[lg policy] Calcutta: OTHER TONGUES

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Sep 4 15:24:45 UTC 2014

 OTHER TONGUES   Arabinda Ray

Educated persons in India often quote Macaulay and the English Education
Act of 1835 (legislating the primacy of English over all Oriental languages
in British-dominated India) in their arguments for and against the
education or language policies adopted by subsequent administrations uptil
this day. Macaulay’s derision of Sanskrit and Arabic literature, his views
on the immaturity of vernacular languages and the Bengali proclivity
towards deceit are well known, as is his declared objective to create “a
class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in
opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

I could reflect on many present-day situations in the light of the Act. Its
effects can be seen in the language policy of successive post Independence
governments. Hindi as one of the official languages in the Constitution
left only a small space for English. Yet, English has gained such
importance that thousands of upper and middle class Indians treat it as a *de
facto* mother tongue while being unable to read or write in their own
language. Then there is the dismal failure of Bengalis in competitive
examinations for entering government services.

India has developed its vernacular languages greatly. One can go back to
Macaulay’s expressed wish about such languages (“...refine the vernacular
dialects of the country... enrich [them] with terms of science borrowed
from the Western nomenclature, and... render them by degrees fit vehicles
for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population”) and see in
Bankim Chandra a product of the new education policy — he created the first
Bengali novel, followed by successive novels and multifarious writings
which show the high standard of Bengali prose; Madhusudan Dutt, who tried
to imitate great Western poets through his verses in English, soon turned
to Bengali and is read till this day; the glow engulfed the Tagore family,
and the bard himself often acknowledged his debt to the West and pleaded
for open-door exchanges. Even great scientists like P.C. Ray and Meghnad
Saha had their curiosity piqued through school textbooks in Bengali. I do
not know enough about other vernacular languages but there is enough
evidence of their flowering in other parts of the country.

If the seat of the British administration had been in Madras instead of
Calcutta, would Macaulay have been able to ignore Tamil (which, strictly
speaking, is not a vernacular language like almost all Sanskrit-derived
North Indian languages are)? As Tilottama Tharoor mentioned in her talk
about Macaulay’s minute on Indian education at the Bengal Club on August
22, had he been fully conversant in German culture, could he have ignored
Goethe’s memorable lines on Kalidasa’s *Shakuntala*? Would he have claimed,
as he did, that Greek thoughts on philosophy, science *et al* found
continuity through English, when the world knows that the Arabs — whom he
derided — helped to develop, with acknowledged contributions from Indians,
Greek thoughts with original ideas on mathematics, astronomy, biology,
surgery and other scientific disciplines?

One must acknowledge, though, that Macaulay may have played a part in
Gandhi’s education in England and the subsequent development of his
non-violence policy in South Africa. At the same time one must praise the
British administrators of the time — in spite of the new education policy,
the Sanskrit College was developed and Vidyasagar flowered.

This brings me to the present day crisis. Till Independence, it did not
matter where a student at Presidency College came from, because
academically all students were equal. Who is responsible for students today
failing to progress in life because they feel handicapped as they do not
know English well? Who should be held accountable for the fact that
students from middle-class families taught in English medium schools cannot
read or write in their native language?

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