[lg policy] Karnataka: Mind the language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 29 13:45:02 UTC 2009

Mind the language

The Supreme Court’s direction to the Karnataka government against
coming in the way of private unaided primary schools who use English
as the medium of instruction instead of Kannada, has placed the
Yeddyurappa government in a fix. For the thousands of parents and
their wards, however, the news could not have come at a better time,
considering the turmoil they were undergoing because of the
uncertainty relating to over 2,000 private schools on the vexed issue.
More so, as the government had threatened to derecognise the schools

The state’s primary and secondary education minister, Vishweshwar
Hegde Kageri, however, remains confident that the government’s point
of view would be understood by the Supreme Court when it hears the
connected special leave petition in the last week of August. He said
Kannada was the language of the state, a policy which had been adopted
by the government and supported by intellectuals and academics,
especially as several agitations had also revolved around it.
Accordingly, the government was confident of convincing the Supreme
Court about its point of view and objective in the coming days.

The confidence notwithstanding ,the fact remains that the stance
adopted by successive governments on this all important issue has been
playing havoc with the future of innocent children. They have got
caught in a controversy which could have been handled better by all
The problem became acute first in 2006 during the coalition government
run by the JD-S and BJP with the then education minister, Basvaraj
Horatti, threatening to close schools which were violating the
government guideline of 1994. This provided for the use of Kannada as
the medium of instruction in unaided private primary schools as a
pre-condition for government permission.

Once the government found that the school managements were teaching in
English, without complying with the stated condition, it decided to
get tough, realising at the same time though that corrupt officials
had played a part in the violation of rules. In a knee-jerk reaction,
Mr Horatti, therefore, ordered the closure of the guilty schools
without bothering about the plight of over two lakh students who faced
disruption in the middle of their academic career. Realising the
gravity of the problem, the government did give some time to the
managements before once again threatening to derecognise the schools.

Following the accompanying furore and public outcry, however, the
minister later decided to allow these schools to run while at the same
time forcing the managements to pay fines ranging between Rs 10,000
and Rs 1 lakh. In March 2007, Karnataka High Court stayed the levy of
fines though it did tell the managements to fulfil the condition on
the basis of which they had got government permission to run their
primary schools. Then followed a sequence of events leading to first
the High Court quashing the language policy arguing that it could not
be applied to unaided schools. The government challenged the verdict
in the Supreme Court, even as the school managements decided to take
shelter behind the High Court order, urging the government to maintain
status quo till the Supreme Court’s order.

Now with the Supreme Court refusing to stay the High Court order while
emphasising the parents’ right to choose the medium of instruction for
their wards, the government finds itself in a difficult position.
This, irrespective of the bravado from its education minister. The
government can, however, draw comfort from the fact that 15 well known
Kannada litterateurs and writers have come out in its support and
filed a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court. Their
argument: the state should accord primacy to Kannada or the mother
tongue during primary education as knowledge would be easier to grasp
and learning would be natural and relaxed.

These intellectuals who are protesting against the quashing of the
state’s 1994 language policy argue that the world over, educationists
agree that mother tongue should be the language of instruction. The
child is intellectually and emotionally integrated to the mother
tongue. Another contention is that previous Supreme Court judgments
upholding local language and mother tongue as the medium of
instruction, at least till class IV, should be implemented. After all,
mother tongue is the natural language of instruction for a child. Just
as English is the language of instruction in England, Kannada or the
mother tongue of a child in India should be used as a medium of
instruction, is the common refrain.

Clearly, post Supreme Court’s direction on the critical issue, the
controversy is likely to be fuelled further considering the arguments
raised by the academics and intellectuals in the state. It would be
naive to assume that the debate would end now, once and for all. This
is because on the pretext of protecting the local language, pride and
Karnataka’s interests, politicians and rabid outfits of all hues could
join the fray to exploit the sentiments of the people for their own

Already, organisations like the Kannada Rakshana  Vedike have been
taking the law into their own hands by stopping examinations conducted
by the Railway Recruitment Board for lower category of jobs including
those of khalasis and fitters, using the “outsider” tag as a pretext.
Barely a few weeks ago, they prevented non-Karnataka candidates from
sitting for the examination for ticket collectors at Bangalore and
Mysore. All this on the assumption that locals were being given a
short shrift. That the inherent pride in a local language cannot be
undermined was also evident during the Gokak agitation of 1982 which
demanded primacy for Kannada. A few years ago, the state also
witnessed violent agitations over the screening of non-Kannada films.
Accordingly, it would be prudent for the state government to handle
the current situation carefully as the sensitive issue could easily
provide trouble seekers the opportunity they seek.

The government, however, would also do well to take note of the fact
that the Supreme Court has not said that the mother tongue should not
be taught at all. If anything, it has reinforced its importance
stating that it could be taught as a compulsory subject. Teaching the
mother tongue was not a problem though it did become one when the
state insisted on using it as a medium of instruction. In this
context, its observations on the language policy too need to be given
the required emphasis, considering the growing realisation that today
the world is becoming flat. According to the Supreme Court bench the
students are unable to get even clerical posts as without the
knowledge of English, village children cannot compete with their urban
counterparts. Students studying in their mother tongue stood at a
lesser footing as all competitive examinations were conducted in

Rejecting the argument of senior counsel PP Rao, appearing for the
state, the court said that parents were ready to pay Rs 40,000 and
more for getting their children admitted to English medium schools.
That was the real state of affairs. If the mother tongue was sought to
be imposed on the students, it would further aggravate the problem of
those studying in villages. They won’t be able to compete with their
peers in urban areas. The state’s counsel had argued that it was
imperative to impart education in the mother tongue at an
impressionable age for overall intellectual and cultural development
of the child.

That the court’s views on the language issue would have a far reaching
impact on the education sector as a whole in the country cannot be
denied. Already states like West Bengal have realised that inadequate
command over the English language would hamper its students from
getting jobs. Which is why it has discarded its earlier language
policy. The controversy and the subsequent court’s direction once
again focuses on the suitability of the three-language policy: mother
tongue, English and a language of the parents’ choice. Never mind the
ill-informed politicians’ barbs that as we are living in India and not
London, we should only speak in Hindi. Accordingly, the Yeddyurappa
government would do well to take the appropriate cue.

The writer is the Bangalore-based Special Representative of The Statesman

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