and you fill your life with inane activity, not
with fruitful employment, an environment where real incomes shrink,
savings erode and where you are left as a mere spectator watching the
other India pass you by.

There is only one differentiator between the two worlds: knowledge of
English or lack thereof. You may have flunked high school, but if your
English is passable, you are on to the ladder of upward mobility. You may
have a masters degree or even a doctorate, but if your English is poor or
non-existent you are for all practical purposes excluded from the shining
India. Even more than engineering degrees or MBAs, the English language is
the great divider.  And all of us know this in our heart of hearts. Pandit
Nehrus grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended English medium
schools, as do those of most leaders. Vociferous adherents of Hindutva and
Marxutva are great patrons of the much maligned missionary schools and
foreign institutions when it comes to their own children. Where is the
elementary justice, let alone the logic of arguing that English is good
for our children but not good enough for the children of others for the
children of our servants and our ever-present poor. Everyone gets it; the
poor get it, their children get it and yet we carry on with this charade
that what is obvious to all is not the basis of public policy.

A friend of mine runs an NGO in Bombay (sorry Mumbai!) in the field of
education. She recounts the story of how she went up to some street
children and asked them if they would come and live with her. They would
have shelter, comforts and education. The literally street-smart children
told her that they were happy as they were. In an inspired moment, she
offered to teach them English. The childrens eyes lit up. Their enthusiasm
was tremendous. If it was English that she was going to teach them, they
were willing to join up in droves. The basic common sense that these lost
children of urban India could summon, is denied to our honourable
ministers, secretaries, joint secretaries, commissioners and commissars!
Irrespective of how we got it, we cannot be so foolish as to oppose
something so patently desirable, even necessary. With due respect, the
idea that all the research journals in the fields of molecular biology or
chip design can be translated in a timely manner into Oriya or Assamese or
Konkani each year is not a practical proposition. To use examples of Japan
or France or even China is an exercise in pointlessness. All these
countries vigorously promote English as a second language (even the French
despite their posturing). They all have one language, not sixteen! At
most, they have to translate once. Our friendly comrades of China of the
Marxutvic persuasion have forced (thats right forced!) Mandarin as the one
language of their empire. We neither can nor should do this. Why not
simply give people a choice? If parents wish their children to study in
English medium schools, then should not the state make this available to
its poorer citizens? Or in a new version of our very ancient caste system
are we reserving this only for the chosen twice-born?

English, one might add is more than just about economic opportunities or
jobs. It is about a weltanschauung. Indian languages do not have an
appropriate expression for equality. Equality before law or before God is
simply alien to our caste-ridden hierarchical traditions. If we can learn
and adopt the principle of equality (as indeed we must), why should we
resent the medium through which this idea is presented? My subaltern
scholar friends should note that English does not have equivalents for
expressions like ritual pollution, jhootha etc, which may be, just may be,
why our traditional ideas suppressed the individual and prevented the
emergence of prosperity.

A Middle-eastern friend was lamenting that they have been driven into an
intellectual blind alley because they are stuck with medieval Arabic,
which determines their mindset. (Incidentally, their plight is really bad.
More books are translated into Spanish in one year than into Arabic in a
couple of hundred years!). They are literally trapped in the language of
real and imagined pasts. The very idea of progress becomes impossible.
We can of course choose to imitate our pragmatic Chinese comrades who have
mandated that every Beijing taxi-driver will speak English before the 2008
Olympics or we can take the Middle East as our source of inspiration.
Incidentally, one can argue that the market has made its choices. The
Chinese government is using Indian companies to teach English to Chinese
citizens. And in India, anyone who can remotely afford it is sending their
children to English medium schools. One can only plead with our
socialistic leaders that they should do for the children of the poor what
they do for their own children. Then automatically, the two dichotomous
labour markets merge into one. Is this too much to ask of our leaders?

The writer is chairman and CEO, Mphasis


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list