India: A forked tongue language policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Oct 31 14:59:24 UTC 2007

 November 4, 2006 Mrinal Pande, Hindustan Times
October 30, 2007

First Published: 22:14 IST(30/10/2007)

A forked tongue policy

On October 22, a 22-year-old second-year B.Tech student of the IEC
Engineering College Noida, hanged himself. The suicide note Brajesh
Kumar left behind in the room he shared with another student in
Tughlakpur village said that he was doing this because he could not
cope with the courses being taught in English and that he did not want
to burden his family with paying another hefty amount towards special
English coaching classes. The social and educational aspirations that
brought this young man from Jaunpur to the national capital region are
very much a part of middle-class life in India today. But the
inequalities within the education system — between the private,
English-medium schools on the one hand and the Hindi- or vernacular-
medium State-run ones on the other — mean that although all parents
want the best for their children, once on campus the children find
that some 'bests' will remain less accessible to them only for the
lack of required linguistic skills.

Three decades ago, I was teaching English language and history of art
and architecture at the Maulana Azad College of Technology (MACT) in
Bhopal. Over two-thirds of the students, all of whom had excellent
grades and high aggregates in physics, chemistry and mathematics, came
from Hindi-medium government schools. Only a third, who had been to
private schools, could read and write English passably well. This
created a nasty sort of caste system on the campus where the English
language alienated most students (a good number of whom were tribals
and Dalits) from academic knowledge, and at the same time insulated
the faculty and students from public schools against the grief and
worries of the so-called 'Vernacs'.

Most members of the latter group considered these students dim-witted
and unnecessarily abrasive. A certain stereotype of government school
students as a group with low ability and a serious attitude problem
governed, in turn, their attitude and behaviour towards all of them.
Obviously, the last three decades haven't changed things nor have they
increased the mobility between these two classes in any appreciable
degree. All over India, students like Brajesh Kumar are learning that
relations between two language groups are ultimately power relations
where those who speak English will nearly always be considered the
yardstick for judging qualities.

It was after teaching at this college  that I began to see how the
medium of instruction becomes as  important — if not more — in a
child's education as the curriculum. In North India, not only has this
been ignored, but politicians from all parties have also scored cheap
points during elections by stigmatising English as the language of
'our colonisers' and insisted on the use of only regional languages as
the medium of instruction in government-run schools.

Since education is a state subject, ever since the days of the first
coalition government (1967) in Madhya Pradesh, all government schools
reverted from bilingual teaching in English and Hindi to using Hindi
alone. At the same time, all the much sought-after courses at the
state colleges of engineering and medicine continued to be taught in
English. This created a strange marginalisation of vernacular users on
campuses. Only because they understood English, mediocre students
would receive a lion's share of teachers' attention and even be
praised for challenging the teachers' opinions. A non-English speaking
student, on the other hand, would evoke rebuke and even retaliation if
he dared to intervene and point out that he could not understand what
the teacher was saying. Some teachers would also make unsavoury
casteist remarks later among their fellow teachers about these

I found that actually most students from Hindi-medium schools, who
found the lectures incomprehensible, were terrified and depressed at
the prospect of having to learn and express themselves in English
overnight. Brajesh Kumar's suicide mirrors their suffering and deep
sense of dismay. All over India, students like Brajesh Kumar are
learning that relations between two language groups are ultimately
power relations where those who speak  English will nearly always be
considered the yardstick for judging qualities — from professional
excellence to probity. Vernacular speakers from small town India, on
the other hand, will stand marginalised socially and economically, for
no other reason but the fact that they cannot speak English with the
'right' accent.

Politicians may have sealed English firmly out of government schools
in the name of protecting their regional identity. But all of them —
even Lohiaites like Lalu and Mulayam Yadav, see to it that their
children attend the best English-medium public schools.

The obvious answer for undoing a linguistic policy gone horribly wrong
is to reintroduce the earlier two-language formula with English as a
compulsory language. But today this is easier said than done. For one,
where are the teachers? After four decades of teaching only in
regional languages, the pool for recruitment of English teachers has
all but dried up. And while they are on the look-out for teachers,
heaven knows what else they might find in government schools —
teachers who misspell words on the blackboard even in the vernacular;
who don't read books; who are too malnourished, too anaemic and
exhausted, too depressed, too bruised, psychologically.

Should we all start writing letters to our political and
administrative movers and shakers about such decay in the education
available for the aam admi's children? After all, government schools
today educate no less than 80 per cent of our children, and it is
their fault that things there are the way they are. But since the
netas and babus have frequently appointed and transferred government
teachers on grounds other than academics — using them for campaigning,
for arranging oral polio drop events in villages, sometimes even for
carrying out their domestic chores — how likely is it that they will
not throw our letters into the bin?

Ironically, when progressive education policies are being drafted, the
educationists who work on the drafts are open, receptive and tolerant
of dissident views. Their socialism is frequently brave and original.
But they talk too much and do too little.

Everything that informs the successive 'New Education Policies' is
ideological. But the ideology is undefined, fluid and full of clutter,
contradictions and are collages of fantastic incongruities. Budgetary
constraints, internal rivalries, bureaucratic inertia and the
non-involvement of the actual stakeholders in these groups always push
the HRD Ministers and Education Secretaries in two directions: either
they become dictators or they present their noble views at Unesco
thereby enlarging their own footprints.

So after some half-a-dozen impeccably worded 'New Education Policy'
documents, our government school campuses in small towns and villages
remain perhaps the only places in the world ruled by the 'slave
class'. Thus have our education ministers made the dream of Spartacus
come true.

Mrinal Pande is Editor, Hindustan

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