Language, like most other things human, is not something immutable and absolute. Whatever its point of origin is, a language, so say modern linguists, cannot be held as the property of any one country or people.
It belongs rather to whoever happens to use it, irrespective of nationality. A language lives, changes and renews itself only in application.
Although the English language came to India with our erstwhile British rulers, there is no reason why it should, even now, be seen as a foreign tongue. To put it plainly: English is an Indian language. For scores of Indians, irrespective of regionality, it is the language of knowledge, of professional work, and even of feelings.
Moreover, in a richly multilingual country like ours, English, whether some of us like it or not, is the pre-eminent lingua franca that makes communication possible at both the inter-personal and the governmental levels.
Even if this function could be equally served by Hindi, our ‘national language’, the gains from having access to the internationally current English language are many and substantial. The language of scholarship and science in a large part of the world is English.
Due to the undeniable fact of global market capitalism, increasingly the language of international commerce too is English. English-educated and English-speaking Indians clearly are at an advantage. And the impact of the benefits they reap personally through their mastery of English directly or indirectly benefits the country as well.
Examples are the foreign exchange earned through our IT industries and the respect earned for the country by our scientists, writers and scholars in India or abroad.
To argue, as BJP president Rajnath Singh has recently done, that English has done harm to ‘Indian culture’ is to be both factually wrong and parochial. ‘Indian culture’ is not a monolith. India is a multilingual, multi-religious, and even a multi-racial country. The defining thing about Indian culture is its plurality, its wonderfully mixed nature. If anything, English is a uniting factor in the variegated fabric of Indian society.
His other claim that Sanskrit is dying out because of English is equally debatable. Not many Indians are cultivating Sanskrit nowadays, true, but the spread of English can hardly be held responsible for this. Tamil, another Indian proto-language at least as old as Sanskrit, keeps thriving.
The hostility to English among the nationalist radicals and some sections of the Left in India stems from the notion that English is the language of ‘Western imperialism’ and therefore contrary and inimical to all things Indian.
This idea, to say the least, is not in sync with the times. The imperialism of big capital is no longer an exclusively ‘Western’ phenomenon, and no longer a one-way street. There are Asian nations, like China and Singapore that are aggressively ‘imperial’. And Indians have been running steel plants or doing business in Europe and America for quite a while now.
To associate the international link language of English with ‘Western imperialism’ is therefore neither tenable nor strategically advantageous. Our endeavour should rather be to ensure greater parity of access to English among all classes and sections of the Indian people, especially among the youth.
Instead of awe or animosity, our attitude to English should be characterised by a spirit of triumphant possession. English is ours. Let us learn it, use it, benefit by it, and modify its idiom to suit our needs — as our finest writers, like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, have done.
Let the Empire strike back by claiming the language of the emperor as its very own.
Suparna Banerjee is a researcher and writer based in Kolkata
The views expressed by the authors are personal