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A forked tongue policy

State schools must return to bilingual teaching. The English-vernacular social divide has to be bridged, writes Mrinal Pande.
Hindustan Times | By Mrinal Pande
UPDATED ON OCT 30, 2007 10:19 PM IST

On October 22, a 22-year-old second-year B.Tech student of the IEC Engineering College Noida, hanged himself. The suicide note Brajesh Kumar left behind in the room he shared with another student in Tughlakpur village said that he was doing this because he could not cope with the courses being taught in English and that he did not want to burden his family with paying another hefty amount towards special English coaching classes. The social and educational aspirations that brought this young man from Jaunpur to the national capital region are very much a part of middle-class life in India today. But the inequalities within the education system — between the private, English-medium schools on the one hand and the Hindi- or vernacular- medium State-run ones on the other — mean that although all parents want the best for their children, once on campus the children find that some ‘bests’ will remain less accessible to them only for the lack of required linguistic skills.

Three decades ago, I was teaching English language and history of art and architecture at the Maulana Azad College of Technology (MACT) in Bhopal. Over two-thirds of the students, all of whom had excellent grades and high aggregates in physics, chemistry and mathematics, came from Hindi-medium government schools. Only a third, who had been to private schools, could read and write English passably well. This created a nasty sort of caste system on the campus where the English language alienated most students (a good number of whom were tribals and Dalits) from academic knowledge, and at the same time insulated the faculty and students from public schools against the grief and worries of the so-called ‘Vernacs’.

Most members of the latter group considered these students dim-witted and unnecessarily abrasive. A certain stereotype of government school students as a group with low ability and a serious attitude problem governed, in turn, their attitude and behaviour towards all of them. Obviously, the last three decades haven’t changed things nor have they increased the mobility between these two classes in any appreciable degree.

It was after teaching at this college that I began to see how the medium of instruction becomes as important — if not more — in a child’s education as the curriculum. In North India, not only has this been ignored, but politicians from all parties have also scored cheap points during elections by stigmatising English as the language of ‘our colonisers’ and insisted on the use of only regional languages as the medium of instruction in government-run schools.

Since education is a state subject, ever since the days of the first coalition government (1967) in Madhya Pradesh, all government schools reverted from bilingual teaching in English and Hindi to using Hindi alone. At the same time, all the much sought-after courses at the state colleges of engineering and medicine continued to be taught in English. This created a strange marginalisation of vernacular users on campuses. Only because they understood English, mediocre students would receive a lion’s share of teachers’ attention and even be praised for challenging the teachers’ opinions. A non-English speaking student, on the other hand, would evoke rebuke and even retaliation if he dared to intervene and point out that he could not understand what the teacher was saying. Some teachers would also make unsavoury casteist remarks later among their fellow teachers about these ‘quotawallahs’.

I found that actually most students from Hindi-medium schools, who found the lectures incomprehensible, were terrified and depressed at the prospect of having to learn and express themselves in English overnight. Brajesh Kumar’s suicide mirrors their suffering and deep sense of dismay. All over India, students like Brajesh Kumar are learning that relations between two language groups are ultimately power relations where those who speak English will nearly always be considered the yardstick for judging qualities — from professional excellence to probity. Vernacular speakers from small town India, on the other hand, will stand marginalised socially and economically, for no other reason but the fact that they cannot speak English with the ‘right’ accent.

Politicians may have sealed English firmly out of government schools in the name of protecting their regional identity. But all of them — even Lohiaites like Lalu and Mulayam Yadav, see to it that their children attend the best English-medium public schools.

The obvious answer for undoing a linguistic policy gone horribly wrong is to reintroduce the earlier two-language formula with English as a compulsory language. But today this is easier said than done. For one, where are the teachers? After four decades of teaching only in regional languages, the pool for recruitment of English teachers has all but dried up. And while they are on the look-out for teachers, heaven knows what else they might find in government schools — teachers who misspell words on the blackboard even in the vernacular; who don’t read books; who are too malnourished, too anaemic and exhausted, too depressed, too bruised, psychologically.

Should we all start writing letters to our political and administrative movers and shakers about such decay in the education available for the aam admi’s children? After all, government schools today educate no less than 80 per cent of our children, and it is their fault that things there are the way they are. But since the netas and babus have frequently appointed and transferred government teachers on grounds other than academics — using them for campaigning, for arranging oral polio drop events in villages, sometimes even for carrying out their domestic chores — how likely is it that they will not throw our letters into the bin?

Ironically, when progressive education policies are being drafted, the educationists who work on the drafts are open, receptive and tolerant of dissident views. Their socialism is frequently brave and original. But they talk too much and do too little.

Everything that informs the successive ‘New Education Policies’ is ideological. But the ideology is undefined, fluid and full of clutter, contradictions and are collages of fantastic incongruities. Budgetary constraints, internal rivalries, bureaucratic inertia and the non-involvement of the actual stakeholders in these groups always push the HRD Ministers and Education Secretaries in two directions: either they become dictators or they present their noble views at Unesco thereby enlarging their own footprints.

So after some half-a-dozen impeccably worded ‘New Education Policy’ documents, our government school campuses in small towns and villages remain perhaps the only places in the world ruled by the ‘slave class’. Thus have our education ministers made the dream of Spartacus come true.

Mrinal Pande is Editor, Hindustan

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