[lg policy] Karnataka: The Language of Choice

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 9 16:42:31 UTC 2014

The language of choice
June 9, 2014 12:35 am

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  [image: Research has maintained that familiarity with school language is
crucial to progress in early years and while the verdict does not counter
this position, it seeks to enable an element of choice in education.]
Research has maintained that familiarity with school language is crucial to
progress in early years and while the verdict does not counter this
position, it seeks to enable an element of choice in education.
Supreme Court judgment marks an important turn in the debate on language
education policy.

 In 1876, Ramabai, 18, set off on a long and arduous journey from south
India to Bengal and the north to become a scholar. Trained in Sanskrit
scriptures, philosophy and languages early on, Ramabai would soon be
conferred the title “Pandita”, speak seven languages and go on to write
engaging scholarly books in Marathi and English. Travels between different
languages and knowledge systems were central to Ramabai’s educational
experience and her work.

Language continued to occupy centre stage in the story of India’s formal
education as well and its steady expansion over the course of the last
century. Despite the tradition of plurilingual pedagogic practices and an
outpouring of research on the importance of home-language(s) in education,
the place of language remains contested and forever unresolved. Given that
considerations of employability, higher educational opportunities and
regional pride increasingly govern the perceptions of language in
education, no policy decision can confine itself to educational ideals

In this context, the judgment by a constitutional bench of the Supreme
Court (dated May 7) offers a significant turn in a series of long-standing
dilemmas on language education policy. Responding to the government order
on the medium of instruction in 1989 that eventually became the language
policy in Karnataka in 1994, the bench considered the following questions:
(a) Who is the rightful authority to decide the medium of instruction for
students? (b) What does “mother tongue”mean and who is the rightful
authority to decide what can be called mother tongue in a particular
context? (c) Can education in one’s mother tongue be imposed? (d) Is the
right to choose implicit in the right to education? Discussions of each of
these questions were framed within the scope of three articles in the
Constitution: Article 350A, which calls for the state and local authorities
to ensure adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue to
children from linguistic minority communities; Article 19, which is
entitled “right to freedom”, including freedom of speech and expression,
freedom to form unions, move and practice a profession; and Article 21A,
which resolves that the state shall provide free and compulsory education
to all children of the age 6 to14.

Thinking through the questions of medium of instruction in light of the
constitutional scheme, the judgment involves four important points.
Adhering to a rather narrow interpretation of the term “mother tongue” the
judgment holds that in the context of the Constitution, mother tongue would
mean “the language of the linguistic minority in a state” and it would be
the child or the parents who will have decisive power to declare their
language as the mother tongue. Second, the bench also holds that “the
child, or, on his [sic] behalf, his parent or guardian, has a right to
freedom of choice with regard to the medium of instruction in which he
would like to be educated at the primary stage in school.” Considering a
liberal interpretation of the terms “freedom of expression’’ the judgment
holds that the right to freedom of speech includes the freedom of a child
to be educated in a language of “the choice of the child”. Finally, the
judgment holds that the state cannot impose mother tongue as a medium of

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The verdict privileges Article 19 over others and foregrounds individual
liberty and choice as primary drivers of access to education. The judgment
does not engage with issues of pedagogy, educational philosophy and
instructional practices. Research on right to education has maintained that
familiarity with school language is crucial in enrolments and progress in
early years and while the verdict does not counter this position, it seeks
to enable an element of choice in education. In the same line, the judgment
suggests a shift in the state’s role as loco parentis and goes on to
re-order the power of authority in education.

The distributive authority in determining educational access and content is
positioned alongside the arguments of freedom, individual liberty, choice
and lesser involvement of the state. This narrative, while in contrast with
much that stands for right to education, is closely connected to the
dramatic growth in private schooling and the manufacturing of English as a
“cure all”. The current judgment will not affect Kannada as a subject in
class I to IV but its broad orientation does signal a turn.

*The writer is a member, faculty in education programme, at the National
Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore*

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