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The Hindu Right And English Language Imperialism

By Vidyadhar Date

24 July, 2013

The BJP president Rajnath Singh has condemned English language and lauded Sanskrit .The statement deserves the criticism it has met. However, critics of such statements often have a very narrow perspective. The real issue with regard to language is that the regional languages are criminally neglected in India and similar is the trend in many other developing countries. This is seldom taken into account by our elites obsessed with the English language.

The right wing’s language policy is no less eliist. Savarkar, the apostle of the Hindu Right, launched a process of cleansing Marathi of Persian words which have been an integral part of the language for centuries and he replaced these with Sanskrit.

The real big problem from common people’s point of view is the criminally obscure and ununderstandable language used in government documents and circulars. I remember the then chief minister Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena himself complaining that he could not understand the Marathi used in government papers. This was at a news conference I attended in the 1990s. And Joshi is a post-graduate in Marathi and taught the language. One can imagine how difficult it must be for the common man and especially non-Marathi speakers to understand the official Marathi. The problem is big and similar is the type of language used by the bureaucracy in many parts of India. And the politicians including those of the Congress have done nothing about it. There is reason to believe that there is a conspiracy behind this. Just make things difficult for people to understand so the machinery can browbeat and harass them, make money and so on.People are essentially treated as a nuisance or a source of exploitation.

The Maharashtra government now proposes to set up a Bhasha Bhavan on the site of the Rang Bhavan open air theatre near St Xavier’s college in Mumbai. It will also give space to akademis of Urdu, Sindhi, Gujarati and Hindi. There is no shortage of lackeys holding prominent positions in various committees and boards of the government for years and decades suggesting such high sounding projects. Also some people will stand to make money through the real estate project. No wonder the idea has met with deep skepticism. Vasant Patankar, a former head of the department of Marathi in Mumbai university, said a Bhasha Bhavan auditorium has been built in the university’s Kalina campus in memory of Kusumagraj, the Jnanpith award winner poet and playwright. But it is serving little purpose and has been reduced to a venue for events like political meetings and haldi kumkum functions of women.

The point is the rulers have little interest in promoting Marathi or other regional languages. In fact, they are acting at the behest of forces of neoliberalism and imperialism in forcing the introduction of English language right from the first standard. This is in spite of the fact that all international evidence and UNESCO’s well evolved policy point to the fact that a child learns best when studying in its mother tongue, the regional language.

So a grotesque situation has been created. Even the poorest of the poor , whether in India, Pakistan or Namibia, now think they must teach their children English and in English medium. The result is that the poor student is not able to learn either English or the regional language properly.

Study in the mother tongue is a crucial issue. A five member Constitution bench of the Supreme court is now to decide whether the mother tongue or the regional language can be made compulsory by the state governments as the medium of instruction for primary students. (Hindu 5 July, 2013).

The issue of the dominance of English and the neglect of regional languages in Pakistan, there are eight major languages there, is highlighted by Zubeida Mustafa, in a book The Tyranny of Language in Education published in Pakistan. Her ideas are well summed up in her article in the Guardian of 10-1-2012 titled Pakistan ruined by language myth. Effective teaching of English is the preserve of the elite leaving the rest of the country to big confusion.

Therein lies the criminal nature of the elites, depriving the people of real education in their own language, dominating and suppressing their languages , imposing English.

There is a very big phenomenon of English language imperialism exposed brilliantly by a scholar and former British Council English teacher Robert Phillipson in his book Language Imperialism. He forcefully points out that English is emerging as the language of the neoliberal empire seeking a monolingual regime . It is not the lingua franca but Lingua Frankestein. He is not an ordinary man. He is a very sound scholar and he mentions that there is also language imperialism in languages like Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese.

Studies by the World Bank, UNESCO and other bodies suggest that in developing countries English as a second language is learnt best when the child has learnt its own language well.

English is a wonderful language and we do need to study it as it is a major language of communication in the modern world. But our elites must not be allowed to stifle our local languages while promoting English.

(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority.)






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