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A SHARED LANGUAGE

- English is the only link of communication in a diverse India

England’s immigration pot is simmering again but not with Romanians and Bulgarians who gained free access in January. The Independent newspaper’s columnist, Pukkah Punjabi, reveals that anyone who calls the telephone number with the ad that has raised so many hackles (“In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest”) is offered a choice of Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, English or some other language. In short, the principal suspects are from the subcontinent where, clearly, English isn’t quite as common as Rajnath Singh might think. Barring a handful of exceptions, the Indians who try to sneak into England have hardly a word of English.

That needn’t be a major disqualification for as Defoe wrote, “a true-born Englishman’s a contradiction”. Sections of Calcutta may be bursting with pride that the red waistcoated footman Buckingham Palace trundled out with the tidings of the royal birth was a local boy who made it to Edinburgh’s Napier University, thanks to the Irish Brothers. Parading young Badar Azim before the world’s cameras may have been an obvious PR gimmick but the grief in Britain at the expiry of his visa seems genuine enough.

Krishna Menon symbolized another paradox. “My English is better than yours” he snapped when an Englishwoman patronisingly praised his fluency. “You merely picked it up. I learnt it!” No bogus nationalism clouded his pride of achievement. No Bharatiya Janata Party politician could be as arrogantly Indian as the Penguin Books editor, but his wry comment that England was obviously a very developed country since everybody spoke English highlighted a mature understanding of what matters. The likes of Singh stumbling through Hinglish dare not admit that. It takes a big man, and an educated one, to separate personal inadequacy from public posturing. Menon would not only have approved of Deepak Lal’s conclusion that “the ascent of the English-speaking peoples to predominance in the world surely ranked highest” among “the most important events of the last millennium”. He would have demanded that Indians be counted among those who had scaled the linguistic peak.

I, in common with many other Indians educated in English and in England, have pondered for years on Macaulay’s boast of creating “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. But not for a moment did I imagine that the famous Minute would succeed so handsomely that 177 years later a dhoti-clad trumpeter of Hindutva trudging the United States of America supposedly to “reclaim Bharat pride” would pass off Macaulay’s boast as his own fear! Like all propaganda, the swipe by an earlier spokesman of the Hindu right that Jawaharlal Nehru was “English by education, Muslim by culture and Hindu by accident” also contained just enough truth to merit consideration.

India has always been confident enough to absorb foreign influences to add lustre to the national personality. Despite D.L. Roy’s scathing song about the England-returned brothers and Tagore’s snide remarks about his inga-banga friends, there was no local variant of the Portuguese-African assimilado. W.C. Bonnerjee wouldn’t have been asked to preside over the first Indian National Congress if appearance was the ultimate truth. Another outstanding member of the Anglicised milieu, Sir Taraknath Palit, left his wealth to Calcutta University to engage Indian — not European — academics. If a suitably qualified Indian wasn’t available, his legacy could pay for university education in Britain to avoid appointing a foreigner. B.L. Gupta, one of the earliest Indian members of the Indian Civil Service (he joined in 1869 with R.C. Dutt, Surendranath Banerjea and Sripad Thakur), demolished Singh’s fears by demonstrating that English can co-exist with Oriental languages: he won prizes for Sanskrit and Persian at University College, London. Thanks to Gupta’s initiative, the Ilbert Bill gave Indian magistrates the right to try Europeans in British India. But he rejected bigotry’s demand for a prayaschitya ceremony to expiate the supposed sin of crossing the “black water”. In the interest of full disclosure, he was my mother’s grandfather.

The bristling hostility of Bengali colleagues when I returned to India as a 23-year-old journalist, having left a 16-year-old schoolboy, presented a comparable dilemma. But it soon dawned on me that their snide remarks and aggressive ultra-nationalism reflected the envy and hypocrisy that disfigure middle-class Indians when it comes to social ambition. Bearing out the Duke of Bedford’s claim that “living in an English way is more important in India today than it was in the times of the British Raj”, many of those tub-thumping language patriots scrimped, saved and pulled strings to ensure their sons grew up naturally English-speaking. They took their cue from West Bengal’s Marxist politicians who banished English from state schools but sent their own sons to private English-medium schools. Congress and BJP politicians are no different in this respect.

Singh might have blamed the vulgarisation of popular taste because of Western showbiz’s impact on our commercial entertainment industry for young people “forgetting their religion and culture”. But he is wildly wrong in blaming English for dethroning Sanskrit and “caus(ing) a great loss to the country.” On the contrary, English has helped to hold it together. Like Charlemagne’s Eighth Century Europe, India needs a lingua franca for easy communication among hundreds of linguistic groups. Sanskrit can’t fulfil that need just as Latin couldn’t in Europe. Both were elite and ecclesiastical languages. Hindustani — Minoo Masani’s choice — might arguably have done so but provoked too much political resistance. Thanks to the quality of teaching and the strong influence of mother tongues, an Indianized form of English (Hinglish, Benglish, and so on) has become the vernacular for many people while High English is the conduit to global communication, science, technology and the arts. India’s IT mastery and lucrative call centres (in which the young of all affiliations do extremely well) must be attributed to this command of an adopted tongue.

A multicultural India that rejects sectarian lobbies embraces Bengali radicals and Hindu-Hindi zealots in the north and west as it does Tamil chauvinists in the south and a patchwork quilt of northeastern tribes. Any attempt to force this diversity into a Hindu variant of the Taliban straitjacket will destroy the rich multidimensional personality India has evolved down the centuries. Survival demands letting all winds play about the Indian house, as Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed, without being blown away by any.

The real danger Singh’s tirade exposed was the present BJP leadership’s lower middle class small-town provincialism. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani couldn’t be accused of wearing those blinkers. Their successors are like the cow that is contented with its pasture because it has no idea of the fence that encircles it. The rest of Asia is making the most of English education to surge forward while the BJP remains obsessed with mythology and a useless temple. The most “modern” of its leaders can’t get over his dehati hankering for a US visa. Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou boast replicas of the British public school, Dulwich College. Clement Attlee’s old school, the great East India Company-inspired Haileybury and Imperial Service College, now also flourishes in Kazakhstan. The Bangkok branch of Harrow (alma mater of Nehru and Winston Churchill) fines students for speaking Thai.

Not only would a tilak-daubed, saffron robed Hindi-speaking India lose out in the global race, it would also flood England with even more semi-literate economic refugees. Tapan Raychaudhuri, the Oxford don, recalls flying with an Uttar Pradesh doctor who couldn’t fill in her immigration card and thought Dublin was in London. Such monstrosities don’t invite mockery only because England People Very Nice, as the title of a hilarious 2009 play read. But to avoid being disgraced before the world, we need more — not less — English in Indian education.