Editorial/People’s English
Evil in the city of god
Letters to the Editor

Tiresome, but pernicious, reiterations by national ideologues elicit tireless retaliations. It might feel somewhat banal to go over, yet again, the arguments for the importance of English for modern India. But the prime minister’s characteristically equivocal exchange on the decline of Hindi as a result of the increasing primacy of English, with the joint general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Mr K.S. Sudarshan, at a recent RSS gathering in New Delhi calls for precisely such a rehashing.

Mr Sudarshan’s analysis of the growing neglect of Hindi is founded on a “two nations” myth. The country’s unity, according to him, is being fragmented by “disparities and differing visions” between an “English-speaking elite India” and “the Hindi-speaking Bharat”. The language of “India” — as opposed to “Bharat” — is English, since the former was a nation “created by the British” who had imposed upon it alien and unnatural “multi-lingual, multi-racial and multi-cultural” values. This notion of English as the language of the colonizers, and therefore to be exorcised from the linguistic universe of a proudly independent nation, is entirely retrograde. The archaic claim made by the RSS will have to be countered by an observation that will sound to most like a cliché. English is, by now, a “universal language” whose use and importance have long transcended its geographical origins. It no longer remains the instrument of imperialism wielded by the sceptred isle, but is used in many ways by many nations, with widely divergent cultures, for practical, communicative and creative purposes that ensure autonomy, empowerment and progress. This has led, not to a homogenization of cultural difference, but to an extraordinary diversity in linguistic practice, as these different cultures make English their own language. To resuscitate the anti-colonial paranoia regarding English is to keep India firmly scripted into a colonial mentality through an outdated argument that is likely to be ignored by most practical-minded Indians across the entire social spectrum, who believe in surviving robustly in the present. And this is where Mr Sudarshan is also wrong about the inherent “elitism” of English.

It is not just a privileged, urban and industrialized class that has made English its own, but surveys have repeatedly shown that the rural poor perceive and aspire to English as the language of individual enterprise and social mobility. Most underprivileged parents regard English as essential to quality elementary education for their children. In West Bengal, the Marxist government’s prolonged attempts to remove English from state schools at the primary stage have been successfully stalled through popular protest and, most recently, by the recommendations of a report prepared by Mr Pabitra Sarkar, a member of the State Council for Educational Research and Training. Often echoing the cultural and linguistic chauvinisms of its saffron opponents, the West Bengal government is also persisting in its endeavours to introduce Bengali in the proceedings of the Calcutta high court. This is in spite of the Supreme Court’s unanimous verdict against the state assembly’s proposal. Language-use is ultimately a matter of social cohesion through an ability to communicate across a whole range of differences and disparities. Mr Sudarshan’s identification of English with the elite keeps in place a social divisiveness, ignoring not just an urgently voiced popular need, but a powerful means of keeping together an often unmanageably plural nation by allowing its citizens, quite simply, to make sense to one another.

India’s global prominence is largely owing to its unique assimilation of English into the fabric of its particular vitalities, proven in spheres ranging from fiction to information technology. Displacing the primacy of English from this process of advancement and achievement can only result in the most lamentable regression.    

Hindus are a very tolerant people. They have demonstrated this by destroying a 16th century mosque on the grounds of religion; then by burning alive a Christian missionary and, most recently, by stopping a film director from shooting in Benares because she was making a film on Hindu widows who live lonely and exiled lives in the holy city of the Hindus.

The controversy that sections of the sangh parivar created over Deepa Mehta’s film, Water, and the way the Bharatiya Janata Party governments — both in Lucknow and New Delhi — reacted to it has torn off the secular and tolerant mask that Atal Behari Vajpayee has been trying to put on the ugly and fundamentalist face of his party and the wider family to which the BJP belongs.

From the point of view of governance — and Vajpayee and his office keep on emphasizing that this, and not religion, is their one and only concern — the matter was very simple. A group of people — no matter what their ideological persuasion — stopped a film crew from shooting a film for which the film company had all the necessary permission and clearance. For the local administration responsible for maintaining law and order, there could have been no questions about the identity of the disruptors and the nature of the disruption. It was a one-sided attack and the identity of the vandals was blazoned all over the place. The district magistrate took no action against the violators of law and order but in fact punished the film crew by stopping the shooting.

Matters did not stop there. Even after the director — bowing to the unnecessary pressure that she was being subjected to — agreed to make certain changes in the script, work on the film could not continue. One Hindu fanatic tried to commit suicide. The leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organization that takes pride in the destruction of the Babri Masjid, announced that shooting of Water would not be allowed anywhere in India. The state government buckled under all this and the film crew has now left Benares on its orders. It is still not clear why the state administration could not provide adequate protection to the film company. What is even more unclear is what wrong Deepa Mehta has done that she had to be subjected to this kind of humiliation.

The charge being levelled against her is that she was portraying the plight of Hindu widows in Benares in a film that would be shown all over the world. The BJP general secretary, K.N. Govindacharya, boasted, “What we have protested against is the marketization of social evils.’’ This statement is breathtaking in its brazenness. There is no attempt to deny the social evil that the film will try to depict. The objection is not to the existence of social evil but in the showing of it. The tolerant face of Hinduism is turned towards the preservation of evils within Hindu society.

That Hindu widows are the worst victims of hidebound prejudice is not something that Deepa Mehta has suddenly discovered. Throughout the 19th century there was a trend in Indian society that spoke and campaigned against the condition of Hindu widows. Much of what they said was not in any major way different from what Deepa Mehta has allegedly said in the script of her film. The reformers argued that widows led miserable lives and were preyed upon in innumerable ways by their male relatives. Many were forced to go into prostitution and to commit foeticide. At the forefront of this movement was Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, an orthodox Brahmin pundit who, one dare say, knew the Hindu scriptures better than the entire sangh parivar put together. Vidyasagar was pained by the condition of widows and was ashamed that his society could do this to helpless women.

Vidyasagar’s efforts — despite the Widow Remarriage Act of 1855, which he masterminded and piloted into law — did not amount to much. The number of Hindu widows who remarry and yet retain the respect and approval of their relatives and of society is not high. Reason and reform have never had a very strong hold in Hindu society.

The various pronouncements of men like Govindacharya and Ashok Singhal, the head of the VHP, and the violence they incite against those who they dislike is evidence of the fragility of reason and tolerance among those who fashioned themselves as born-again Hindus. Their attitudes have now gained a legality because they have the tacit approval of the government of the day. Mr Vajpayee only clothes their naked villainy by bits and pieces of secular writ.

There is another aspect of the Water episode which needs some attention. This is the peculiar muting of protest against what has been done to the film unit. Even card-carrying secularists who sign a petition whenever they perceive secular values to be abused have been conspicuous by their silence.

Even the redoubtable Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the cultural czar of the Left Front in West Bengal, who is normally among the first to raise his voice against this kind of thing has been quiet. Rumours that he was going to invite the Water crew to come and shoot in West Bengal proved to be ill-founded. It has taken 10 days for Bengali artists and intellectuals to issue a letter of protest. Deepa Mehta obviously has no secular godfather.

There is a context to this silence. Most of those who wear their secularism on their sleeves are sympathizers of what can very broadly be called left politics. They probably remember that the deplorable treatment meted out has an exact parallel in what the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its supporters did to the film crew of City of Joy when they were shooting in Calcutta. The crew was harassed, there were demonstrations, acts of vandalism occurred; cries were raised about the film depicting Calcutta in a bad light. The only distinction was that the administration did not stop the shooting. It did not stop the demonstrators nor did it take action against them. It did not ask the crew to pack up and leave. Praise be for small mercies.

The similarity of the rhetoric is remarkable. The agitation against City of Joy was projected as the genuine anger of the people of Calcutta. The vandalism against Water is being described as the anger of the people of Benares. Political agitators have appropriated for themselves the voice and the actions of the people. This is a familiar move in politics. A politician decides Calcutta should be called Kolkata and then claims it to be a popular decision. A party sees itself as the nation — as indeed the Congress did for much of its career — and then becomes the voice of India. Appropriation of the people is the politicians’ sleight of hand.

The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh has failed to punish the violators of law and order. The BJP government in New Delhi has failed to honour the commitment it made to Deepa Mehta. There is more than shame attached to this episode. Mr Vajpayee may have to redefine his relationship with the sangh parivar to reclaim his bona fides.    


Drop some, win some

Sir — Wasim Akram’s “voluntary” stepping down from captaincy cannot have too many takers (“Akram quits in Aussie ache”, Feb 11). It is not likely that being just another player in the Pakistan team will help him keep his domestic commitments any better. It is not too difficult to see that Akram has been made to step down by the Pakistan Cricket Board. Also significant is the PCB’s decision to drop six other players for poor performance in the Australia tour. This perhaps explains in part why Pakistani cricketers give — or at least convey the impression that they are trying to give — their best cricket always. Can’t the Board of Control for Cricket in India learn a lesson or two from its Pakistani counterpart?

Yours faithfully,
Sutapa Ghoshal, Calcutta

Test in a hard school

Sir — The article, “Education without the uncertainty”, by Mohit Chakrabarti (Jan 31) is timely. The Indian education system is one of the most unscientific and obsolete of its kind. The situation is even more alarming in states like West Bengal. It demands the introduction of gradation systems, continuous evaluation schemes and research oriented question papers. Open book examinations may be thought of and examinees may be asked to set a few questions in some subjects.

In the West Bengal education scene, innovation is a word that exists in the dictionary alone. Orthodoxy in the system and among the administrators has led to the present situation. Dynamism is a crying need.

It is difficult to agree to Chakrabarti’s suggestion that feedback from students helps in gauging quality and efficiency of teachers. Students will always like a popular teacher but not necessarily a sound one. Instead, the worth of teachers may be evaluated by reviewing question papers.

Yours faithfully,
C.T. Bhunia, Haldia

Sir — The proposed National University of Juridical Sciences in West Bengal will become a non-starter unless the programmes are rectified immediately (“Bandh or blockade, classes in June”, Nov 19).

The admission tests have been scheduled for April 9, 2000, in the middle of the higher secondary and Indian School Certificate examinations. Thus the very students for whom the course is designed will not be able to appear for the entrance tests. This requires the immediate attention of the state’s education authorities, else it will become another addition to the long list of failures on the education front.

Yours faithfully,
Samarpita Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — After nine months, the Degree Course University Selection, meant for the humanities, commerce and science streams of the University of Calcutta, saw the light of the day. But more than 565 mistakes have somehow crept into this book of 289 pages. A corrigendum of 10 pages has been tagged on. Nine college teachers were reported to have been behind this publication. When will the premier university rise above public censure?

Yours faithfully,
Debal Kumar Chakravarti, Calcutta

Sir — The Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Gwalior, has announced that the date of its entrance examination for the academic year 2000-2001 for the five year integrated post-graduate programme in information technology is April 29, 2000. But the West Bengal joint entrance examination is on April 29.

So some students from this state will not be able to compete in IIITM’s entrance test. Is it fair of the authorities to force deserving students to lose out on an opportunity?

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Sanyal, Calcutta

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