One way of understanding the enduring importance of English in India is by viewing it in the wider context of post-colonial nations. The world is full of relatively new countries (like ours) governed by English- and French- and Spanish-speaking elites. In these countries, as in India, the colonial state’s language became the language of law, power, science, modernity and aspiration. The native inheritors of colonial states who possessed these languages enjoyed being a powerful elect and feeling cosmopolitan. That their cosmopolitanism was derivative, not home-grown, bothered a few amongst them but, as a ruling class, being anglophone or francophone was a matter of self-congratulation not concern.
But to explain the role of English in independent India solely in these terms is to misunderstand the republic and underestimate the significance of English. The history of English in republican India has to be read alongside the history of Indian nationalism. Unlike every other post-colonial nation, Indian nationalists spent a lot of time side-stepping the temptations of a single identity. Religion and language and a homeland defined by one or the other or both were the precedents available from Europe’s nationalist histories and non-European nationalisms derived from these, like Ataturk’s Turkey. India’s diversity led the Congress to invent a pluralist patriotism that was made up, in equal parts, of anti-colonialism and sleight of hand.
The sleight of hand consisted of finding ways to continuously defer the question of national identity because in a country as various as India any definition of India’s nature was likely to cause trouble. Anti-colonialism, deeply felt and wholly justifiable though it was, was itself a way of deferring the conflicts internal to Indian society (based on caste, class, faith and language) because it asked the Raj’s subjects to sink their differences to present a united front against colonial rule.
But the history of nationalism was so bound up with the idea of self-determination that the pressure to define the Indian self in question was constant, and the Congress wasn’t immune to it. The novelty and originality of the Congress’s pluralist take on Indian nationalism are more apparent now than they were then, because like most political movements, the Congress didn’t take time off to theorize the content of its nationalism: it improvised it on the run, in response to its enemy, its constituencies, its strengths and vulnerabilities. And like the Bolsheviks who constantly invoked Marx, that prophet of the industrial proletariat, even as they brewed revolution in a peasant economy, the Congress invented a pluralist practice even as it struggled with the rhetoric and vocabulary of Europe’s hegemonic nationalisms.
You can see this in the iconic status that patriots like Garibaldi and Mazzini had for Indian nationalists, the influence of Young Italy, the way in which enthusiastic nationalists were described as Young Turks. But most strikingly, you can see the influence of this homogenizing nationalism in the insistent idea that respectable nations came wrapped in a single ‘national’ language.
The idea that a nation not disciplined by one language was a disordered Babel was so powerful that even the Congress, normally so keen to duck questions of culture, was forced to confront it. This was partly because the question of language had become confounded in India with the idea of religious community. Till the summer of 1947, the Congress’s official position was that the national language of independent India would be Hindustani written in two scripts, Farsi and Devanagari. Gandhi, along with many other Congressmen, would have preferred Hindi written in Devanagari, but the potential of the Hindi-Urdu controversy to create communal trouble led them to accept this compromise position.
The odd thing about the Congress sponsorship of Hindustani as India’s national language was that this pluralist compromise was squarely aimed at a republic dominated by north Indian quarrels. Because Hindi and Urdu together formed the largest language group in the country, the Congress, otherwise so scrupulous about cultural majoritarianism, had decided that Hindustani would be India’s national language.
The closest the Indian republic came to Hindu chauvinism in the matter of culture was when, in response to Partition, the Congress did an about-face on the language question and decided, as early as late 1947, that the national language would be Hindi written in the Nagari script. The implication was that now that the majority of India’s Muslims had constituted themselves in a separate Muslim state, Hindustani was an unnecessary form of political correctness.
The Indian state, while recognizing all India’s major languages as national languages, made Hindi pre-eminent as the pan-Indian language of the nation. But this lurch towards the idea that nations were ordered by a unifying national language was reined in by the creation of linguistic provinces, the de facto acquiescence in the rejection of Hindi as an official language by non-Hindi states and, most crucially, in the indefinite retention of English as India’s official link language alongside Hindi. Just as the national movement was willing to use the menace of the colonial state to postpone the settling of scores within Indian society by holding out independence as a panacea to everything, the moment it won that independence, the young republic began using aspects of that state’s foreignness to umpire the quarrels produced by India’s diversity.
The Congress, as was its habit, fudged the language question. It succumbed to the Hindi lobby by nominating Hindi as the national language, and then defanged the resentment that the hegemony of Hindi might have caused by refusing to follow through on the logic of a pan-Indian ‘national’ language. Paradoxically, English, the language of colonial exploitation, became the republic’s guarantee against linguistic strife. As happened so often with the pluralist nationalism improvised by the Congress, this stratagem didn’t ‘solve’ the question of language — it postponed it. The retention of English as the language of pan-Indian government bought the republic time. It blunted the sharp edge of linguistic assertion and it allowed this pluralist state in its infancy to shirk the responsibility of forcing some definitively Indian language down unwilling Indian throats. By helping the young republic duck the dangers of defining an authentically national self, English enabled the development of a benign pluralism.