In Ramachandra Guha’s recent book Patriots and Partisans, there is an interesting chapter titled ‘The Rise and Fall of the Bi-lingual Intellectual.’ It focuses on the differing positions taken by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore on the question of modern education for a nationalist India, and the role of English within that. Guha frames his chapter with a personal anecdote about his own limited bi-lingualism and peppers it with his admiration for true bi or tri or multilinguals, able to express themselves in scholarly and academic contexts in more than one language.
The role of English within India’s national curriculum continues to vex educationists, especially when it comes to its links with development. Recently, in Hyderabad, at the world’s largest teacher educators’ conference focused on the English language, organised by the English and Foreign Languages University and the British Council, I found myself trying to make a case for English in the economic and social development of India.
Guha’s book documents Gandhi’s reservations about the role of English in India’s national education. However, Gandhi’s own education gave him a good grasp of Gujarati, Hindi, and English. His multilingualism gave him unique access to knowledge systems and political philosophies in several languages and cultures, eventually making him such a towering global figure.
As an Indian, it troubles me that almost 150 years after Gandhi went to school, the nation cannot guarantee a similar quality of education to every school-going child in India where she is assured of quality inputs in her mother tongue and English, possibly at a later stage in early school years.
The English language in India has played a critical role in nation building, for instance, the correspondence between Tagore and Gandhi on the merits of modern education is actually in English. It was a convenient lingua franca for a Gujarati and a Bengali to exchange complex ideas.
Language is also linked to identity formation and politics of identities. Tagore was responding to Gandhi’s criticism of the reformer Rammohun Roy’s education and his leaning towards Western learning. Tagore’s response was as much a defence of a fellow Brahmo Samajist as it was of modern education based on the European Enlightenment. Following a similar pattern of identity alignment, Dalit activists and thinkers in India, in particular Chandra Bhan Prasad and Meena Kandasamy, view an upper caste conspiracy in keeping Dalits out of citadels of power in the reservations educationists have about English language in early school education.
David Graddol, in his report English Next India, points to three major drivers for the huge demand for English that is witnessed in India — education, economic development and social uplift.
During a visit to a village school outside Patna, I came across Saraswati Devi, a contractual labourer, who was very clear about why she wanted her daughters to learn English: “People will not be able to trick them if they know English.” Another girl in a school in Muzaffarpur said, “If you don’t know English, you are as good as an illiterate.”
From an educationist’s perspective, these sentiments mean that English carries a burden of expectation that is probably well beyond its means to deliver. There is another complexity. Currently only 12% of children who attend primary school end up in higher education, according the All India Council of Technical Education. However, as primary schools churn out more students, that percentage attending higher education is going to go up. And higher education in India, especially in courses such as law, medicine and technology, are almost entirely in English. In the absence of a robust multilingual education system, we are creating problems down the value chain. At a workshop on English studies at Jamia Millia in February, a professor from Delhi University shared case studies of students with good domain knowledge but poor English creating administrative dilemmas and social tension in several government higher education institution campuses across India.
Align these to the anxiety expressed by industry associations such as NASSCOM that a vast majority of technical and engineering graduates do not have the communication and soft skills to be employable, and the need to strengthen the teaching of languages in public education systems assumes an urgency that cannot be ignored.
There is a growing demand for English spurred by complex socio-economic forces, and led by parents. Parents are people who vote. Therefore, there are electoral compulsions behind the demand for English that cannot be ignored by politicians in a democracy, whether or not that pleases development economists, education theorists and cultural purists. These parents are demanding English not for international purposes, or so that their children can read Shakespeare. They are demanding English as part of a good education system, as part of social and economic equity. And policy makers, educationists and development economists should respect that choice.
Debanjan Chakrabarti heads British Council’s English Partnerships work in East India
The views expressed by the author are personal