Monday, 30th October 2017

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English-vinglish: Language & legacy

Bihar Safarnama

By Ruchira Gupta
  • Published 20.06.16
Shivanand Tiwari (in spectacles) on a cycle rally from Delhi to Guwahati in 1983 against the official use of English

Shivanand ji called this morning. Shivanandji has been to jail five times, twice for protesting the use of English in government work. The slogan was:

" Angrezi mein kaam na hoga/Phir se desh goolam na hoga"

(Work will not be in English/The country's enslavement must finish).

A recently retired Rajya Sabha MP, Shivanand Tiwari was the student leader who had pullled Lalu Prasad into politics. Shivanand ji had filed a case against the Shankaracharya under the Harijan Atrocities Act. The Shankaracharya had refused to debate the shastras with Rajneesh in a Patna meeting on the grounds that only the "Twice-Born" ie Brahmins had the authority to debate the religious texts. Aryavarta, one of the leading Patna papers, took the side of the Shankaracharya. A young Lalu was enlisted into the Socialist Youth Federation by Shivanandji. His first protests and sloganeering was outside the office of the Aryavarta.

Shivanand ji is from a socialist family, influenced by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. Doctor Saheb's democratic socialism, derived from Gandhi and Leon Trotsky, aimed at the seven revolutions or ending inequalities between castes, sexes, races, countries, an end to the arms race, oppression in personal life and undemocratic principles in language, dress, food or thought.

His followers, led by Pune feminist socialist Indumati Kelkar, had launched an all-India movement for preserving and promoting Indian languages.

Nobel laureate Dr Satyen Bose, of the Bose-Einstein theory on quantum physics, held the Calcutta conference and wrote a book on this. In 1983 Shivanand ji had cycled from Delhi to Guwahati as part of an "angrezi-hatao" rally.

My parents were also firm believers. As a child I resented their refusal to talk to me in English when I came home from school. I made up by reading as many books in English as I could.

Now, as a journalist who writes in English, I am grateful that I am bilingual and can slip between the two languages easily. I feel sorry for my English-speaking friends who do not know the grammar and have just a smattering of Hindi words in their vocabulary. They can only speak to each other and, therefore, can only participate in the richness of India through Bollywood films.

I also feel sorry for our Prime Minister who insisted last fortnight on speaking English in an incomprehensible accent to the US Senate, with the help of a teleprompter.

Other premiers of very powerful countries like Germany and France had spoken in German and French to the US Senate backed by a translator with an American accent. Our Prime Minister would have served the country better by speaking in Gujarati, if not in Hindi, to highlight the diversity of India.

I recently edited a fiction anthology on the prostituted woman in Indian fiction called River of Flesh with 21 stories translated from 12 Indian languages. A reporter in the US asked me: "Are all these languages still spoken?" That is when I realised the greatness of Nehru's "unity in diversity," and Lohia's "angrezi hatao" programmes. What we take for granted no longer exists in the US, which once had 296 spoken languages. Along with the languages, history, knowledge and memory are lost. Americans think democracy came from Rome, when the first democracy was practised by the Iroquois Nation on their own land. It was a better model - power was circular and consensual in nature rather than hierarchical.

In Purnea city, I, thankfully, do not meet any official who insists on talking to me in English. However, in Patna, I have met middle-aged MBAs who refuse to speak in any language but English. English and the suit and tie have begun to symbolise the aspiration to power. Better jobs go to the English-speaking. Arundhati Roy writes more powerfully than native Britons or Americans in English. The world is more interconnected and global. English is the language of information and technology.

So, then, should we accept English as both a global and an Indian language? Should English be taught in all schools and be used in all government offices? I asked this question to Lalita Bayanwala, principal of the Shishu Bharti School in Forbesganj, today. "Yes," she said, "but if we lose our own languages, we will silence our children. English should be taught, as should Hindi, but we need to also teach languages closer to home and at home - Maithili, Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Angika, even Bengali and Nepali. Only then can we communicate with the children. We teach English but we often use Hindi or Maithili as the medium of instruction. That makes it easier for children to understand. If they are not strong in their own mother tongue, they will not be strong in any language. My children's mother tongue is often Maithili."

Angrezi hatao does not mean discarding English. It simply means a) keeping local languages for official purpose so that the governed can communicate with the governing, and protecting and promoting all India languages - regional languages and local languages.

Finland, which has been rated as having the best education system in the world, teaches English in Finnish to its children. All the children grow up knowing at least three languages.

• Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide. 

Follow Ruchira Gupta on Facebook and twitter @ruchiragupta