In India's language wars, the poorest are deprived of the lessons that are the key to successby Zareer Masani / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
An English class at Rajyakaiya School in Narlai village, Rajasthan, northern India (photo: Getty Images)
Perched high up in an ugly Delhi tower block is a shrine to the newest deity in India’s teeming pantheon—the Goddess of English. She has been invented by Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist (from a caste formerly known as Untouchables). His apartment is crammed with icons of the growing cult of worship he has founded.
The goddess herself blazes forth from one wall in the lurid colours of a bazaar poster (see overleaf). Modelled on the Statue of Liberty, she is pictured against a map of India, wearing a sari and an English straw hat, standing on a computer and holding aloft a giant pink pen. Beside the goddess hangs a portrait of her unlikely messiah, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British Whig historian and statesman who brought English education to India in the 1830s.
Every year on 25th October, Chandra Bhan and his loyal band of devotees gather here to celebrate Macaulay’s birthday as English Day with a hymn of praise to the new deity: “Oh Devi Ma, please let us learn English! Even the dogs understand English.” Underlying such rituals is a growing conviction among India’s most disadvantaged communities that the English language could be their salvation from poverty and social exclusion.
India, unlike China, has no truly national language of its own. Hindi, the central government’s official language, is an artificial, 20th century construct created by purging Hindustani, the colloquial language of the north, of most of its Islam-derived Persian and Arabic words. Now, 65 years after independence, Hindi is still a little spoken officialese one grapples with on government forms. Even colloquial Hindustani, the language of Bollywood films, is spoken by no more than 40 per cent of the population. The rest of the subcontinent speaks hundreds of mother tongues, with 22 regional languages recognised in the Indian constitution, several with their own script.
Amid this Babel, English remains the only lingua franca in which Indians can communicate across their vast subcontinent. After half a century of trying to replace it with Hindi, in 2007 the Congress party-led central government finally swung round to embrace the goal of English teaching in all primary schools. But populist politicians from both the left and far right still condemn English as the language…