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OTHER TONGUES

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?