Narendra Modi’s address in English at the recent PSLV launch at Sriharikota has, predictably, led to some raised eyebrows. A political decision, say some. He wanted to show the world he is comfortable with English despite his government’s promotion of Hindi, say others.
Both views miss the point. And it is this: Hindi is great, but is English really a foreign language any longer? And can the two co-exist, like chowmein-stuffed samosas or biryani-filled pizza?
The idea of language as a badge of national pride is not limited to India. Try speaking English in France. If the Chinese are unapologetic about speaking in Mandarin, why shouldn’t our prime minister speak Hindi when he goes to Bhutan?
Hindi is my mother tongue. Marathi is the language of my husband’s family. But, English too is my language. It is the language that I, like millions of Indians, use most in my writing and conversation. If we can rush to embrace Indian writers when they sweep the Booker and other awards, shouldn’t we also pause to claim English as an Indian language — as Indian as Tamil, Urdu, Maithili or any of the 26 official languages we recognise?
The tendency to brush off English as foreign comes most often from those politicians who have no problem sending their kids to ‘elite’ institutions.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav will only speak Hindi despite the fact that he has a master’s degree from Australia. And the grandchildren of that great son-of-the-soil, Bal Thackeray, have all studied in English-medium schools.
Moreover, if English in India is a result of our colonial rule, then so are the railways, our education system, many of our laws, the concept of democracy. Why selectively choose one as an emblem of our slavery and not the others? And why stop at the British? The first great Mughal Babur brought with him peaches and watermelons. The Portuguese gave us potatoes. Should we boycott these too as foreign?
The problem of one national language arises because, unlike the Japanese or Italians, we speak in so many tongues. This imbue us with the richness of diversity that those who would impose the supremacy of just one language ignore. Hindi is the mother tongue of less than 25% of our population and, along with variations like Bhojpuri and Awadhi, is spoken by less than half.
None of the other official languages is spoken by more than 10% of the population.
The move to phase out English began, understandably enough, when the Constituent Assembly agreed that it would be excised from our shores by 1965. But in 1963 when there was no consensus on which language would replace English, the Official Languages Act was passed and English, in addition to Hindi, continued to be used for official purposes.
Each time a government suggests switching to Hindi, the non-Hindi states protest noisily. And the status quo continues. In 2006, the Law Commission rejected a suggestion to make it compulsory for the Supreme Court to deliver its judgments in Hindi.
But away from the stifling corridors of power, in the bylanes of aspirational India, English continues to bloom and evolve. As India remains an outsourcing hub, changing millions of lives and swelling the number of our middle class, English language courses flourish in small towns and state capitals.
Even bereft of its obvious workplace edge, Indian English bounces along with the vigour and elasticity that makes all language beautiful.
Hobson-Jobson documents the wonderful words we have given to the world — khaki, bungalow, shampoo — but a new generation of Indian-English speakers with ‘kindly adjust’ and ‘timepass’ describe a way of life that only those who know the soul of India will understand.
As an Indian I am proud of the robustness of this English. We need to stop apologising and start acknowledging that English is now our language, adding to a rich profusion of the languages we already own.
Modi has not apologised or explained why he spoke in English at Sriharikota. We should do the same.
(The views expressed by the author are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter: @namitabhandare )