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Mind your language

india Updated: Oct 07, 2006 00:26 IST
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Let Us end the hypocrisy and admit it: the future of India will be written in English.  

And if you are the sort who will dismiss that as elitist, stop and think again. On the contrary, English can be the architect of a more egalitarian India. Unleash it from the possessive control of a privileged few, send it out into the open and watch it become the bridge across India’s class divide.

Instead, we have looked on mutely as preposterous politicians stymied its growth.

Is it not ironic that the city that first propelled India onto the global stage is now in the news for its retreat from modernity? Hi-tech Bangalore was once India’s proud proof that the world is flat. Now there is evidence that a bulldozer ran over a few brains as well.

We all know the story: more than 200,000 English-speaking children will have to switch schools and unlearn their education. The government of Karnataka has threatened to strip 2,000 schools of their legal status for violating a 1994 law that requires them to use Kannada as the primary language of instruction.

And, a few outraged newspaper editorials later, we have all just sat back and let this happen.
Perhaps this is because we still have not resolved our dysfunctional relationship with the English language.

Here is how the men who wrote our Constitution saw its place in India’s future: 1965 was set as its date of demise. This was the year in which English was to cease being an official language on par with Hindi. Instead, it would become “an associate additional official language” till such time as a special committee could oversee a full transition to Hindi. Of course, protests from the southern states ensured that this never happened.

And that is how it should be. To foist a single language on a country that speaks thousands of dialects is both undemocratic and bigoted.

But does that mean that English cannot be on par with other languages? India has 15 recognised national languages. English is not one of them. Why?

Is it because we are still grappling with misplaced pride? Are we reluctant to put the official stamp of Indian-ness on a language gifted to us by the British?

Well, it is time to get over that. The English we speak and write today is as Indian as butter chicken and as global as McDonald’s French fries. We have thrown the stock into our melting pot, embellished it with the spices we like and made it into a dish that is not only our very own, but perfect for visitors as well.

In other words, Indian English is both home-grown and foreign. We speak it in our own peculiar accents, we spell differently from the Americans and we specialise in Indianisms.

We are like this only.

But even so, our brand of English is, at the very least, perfectly functional. Not just that, it is our competitive edge in the global wrestling ground.

We have to stop being embarrassed about English. Instead, we need to embrace it and hold it tight. It is what sets us apart from the pack.

I got my wake-up call this week in Las Vegas. No, sadly, I am not gambling away my savings in the world’s casino capital. I am here for Fortune magazine’s annual Most Powerful Women Summit. And India is clearly top of the mind. Chennai-born Indra Nooyi, the new Pepsi chief, tops the charts as the world’s most influential businesswoman. Another woman of Indian origin, Padmasree Warrior of Motorola, is showcased as a ‘rising star’. Some of the biggest names in business — the CEOs of Xerox, MTV, Disney, Coca-Cola, Ford and Procter and Gamble — looked on attentively as panels debated the ‘threat’ from India and China.

Later, when my friend Rama Bijapurkar and I spoke at a session on India, many had the same question for us: how did we explain the inequities of India’s education system? On one hand they saw an India that was the launchpad for the finest brains in the world; on the other, here was a State that had not met its targets on primary education.

We spoke about how outsourcing had subverted all the old stereotypes about India: young Indians are now teaching American high-school kids ways to improve upon their English grammar. Outsourced Indian tutors charge $ 20 an hour, compared to the steep $ 50 charged by local ones. Some of my Indian friends are teaching the Chinese how to speak the international language of commerce.

And yet, statistically, only 5 per cent of India is considered proficient in English. Can you imagine how global power equations could collapse and change if those numbers were to grow?

Talking to the women business leaders at this summit got me thinking. What is the one thing that distinguishes public schools from government-run schools in India?

It is the quality of English.

We have kept English wrapped up in soft tissue paper, accessible only to the privileged. Is it because we recognise that English is the fastest vehicle of upward mobility? And this status quo is more comfortable for those of us who have it good anyway.

Dalit writer Kancha Ilaiah has long argued that quality is even more crucial than quotas. His demand: English-medium primary schools for Dalits across villages and cities. English, he says, is the difference between the haves and the have-nots.

And so it is.

PepsiCo chief Indra Nooyi graduated from the Indian Institute of Management. Padmasree Warrior wears her IIT tag proudly and publicly. What leverage would these women have had in the gladiatorial fight for corporate mindspace if they did not speak English?

When we travel outside India, we like to talk of India as a global powerhouse. We always gloat about the skilled workforce available in our country at competitive rates. And we are acutely offended by patronising foreigners who compliment us for speaking English ‘so well’.

But back home we sneer at those who cannot speak English as well as we do. And precious little is done to change that.

I was once trying to explain to a friend the difference between my competence in Hindi and English. I said I can speak in Hindi, but I dream in English.

Now I wonder: is it a dream we are too greedy to share?

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7 barkha @ndtv.com

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