Now that PM Narendra Modi has made an unexpected speech in the language of the Macaulayputras at a moment of national pride when PSLV blasted off from Sriharikota, its clear that the government is alive to the political dangers of speaking Hindi beyond the Vindhyas.
A near sweep of the “Hindi heartland” has propelled the BJP to a remarkable election win in 2014. Which is why reports of Hindi being insisted upon in official communication and on social media have sparked off much controversy, with the southern states fearing a return of the “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” worldview.
The centre has now been forced to clarify that Hindi will not be imposed on non- Hindi speaking states and Modi has himself not baulked at using the colonial Father Tongue at yet another launch of bharatiya rocketry.
Yet the Hindi fixation of a “nationalist” government, once again reveals that the English versus Hindi battle remains the kurukshetra of our national pride. In the worldview of cultural nationalism, English is the language of rootless Macaulayputras, those elitist repositories of dangerous “westernisation”.
Approximately 4 percent of India speaks English– over 40 million people–making India the largest English- speaking community outside the UK and USA. Even as China rushes to catch up with India’s only competitive advantage and pushes schools to begin teaching English in kindergarten, instead of developing and refining our decisive advantage in English, we remain trapped in the civilizational war over the angrezi assault on the bharatiya identity.
English may not be our mother tongue, but it does remain our Father Tongue. We must own it, excel in it and promote it just as our modernist architects of Independence did. After all, Nehru, Ambedkar Gandhi and Patel were all British-educated.
Fear of westernisation and moral panic at the loss of culture is inevitably one of the dominant features of a society in the throes of globalisation. Speaking English is not only seen as a mark of the slavish WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) worshipper, (and in a narrowly political context, a slavish foreign Dynasty worshipper) but also a mark of a sinister agenda to undermine desi bhasha. But where does one draw the line between good and bad westernisation?
To quote Amartya Sen in his Assessment of the Millennium Lecture: does the use of penicillin amount to westernisation? Is Indian cooking deeply westernised because chili was unknown to India until the Portuguese brought it to our shores? Are Bengali sweets subversively anti-Indian because “chana” or cottage cheese used to make the sweets was created in the European settlements in eastern India? Are melons anti-national because they were brought to India by Babur?
To expunge the foreign from the Authentically Indian is a widespread post-colonial fad. Gen Next is enthusiastically rediscovering a neo Real India from designer Ayurveda to Five Star yoga to Bollwood-ised karva chauth. Yet “cultural cleansing” is an illusion, hardly possible given the long incidence of westernisation in India. Even global Hinduism is disseminated widely and powerfully through a western invention known as the Internet. To quote Sen again, the terms “Indian” and “western” contain too many heterogeneities within themselves, and make little sense as binary opposites.
Like it or not English is the default language of the global economy, the language of Pax Americana. While champions of Hindi aggressively point to how Putin speaks only Russian or Chinese and Japanese leaderships speak only their native tongues at international forums, the fact is English is hardly an inescapable part of those countries’ histories, nor is it as inescapable a part of their identity as it is ours.
English is not only an official language of India, it is also the language in which globally successful Indian role models from Satya Nadella to Indra Nooyi have excelled. Dalit writers Chandrabhan Prasad and Kancha Ilaiah advocate mass English language primary schools and English education across India as an act of social justice to liberate backward castes from linguistic apartheid. For Dalits, English education was and is a route to a level playing field.
While it is fashionable for Hindi chauvinists to mock urban English speakers as “sepoys”, yet thousands of English teaching schools are mushrooming in the small towns of UP and Bihar, the English language publishing industry is booming, the language of social media is still mostly English, and English (Honours) remains one of the most sought after courses in Delhi University. Make no mistake, Indians want English!
The Left Front government’s decision to abolish English teaching at the primary level in the 80s in West Bengal because it was a “foreign and elitist” language has had brutal consequences on the current employability of the young Bengali; reversing the decision has hardly been easy as there is now a severe shortage of English teachers. In Karnataka, language activists may feverishly demand only Kannada-medium schools, yet the reality is that the demand for English medium schools is far far higher.
Of course, English in India should not be given unthinking primacy. Education experts argue that the medium of instruction in the junior classes should be in the mother tongue as early education in bad English is leading to a fall in standards of learning. When Salman Rushdie wrote in an introduction to an anthology of Indian writing that vernacular works were not as strong as works in English, the subsequent outrage was understandable.
Some of the UPA’s ministers and babalog netas have on occasion found themselves lost in translation when an English speaking snobbery ventilated itself in utterances on chaiwallahs and impotence. But again, isn’t it deeply unfair to caricature all Macaupalyputras as snobbily distant from bharatiyata? After all a foreign educated ICS candidate became Sri Aurobindo, the revered guru of yoga and Vedanta.
Hindi is not only unacceptable to the Dravida parties, but from Telangana to Gorkhaland agitators, linguistic identities are far too varied to permit the kind of large-scale imposition of Hindi that the Sangh Parivar would like to see. Besides, Hindi is no longer Hindi. It is Hinglish that is now almost an official lingua franca of the young. Words like“fasaoed” “khundak” “funda”, and “panga” are now part of a well-established lexicon of desi metropolitan babble.
A return to a purist sanskritised Hindi may be ideologically potent but hardly in tune with the aspiring voter with her eyes set on global opportunities. Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi have given today’s generation their language of romance and fun, from ‘Slow motion angreza’ to ‘Senhorita’, this is not Hindi frozen as dull ideological sanskriti, but Hindi as rollicking modernist chic, Hindi dancing to a global tune.
While Hindi is the language of popular culture, English remains the language of opportunity and advancement. Instead of falling prey to un-necessary cultural nationalism on the need to protect bharatiya sanskriti, it is far better to recognise that “westernisation” in India is centuries old and to fear English as “foreign” is a futile attempt to turn the clock back.
Millions of Indian citizens speak English fluently and they are not any less bharatiya than those who live and vote in the Hindi heartland.