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Breaking the Chaturvarna System of Languages

The Indian language policy is informed by a pull towards unilingual identity, inspired by the European model of nation state that is predicated on the homogeneity of its people. Language hegemony works at two tiers in India—at the state and the centre. The Constitution fails to pay more than lip service to the linguistic plurality and multilingual ethos of the peoples of India and has created a chaturvarna (four-tier order) of languages, with Sanskrit, Hindi, the scheduled, and the non-scheduled languages occupying various rungs of the ladder. English—the language of the conquerors—being outside the chaturvarna system has emancipatory potential.

Versions of this paper were presented in “The Indian Vernacular: Languages, Literatures and Histories” conference held at the University of Delhi and “Pluralism and Multiculturalism in Teaching and Research of English Language and Literatures” conference held at VIT University, Vellore. I thank the audience for their suggestions. I also thank G Aloysius for his feedback after going through the draft meticulously. [Notes and references are in the PDF document.]

In the debate on the hierarchy among languages, dichotomies are often posited as language versus dialect, classical language versus vernacular language, standard versus non-standard language, regional versus national language, or national versus international language. In the Indian context, one sometimes hears reference to the dominant regional language versus the non-dominant regional language, as the local is quite often the site where we see the interplay of social hierarchies (see, for instance, Abbi 2009).

One of the guiding principles of much of the research on linguistic issues has been to problematise the power equation that is intrinsic to such dichotomies. An alternate approach is to view these as not oppositions, but as being complementary and with each of the varieties as operating in their own sphere. While separation of domains of use of language varieties is a necessity, as is the division of labour, the division of labourers, to borrow the celebrated phraseology of Ambedkar (1936) in his discussion the relation between the caste system and the division of labour, is undesirable.

While the variation in a language in terms of a formal and informal variety or a written (or literary) and a spoken (or colloquial variety) will be an illustration of division of labour in terms of different varieties having specific domains, the relegation of a particular variety as not fit for formal or official use or a refusal to grant it recognition as an official language would amount to discrimination.

 Contrary to the position taken by researchers like Austin (1966) and Agnihotri (2015) that the resolution of the language policy was a compromise, I would argue (along with authors like Singh 2005) that what we see in the resolution of the lan- guage issue is the triumph of majoritarianism.1 It is true that there were some points that the sloganeers of Hindi–Hindu– Hindustan had to concede, which may have made it not that sweet a victory for them. But a victory it nevertheless was. The follow- ing excerpt from the speech of N Gopalaswami Ayyangar who, along with K M Munshi, was the proposer of the draft on the part dealing with “Official Languages” clearly demonstrates this:

[the draft proposal] is the result of a compromise in respect of which sacrifices of opinion, of very greatly cherished views and interests have been sacrificed for the purpose of achieving this draft in a form that will acceptable to the full house….

… [after enumerating the sacrifices like the willingness to accept De- vanagiri numerals if an independent Commission so recommended].
… I mention these facts to show how great a sacrifice those who stand for the basic policy which I have enunciated have had to make for the purpose of reaching an amicable understanding with the exponents of a different view. (Constituent Assembly Debates 1949, Vol IX: 1321–22)

 A major shortcoming in the language policy—be it in the discussions in the Constituent Assembly, the constitutional provisions or the Official Languages Act—was in the failure to envisage a multilingual solution to solve the language question. As Agnihotri (2015) argues, “an inbuilt flexibility that does not threaten any community and provides equal opportunities for all languages to develop in a dialogic relationship with each other” was actually what was needed. Another important recent critique of the language policy of India has been provided by Bodra (2016). According to her,

the language policy of free India has created a hierarchical structure of the legitimacy of languages. At the apex of this hierarchy is Hindi, which is a link, official and national language. The intermediary layer of the hierarchy is constituted by regional languages, the languages of those speech communities that wield political clout, and those languages are perceived to be a part of India’s ancient heritage. But numerous other languages with millions of speakers are dismissed as dialects; examples are Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Santhali, Bhili, Ghondi, Kurukh and so on.

 A similar idea is expressed by Gupta and Abbi (1995) when they critique the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India:

It is our contention that rather than assuring any semblance of equality, the ES has succeeded only in creating new cleavages, new hierarchies and new conflicts. The ES has accorded differential status to Indian languages, and this discriminatory dispensation, in turn, has been reflected in differential institutional and societal support for and at- titudes towards different languages within the polity. This, in turn, has given rise to cleavages such as majority-minority, dominant-sub ordinate, privileged-underprivileged.

 In this paper, I argue that both the constitutional scheme and the official language policy of the Indian state envisages not a relationship of complementation between the various languag- es spoken in India, but a hierarchical system. My proposal is differ- ent from previous approaches proposed by Gupta and Abbi (1995) and by Bodra (2016). If the Eighth Schedule is at the centre of the scheme for Gupta and Abbi, Hindi is at the apex for Bodra. This article argues with several layers at which discrimination operates with Sanskrit, Hindi, the scheduled and the non- scheduled languages, all occupying various rungs of the ladder.

 I draw a parallel between the linguistic hierarchy and the caste system by invoking the notion of chaturvarna2 by posit- ing Sanskrit as occupying a privileged position and English (which is a rank outsider in the constitutional scheme) as a language with emancipatory capacity due to its positioning outside the legitimised hierarchy. The fact that English creates a de facto hierarchy will be dealt with below. While such a multilayered stratification with an ascending order of privi- lege and a descending order of prestige is not surprising in the caste-ridden Indian society, the legitimacy granted to it by the Constitution is indeed surprising.

 In the next section, I will take a look at the Constituent Assembly debates, which can be considered to be the first att- empt to forge a language policy for the fledgling nation. In the following section, I look at the constitutional provisions and the Official Languages Act, 1963 and show that neither equali- ty of languages nor equality for citizens on the basis of lan- guages is granted by them. In the succeeding section, I look at the hierarchy that is posited in terms of descending privilege with Hindi, Sanskrit, the scheduled and the non-scheduled languages. The next section argues that English, being out- side the hierarchy that is posited, is treated as an untouchable. The concluding section argues for a relook at the three- language policy.

Constituent Assembly Debates: Forging a Language Policy for the Union

Neither the draft Constitution prepared by the adviser to the Constituent Assembly nor the version settled by the drafting committee contained any provisions relating to official language (Rao 1968). In August 1949, the assembly of the Congress party decided that Hindi with Devanagari script should be the offi- cial language. The special committee consisting of members of the drafting committee as well as Abul Kalam Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant, Purushottam Das Tandon, Bal Krishna Sharma Naveen, Syama Prasad Mukherjee, and K Santhanam was con- stituted to draft an appropriate provision. The special commit- tee suggested that English would be the only official language for 10 years and that it could be extended for another five years if both houses of Parliament decided by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting. The committee also sug- gested the adoption of international numerals. These sugges- tions were not accepted by the party.

Towards the end of August 1949, Munshi and Gopalaswami Ayyangar prepared detailed draft compromise provisions for inclusion in the draft Constitution. The Munshi–Ayyangar draft again came up before the Congress party on 2 September. After a heated discussion votes were taken on the issue whether or nor the draft should be moved in the Constituent Assembly as an official proposal on behalf of the drafting committee. It was finally decided that the question would not be decided on a party basis; that the Munshi–Ayyangar draft would be moved by Ambedkar, Munshi, and Ayyangar in their personal capacities; and members would be free to move amendments and vote as they pleased in the assembly.

 A look at the discussion in the Constituent Assembly regarding language makes it clear that the multilingual situation that was staring at the members was seen as incompatible with Indian unity. Agnihotri (2015), in an insightful study of the Constituent Assembly debates, says that decisions about language were taken in the interest of the country even though they were often the result of consensual democracy and the domination of the elite majority and that the multilingual and multicultural ethos were largely ignored. While there was extensive focus on political safeguards available to religious and backward minorities, the rights of linguistic minorities were largely compromised.

 In fact, there were attempts to insert provisions that safe- guarded the rights of the minorities. One such amendment was moved by Z H Lari, a Muslim member from United Prov- inces, on 8 December 1948. The amendment was to insert among the fundamental rights a clause that protects the rights of the minorities to have education imparted in their language. It read as follows:3

Any minority residing in the territory of India or any part there- of having a distinct language and script shall be entitled to have primary education imparted to its children through the medium of that language and script in case of substantial number of such stu- dents being available. (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol VII: 903).

 Lari’s proposal was rejected saying that universal primary education is among one of the directive principles, and if the amendment is accepted then the minorities would be given a right (that is, right to primary education), which is not guaranteed to the other sections of the society. Moreover, anyone would be able to go to the Supreme Court and enforce such a right, which, according to him, was not practicable. B R Ambedkar, while agreeing to the proposition that primary education should be in the mother tongue as a “universally accepted proposition” that is reasonable, rejected the amendment on practical considerations such as the difficulty to fix what is a “reasonable number.”4

In fact, many sane voices in the assembly did voice the opinion that an issue as important as language is better left for posterity to decide upon. For instance, P T Chacko (United State of Travancore and Cochin) on 12 September 1949, said:

After having seen a sort of fanaticism in action in the matter of a comparatively smaller question of the numerals and after having heard a section of the people of this House speak as if all that mattered in life was the Devanagari system of numerals, I feel that it would be better for us to leave the decision on this question to soberer men. We can hope that our posterity will be more tolerant and wiser and hence they may be able to find an agreed solution for this problem. Our intolerance has already divided India. Let it not divide it again. Instead of imposing a language on posterity I believe it will be better for us if we leave this problem to be decided by posterity themselves. (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol IX: 1397–98)

But that was not to be. The victory of Hindi was achieved not without collaboration from the non-Hindi-speaking states. The opinion expressed by Lakshminarayanan Sahu (Odisha) on 13 September 1949 in the Constituent Assembly epitomises this:

some people are so much enamoured of English that they think they would lose their very existence if English is not used as the official language. It is like a drunkard saying that he would die if there is prohibition and he is not allowed to drink. If a few people die as a result of the replacement of English, what is the harm? We have to move forward in the interests of the whole nation and the country, and if a few people are inconvenienced they should put up with it. (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol IX: 1371–72)

Equality Neither on the Basis of Language Nor for Languages

While the Constitution pledges equality before law and equal protection of law to everyone vide Article 14, it does not do so with respect to languages. For instance, neither Article 15(1), which prohibits discrimination against citizens on various grounds as “religion, race, caste, sex, [or] place of birth,” nor Article 16(2), which prohibits the state from discriminating against any citizen on grounds of “religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, [or] residence” with respect to public employment, mentions “language” as one of the parameters on the basis of which a citizen shall not be discriminated.

In fact, the Government of India Act, 1935, which is considered to be the precursor of the Constitution, refers to language in

Section 111 (Part V, Chapter III) as one of the parameters on the basis of which a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom (UK) (and not the native) shall not be discriminated. Thus, it states that a British subject domiciled in the UK is exempt from the operation of any federal or provincial law that has a reference to place of birth, race, descent, language, religion, domicile, residence or duration of residence, among others. If we think that the predominant monolingual character of England makes such a rule possible, we have an example of a multilingual context—the European Union (EU). Article 21, the non-discrimination clause in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU:5

Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.

Even though the members of the drafting committee and the Constituent Assembly were very much cognisant of the multicultural and multilingual ethos of the country and were extremely sensitive to the hard reality of discrimination that people were subjected to, it is obvious they held the view that it was not possible to give equal treatment to languages. In fact, we see more or less unanimity in the Constituent Assembly that, if India is to survive as a nation, it should have one language. This is but a sanitised version of the thought that a nation should have a national language—the only difference being that the latter is couched in an identity-centric vocabulary while the former has the ring of functional exigency to it. As Austin (1966) put it, “official language of the Union” was a tactful euphemism for “national language.” 6

Just as there is no promise of non-discrimination in terms of language for the citizen, the languages spoken in the union are also not treated on an equal footing either in the constitutional scheme or the language policy spelt out in the Official Languages Act, 1963. The provisions for language are spelt out in Part XVII of the Constitution dealing with official language has four chapters: official language, regional languages, language of the Supreme Court and high court, and Special Directives. Apart from this, the Constitution also has the Eighth Schedule, which can be understood to be the “list of languages of India” if one goes by the way it is referred to in Article 351. Thus, we see that there are official languages at two levels—at the level of the union government and at the level of the state government. As the Constitution allows them to be distinct, a language that enjoys “official” status at the state may not have any special recognition at the level of the union.

There is no doubt that the vociferous attempts to forge a national linguistic identity were successfully stalled as can be seen in the discussion of the question of national language in the Constituent Assembly debates. However, the compromise formula of cloaking Hindi as the official language of the union (Article 343 of the Constitution) and the three-language formula, which attempted to mandate the acceptance of Hindi as a national lingua franca has only resulted in the creation of an asymmetrical relation between Hindi and the other languages spoken in the region.

In fact, the language policymakers of India seem to have consciously or unconsciously propagated linguistic hegemony by creating the dichotomies of language at various levels as in the case of the union versus language(s) of the state(s) and scheduled versus non-scheduled languages. The history of language struggles and policy formation, thus, seems to be perpetually caught in short-sighted battles that are quite often nothing more than immediate reactions to the hegemony of the dominant that is discursively formed as the enemy of the moment.

In the early debates on language, for instance, it was Hindi versus Hindustani. (Sanskrit and other languages, though figure occasionally, were never serious contenders.) Once Hindi is given official status, a hierarchy is immediately created by acceding to English a position as the ancillary official language (clause (2) of Article 343). The compromise is complete when clause (3) of the said Article empowers the Parliament to provide for the use of Devanagari numerals after the first 15 years. It is a kind of poetic justice that the power to provide for the use of Devanagari has not been used, while the power to extend the use of English beyond the first 15 years has been used as evidenced by the Official Languages Act, 1963.

If at the national level, it is the tussle between English and Hindi, at the regional level, the asymmetry between the scheduled and non-scheduled languages is leading not only to loss of cultural diversity, but is also leading to the hegemony of the regional elite. If the attempt to create a linguistically homogeneous people has not succeeded at the macro level of the nation, it seems to have had considerable success at the micro level of the region thanks to the linguistic reorganisation of the states.

The possibility for adding more languages to the repertoire of official (that is, recognised) languages is open only at the level of the states and not at the level of the union. Thus, Article 347 provides for the President to direct a state to recognise a language either for the entire state or for any part thereof if a substantial proportion of the population so desire.

The language policy spelt out in the Official Languages Act, 1963 states:

(a) that compulsory knowledge of either Hindi or English shall be required at the state of selection of candidates for recruitment to the Union services or posts except in respect of any services or posts for which a high standard of knowledge of English alone or Hindi alone, or both as the case may be is considered essential for the satisfactory performance of the duties of any such service or post; and (b) that all the languages included in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution and English shall be permitted as alternative media for the All India and higher Central Services examinations after ascertaining the views of the Union Public Service Commission on the future scheme of the examinations, the procedural aspects and the timing.

Brass (2009) says: “Every choice regarding a single or multiple languages for official and/or educational purposes has consequences for the equalisation or not of life chances, and for the empowerment or disempowerment of speakers of different languages.” It is very clear that the official language policy privileges two kinds of citizens: those who have knowledge of Hindi or English and the scheduled languages. Since Hindi is also a scheduled language, speakers of Hindi can get away with knowledge of no other language, while speakers of other scheduled languages need to gain knowledge of English or Hindi. Speakers of non-scheduled languages would be doubly burdened, as apart from Hindi or English, they would also be forced to acquire proficiency in the dominant language of the state (that is, in the states where Hindi is not the language of the state).

The centripetal force that drove the official language policy of the union towards Hindi can be contrasted with a parallel (albeit different) situation in that of the EU. The EU has 24 official languages, with only four of them spoken by more than 10% of the population and 15 of them by less than 2% of the population. The basic strands of the language policy of the EU are set out as:

underlining the major role that languages and multilingualism play in the European economy, and finding ways to develop this further encouraging all citizens to learn and speak more languages, in order to improve mutual understanding and communication ensuring that citizens have access to EU legislation, procedures and information in their own language.

In the Indian scenario, there can be no scope for meaningful multilingualism unless the various languages spoken in the union are accorded equal status. That is to say, given the hierarchy that is constructed, there is no pressure or motivation for the speaker of a language that occupies a higher rung in the ladder to learn the language that occupies a lower rung. And this is precisely why the three-language policy, in spite of its noble aim at the heart, could not attain the intended objective, as we shall discuss later. However, before we go into that, let us unpack the hierarchy spelt out in Article 351 of the Constitution.

Article 351 and the Chaturvarna System of Languages

The most unequivocal statement about the hierarchy of languages is expressed in Article 351 of the Constitution. It is worthwhile to quote the entire Article:

351. Directive for development of the Hindi language—It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.

The language used is unambiguous and clear. It was indeed a belief of the makers of the Constitution that Hindi would develop as “a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India.” While the idea of a composite culture that can be expressed through Hindi is in itself highly debatable, what is even more peculiar is the three sources that are supposed to enrich Hindi.

It is clear that Hindi is the language that is supposed to rule. Sanskrit is given primacy when it comes to providing the vocabulary. When it comes to forms, style and expression, Hindustani and other languages in the Eighth Schedule are supposed to play a role. It is not clear whether the reference to “other languages” pertains only to the scheduled languages or the non-scheduled languages as well. However, English is conspicuous by its absence. Thus, we can say that Article 351 is nothing but the blueprint of a linguistic chaturvarna system,

which apportions specific roles to specific languages: Hindi, the language that should rule; Sanskrit, the chief source; and the scheduled languages, the secondary sources. The nonscheduled languages find no place in the scheme. 7 Neither

does English the invisible, the “untouchable.”

It is quite often touted as an accepted fact that Hindi is spoken by 41% of the people in India. Narratives contrary to this majoritarian story talk about how the census data is manipulated to make this artificial arithmetic. Abbi (2009) quotes the 1991 Census data, where 48 different languages and mother tongues that are together clubbed under Hindi. 8 A question that needs to be addressed is about the fate of the “vernaculars” like Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, Kumauni, Pahari, Sadri, and many others that surrender to the hegemony of Hindi. 9

The following spat between Purushottam Das Tandon (a Hindi hardliner) and Maulana Hasrat Mohani in the Constituent Assembly on 12 September 1949 is illustrative of the attempt to construct the narrative of a Hindi majority:

Tandon: Give us room enough to expand and then after 15 years all the work that matters, for example the work of the Union, will become easier of accomplishment because Hindi provinces by that time will have created that atmosphere built up, that terminology which will be helpful to the whole country.

Maulana Hasrat Mohani: What do you mean by ‘‘Hindi Provinces’’? Tandon: I am referring to those provinces which have adopted Hindi as their language; for example, the United Province has formally adopted Hindi as its language; so has Bihar …

Maulana Hasrat Mohani: The United Province is either an Urdu province or Hindustani province. It can’t be a Hindi speaking province. Tandon: That may be your view. I do not propose to go into that controversy about Hindi, Hindustani, or Urdu. (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol IX: 1447–48)

The controversy about the identity of Urdu/Hindi and the script is too well known to recount here. 10 King (1994) discusses the enthusiasm exhibited by J C Nesfield, the director of Public Instruction for Oudh who included Kaithi in the school curriculum for the lowest classes in 1875:

In Oudh, he cleared, no one used the Nagari script for either public or private business. Even Brahmans did not use Nagari for business matters, but only for copying out Sanskrit manuscripts … Though government schools in Oudh taught Nagari, in Nesfield’s opinion, they were wasting their time, for the students abandoned the script as soon as they left school.

King goes on to speculate:

Religious and social considerations may well have influenced the attitudes of the [Nagari Pracharini] Sabha and other Indian promoters of Nagari: while Kaithi and other cursive scripts had strong associations with business and trading classes, Nagari had strong links with Brahmans and the sacred Sanskrit literature of Hinduism. Moreover, one piece of evidence suggests that Kaithi had some sort of association with Hindustani (Urdu). Nesfield wrote in 1876 that “no such association [like that of Nagari] exists between Kaithi and Sanskrit. On the contrary, there is counter association already established between the Kaithi character and the Hindustani vocabulary ...” Thus, Kaithi may not have been suddh [pure] enough for suddh [here, highly Sanskritised] Hindi in the eyes of Nagari’s partisans.

Rai (2000) mentions Vedalankar as citing an 1852 report on indigenous education and vernacular schools in the Northwestern provinces (NWP) to the effect that in all but a few districts, people using Devanagari were outnumbered by those using the Kaithi and Mahajani variants of the Nagari. Thus, she

extracts the following figures for the numbers of primers used in 1,854: Devanagari: 25,151; Kaithi: 77,368; Mahajani: 24,302.

Thus, it is clear that a language was constructed with a script carefully chosen to set it apart from the heritage that it shared with the Islamic past. 11 By positing it as the official

language, Hindi is elevated from among the languages listed in the Eighth Schedule. Apart from this, Hindi is also the official language of nine states, including states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh which can hardly be said to be Hindi-speaking. As per Pattanayak (2013), only 3.7% of the people of Jharkhand communicate in Hindi. 12

The listing of languages in the Eighth Schedule, according to Agnihotri (2015),

… was but another stroke of “raw genius”; it was an open list, more could be added to it. The inclusion, on the one hand, would cost almost nothing to the state in financial or administrative terms, but would lend a distinct aura to the language to be included, on the other hand.

A Special Status

The original list of languages in the schedule that was presented to the Constituent Assembly had only 13 languages. On 12 September 1949, P Subbarayan moved that English be the 14th language in the schedule. Subbarayan said that he was doing this to give recognition to the language of the Anglo–Indian community in India. He was obviously also attracted by the argument put forward by Frank Anthony (Central Provinces and Berar) that English (being his mother tongue) is an Indian language. He also accepts Laxmi Kant Maitra’s amendment of adding Sanskrit as the 15th language of the schedule. 13 We all know that English

never got into the schedule, but Sanskrit did. And not only did it get into the schedule, but next to Hindi, it enjoys a special status by having been recognised as the primary source of vocabulary for the development of Hindi in Article 351.

It is an irony of sorts that two of the scheduled languages—one with the largest share among the mother tongues and the other with hardly any mother tongue speakers—enjoy this special status. 14 However, it is not just these two scheduled languages

that are privileged. A privilege of a lesser sort is enjoyed even by the other scheduled languages as they can be “alternative media for the All India and Higher Central Services Examinations” as per the Official Languages Act. 15 It is the non-scheduled languages

that have none of these privileges. Many of the minor languages belonging to the Austro–Asiatic and Tibeto–Burman families got completely neglected due to the emphasis on the major languages like Hindi, English, and Sanskrit. According to Agnihotri (2015),

Millions of children who speak these languages such as Angami, Santhali, Ao, Saura or Bodo are forced to study through languages that are completely unknown to them and when they cannot understand the content of science or social sciences because of linguistic difficulty, they are dubbed as dull and incompetent.

Paradoxically, the formation of the linguistic states has only helped consolidate the dominant regional languages. The nonscheduled languages and the linguistic minorities have not been the beneficiaries of the state reorganisation. Abbi (2009) talks about submerging identities at the state level caused by the dominant regional languages (that is the official languages

of the state). She says speakers of a language in the absence of their language being recognised for education purposes, try to identify themselves with the dominant regional language speakers and at best retain their respective tongues only in the home domain. What is more alarming is that in many instances children are discouraged and at time punished for using their mother tongues even at home. According to Abbi, “[t]he sense of pride in associating with the dominant regional language is considered as a step towards merging with the mainstream.”

Nag (2011), in an insightful essay, argues that the States Reorganisation Commission has never followed the principle of linguistic reorganisation as it never considered the linguistic diversity and the claims of the various language communities in the North East. In fact, the North East seems to have hardly figured in the discussions even in the Constituent Assembly.

In spite of the total neglect of the non-scheduled languages there is one way in which their fate is different from English. A non-scheduled language can aspire to be included in the schedule provided it fulfils the criteria laid down. 16 However, English has

attained the true status of “untouchable” as virtually no group would raise a demand for its inclusion in the schedule as it already enjoys the privileges of the scheduled languages. All the same, no one raises pitch for its promotion in spite of the fact that everyone acknowledges its importance, and it continues to be a fact that large sections of the society are denied access to resources and upward mobility due to their lack of English knowledge. It is this status of English that I look into in the next section.

The ‘Untouchable’ English

Our policy towards English is ambivalent to the core. On the one hand, English is the invisible language to the framers of the Constitution except the allowance that it can continue to be used for all the purposes that it was used prior to the transfer of power (apart from the express provision to use it in the superior courts). On the other, it is not spelt out what the policy towards it should be in terms of promoting or not promoting it in education. While officially, English is treated as an invisible or untouchable language, it continues to dominate the public sphere and having no access to good English is often the determinants of social mobility, wherefore the underprivileged find it impossible to catch up as the state has no obligation to provide education in English for them. The following extract from Nehru’s speech in the Constituent Assembly on 12 September 1949 epitomises the ambivalence towards English that still continues to guide our language policy:

We took to English obviously because it was the conqueror’s language, not so much because at that time it was such an important language, although it was very important even then, we took to it simply because we were dominated by the British her, and it opened the doors and windows of foreign thought, foreign science, etc, and we learnt much by it. And let us be grateful to the English language for what it has taught us. But at the same time, it created a great gulf between us who knew English and those who did not know English and that was fatal for the progress of a nation. That is a thing which certainly we cannot possibly tolerate today. Hence this problem.

However good, however important, English may be, we cannot tolerate that there should be an English-knowing elite and a large mass of our people not knowing English. Therefore, we must have our own

language. But English—whether you call it official or whatever you please, it does not matter whether you mention it in the legislation or not—but English must continue to be a most important language in India which large numbers of people learn and perhaps learn compulsorily. Why? Well, English today is far more important in the world than it was when the British came here. It is undoubtedly today the nearest approach to an international language. It is not the international language certainly but it is the biggest and the most widespread language in the world today, and if we want to have contacts with the world as we must, then how are we to have those contacts unless we know foreign languages? (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol IX: 1415–16)

We see that Nehru, on the one hand, recognises the importance of English and the gulf that has been created between the English-knowing elite and other. He also concedes that it must continue to be “a most important language in India which large numbers of people learn … compulsorily.” On the other hand, the suggested way to bridge the gap is not to equip everyone with English, but to strengthen “our own language.” Note that Nehru uses the singular language and does not refer to the multilingual situation. What is envisaged is that a single Indian language would be raised to serve the purpose of English. And if the votaries of Hindi were to have their way, Hindi was to be that language.

However, after more than 65 years of existence as a union, there is hardly any group that clamours for the use of Hindi across the length and breadth of India. In spite of the threelanguage policy and Bollywood, Hindi has made little inroads into the Southern and the north-eastern parts of India. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of Hindi would not maintain a realistic dream of Hindi replacing English in all the spheres of the union. While scientific, technical, and higher education is dominated by English, Hindi serves as the lingua franca between the states in the North, and English continues to be the lingua franca in the South and the North East. While the union government is directed to develop Hindi (qua Article 351), there is neither a directive nor an official policy with respect to the development or promotion of English. On the contrary, any attempt to promote English would be met with disdain and accusations of perpetuating Macaulay’s legacy. The report of the National Knowledge Commission (2009) recognises that

[t]here is an irony in the situation. English has been part of our education system for more than a century. Yet, English is beyond the reach of most of our young people, which makes for highly unequal access.

Dalit/Bahujan thinkers like Chandrabhan Prasad and Kancha Ilaiah talk about the need to use English to empower Dalits and the marginalised sections. If not, we will on the one hand moan about the English-knowing elite and a large mass of our people not knowing English, yet, at the same time, be happy with the status quo of the English-knowing elite dominating all spheres of life.

Busting the common myth of the education in vernacular being socially empowering, Dash (2009) argues, “whether education is in English or in the vernacular, it cultivates elitism and elitism in India has caste as one of its major constituents.” 17 That being the case, having “our own language” (following the Nehruvian line of argument) is no guarantee to social justice and equality. As Orsini (1995) rightly puts it: “Hindi cannot be considered a ‘popular national language’ versus the ‘elite national language’ English. Rather, they represent two different elites.” We turn to the three-language policy in the next section.

The Need to Overhaul the Three-language Policy

Agnihotri (2015) argues that

the multilingual repertoire of a speech community constitutes a marker of its identity and its callous and sustained dilution can only result in immense individual, social, linguistic and cultural loss. Research today has extensively demonstrated the advantages of treating multilinguality as a resource as it correlates strongly with cognitive flexibility, scholastic achievement, metalinguistic awareness, language proficiency, and social tolerance.

Thus, what is needed is to reopen the issue of language. Not to carve out newer states, but to face the hard facts and shape our reality. If Lord Macaulay advocated English, it was for its “intrinsic” value to produce a set of people who are English in taste. And when we try to resist English even today by not having an overt policy of promoting it, the worry seems to be that we would be acquiescing to its claims about such intrinsic merit by promoting it.

What we have failed to recognise is the functional value that English has acquired over the last many decades. And it is precisely due to this reason that the marginalised and deprived sections of the society are clamouring for English today as witnessed by the temple for English goddess in the Banka village in Uttar Pradesh. In order to attain a casteless society, it is essential that we enable the citizens to wield a language that has no memory of caste (to borrow a phrase from Kothari 2013).

We need to overhaul the language policy in education in such a way that all children have access to primary education in their mother tongue (and not in the dominant language of the state). The three-language policy can only be seen as an unsuccessful attempt with a reductionist view of the organisation of the society as existing at the regional, national, and international level. 18 Much has been written about the failure of the three-language policy. Abbi (2009) says that the three-language policy does not take into consideration the non-dominant minor languages of the region, and therefore advocates a four-language policy. In Hindi states: Hindi, English, dominant regional language (= minor language), and one language from the south of India; and for non-Hindi states: Hindi, English, dominant regional language, and a minor language of the region.

As Chomsky argues, learning a language is 90% about having the motivation (Robichaud 2014). Given the hierarchy of the power dynamics of languages, it is evident that a speaker of a dominant regional language will not have enough motivation to learn the non-dominant language if there are no benefits that accrue from such an exercise, just as a person from the Hindi-speaking region would have no motivation to learn a South Indian language.

Therefore, what we need to move towards is a two-language policy. You learn your own language, and a dominant language that everyone else in the union learns. And if Hindi is unable to fit the bill, then we need to find another language that opens for us a window not just to other Indians but to the world at large. 19 What is called for is not definitely different languages

to negotiate with the world at different levels, but a language that allows the unhindered development of the individual and a language that allows one to build networks with wider circles elsewhere. The need is to have a language policy that enables individuals to network with each other. What we need to realise is the importance of recognising and giving due merit to the reality at the micro level and the need to have enabling provisions that facilitate such networking. Each individual should have the opportunity to fully blossom in the mother tongue in order to attain the former objective.

In fact, one sees the recognition of such a policy in Ambedkar’s thought. In a proposal that might sound irrational, Ambedkar argued against the use of the regional language of the state as the official language. “The official language of the State shall be Hindi and until India becomes fit for this purpose English.” It is obvious that it is the guiding spirit of the Constitution that influenced Ambedkar when he evinced so much faith in Hindi developing in such a way that it is used by all states in India. We should remember that Ambedkar wrote these words in 1955 and Hindi was to replace English all over the union in another 10 years if things went as per the plan laid out in the Constitution. From our vantage point in history, we know that that was not to be. The Official Languages Act was enacted in 1963, which perpetuated the use of English beyond the initial 15 years envisaged by the Constitution. Therefore, if English were used as a stopgap language for official purposes, we would have seen it continuing beyond the initial period. An adventurous thought for anyone who dares. 

Updated On : 23rd Apr, 2021
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