EDITORIAL/PEOPLE'S ENGLISH 

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 13.02.00
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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the anti-colonial paranoia regarding English is to keep India firmly scripted into a colonial mentality through an outdated argument that is likely to be ignored by most practical-minded Indians across the entire social spectrum, who believe in surviving robustly in the present.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.