The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Silliness about the teaching of English will damage the Bengali further

Kanti Biswas may well be right in claiming that Bengalis constitute only 37 per cent of Calcutta’s population. But that is not the only — or main — reason why Bengali-medium schools are unpopular. They will become even more so if the Ranjugopal Mukherjee committee’s recommendation of not teaching English till class V is accepted. Only when schooling ceases to make the modern Bengali unemployable can West Bengal’s school education minister hope for some correction of the demographic balance.

His lament has two aspects. Biswas regrets his community’s dwindling share of the economic space. He also deplores the falling demand for schooling in Bengali. Both are valid complaints. Calcutta’s, indeed West Bengal’s, changing identity and power structure deserve more serious attention than frivolous gimmicks like “Kolkata”. It is dishonest of our rulers to give away the substance while exalting the symbol. That apart, Biswas trips up in his definition of the factor linking his two complaints. To claim that Bengali-medium schools are declining because there are fewer Bengalis is to overlook his own Left Front’s achievement during 26 years in creating village prosperity, spreading urban culture, awakening social ambition and quickening upward mobility.

The tremendous popularity of English-medium schools, not only the older Anglo-Indian or missionary establishments, but also of mushroom growths that are entirely Bengali save in the language of instruction, speaks of a newfound ability to realize ambition. The people have left their rulers far behind in grasping market imperatives.

In the midst of the debate in Singapore between formal English and the local dialect called Singlish (of which the government disapproves), an ethnic Indian minister made a pertinent point. He said that those who argue that Singlish best expresses the Singaporean’s multicultural personality themselves speak perfect Queen’s English. So do their progeny. Therefore, their demand that hoi polloi should speak only Singlish is worse than condescending. It is a calculated move to institutionalize social division so that there are always two cultures. Those who master English will control the levers of political and economic power, while those who know only Singlish will forever be the underdog.

The debate took place against the background of Singapore’s earlier social, economic and political division between the English- and Chinese-educated. It sounds familiar. Many of the most vociferous champions of Bengali culture send their own offspring to schools like South Point. I don’t blame them. My point is that they are determined to deny the same privilege to others. Robert Allen, Fowler’s compiler, reminds us that “the reason English is spoken so widely around the world is political power, first of the British empire but now from America.” Even France and Germany, with their ingenious new glossaries of acceptable words and phrases, are unable to arrest this all-conquering march of “Atlantic jargon”. Returning to India, I notice that the compères of several lowbrow chat shows and request programmes from All India Radio’s Calcutta station now slip from Bengali into English and vice versa. Clearly, hidebound Bengali purity does not pay.

It is fashionable in nationalistic circles to blame Macaulay for this dilution of native culture. Macaulay only articulated in stirring language what others had already advocated. His was one of several proposals that the government of the day considered. The clinching factor was the strong plea for English by what was then India’s social elite, the ecumene as it was called. Even so, the final directive with which the East India Company tried to wrap up the great orientalist-anglicist debate was far from definitive. While proclaiming that it was “the great object of the British government to promote European science and literature”, the company refused to choose “the most efficient mode of communicating and disseminating European knowledge”. Even if the authorities were lukewarm, the public, anxious for advancement, was not. Official ambivalence left the field clear for Indians to pursue an anglophile Holy Grail. Macaulay’s minute was part of a process that set a pattern of success that has grown stronger with every passing year. The Left Front’s own economic revolution merely dovetails, albeit belatedly, into the all-India urban ethic which has received a further fillip from globalization. This is a one-way street that leads the ambitious in Calcutta to south-of-Park-street or Alipore flats, cocktail parties, club membership, dancing and all the other paraphernalia of sahibdom.

Biswas and his colleagues should acknowledge the social dynamics that promote such totems. Bengali-medium schools are only for those who cannot do better. True, the first generation of Indian members of the Indian Civil Service, four Bengalis out of five entrants, were the products of Bengali-medium schools. But they were exceptional men and there was no alternative in the 19th century. Any driver can now afford English-medium schooling for his son, and it is to the credit of his farsighted vision that he seizes the opportunity with both hands. He is not deterred by the hypocritical nationalism of pedants in dhotis who hoist the standard of a barren terminological revolution.

Of course, the original adoption of English was opportunistic. Indonesia has a national language today because, being too miserly to import teachers from the Netherlands, the colonial Dutch found it cheaper to rule their islands in Javanese Malay. The British, however, calculated that they would recoup the expense of instruction in English because Indian clerks and copyists cost so much less than the British writers (clerks) for whom Writers’ Buildings was built. Language would also create a collaborator class.The strategy succeeded so well because Indians lapped up English as the “passport to public employment”, as John Stuart Mill put it. Only H.H. Wilson, the Sanskritist, deplored that Indians wanted no more English than would “enable them to earn a subsistence”. Both also feared that the new policy would (as a petition by prominent Muslim citizens put it) encourage individuals “of the very lowest description whose only object is to learn sufficient for the transaction of a little English business”.

This purist versus pragmatist argument is a different matter. Save for a very few, English is studied in India not because of its literary qualities or as the gateway to higher thought but as a meal ticket. It is India’s lingua franca, equivalent of the polyglot jumble understood by Christian and Saracen alike on the coasts of the Mediterranean, and cannot aspire to any higher elegance or creativity. Bengali-medium schools that deny boys and girls this lingua franca also deprive them of the chance of benefiting from the revolution in science and technology, competing in all-India examinations and enjoying the fruits of global commerce.

Those who can escape do so. Only those whose schooling blocks opportunity remain. Highly successful Bengali doctors, academics and computer engineers in Britain and America testify to barren prospects in West Bengal. The octogenarian engineer who committed suicide was the tragic representative of old and abandoned Bengal. His successful son in America typifies the future. If the Left Front persists with the delusion that an exclusively Bengali education is patriotic, the state will become even more the refuge of failure.

The dwindling number Biswas quoted is symptomatic of the Bengali’s bleak future in the city that is no longer his. Perhaps it never was. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy warned in 1947 that a “tussle (would) rage round Calcutta and its environments built up largely by the resources of foreigners, inhabited largely by people from other provinces who have no roots in the soil and who have come here to earn their livelihood, designated in another context as exploitation”. Imperial commerce created Calcutta; when the British left, Marwaris alone had the capital, acumen and energy to slip into their shoes.

It may be too late to bemoan that takeover. But further foolishness by the minister and the school education committee will only make sure that native Bengalis forfeit forever whatever little stake they still retain in the soil of Bengal.

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