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This is an excerpt from Akshya Saxena’s book, Vernacular English: Reading the Anglophone in Postcolonial India. Reproduced with permission from Princeton University Press.
Over the course of the 2010s, two English speakers have transformed the political landscape of India. In turn, they have also transformed the meanings of the English language. These figures are Narendra Modi and Rohith Vemula.
Modi epitomizes the hustle and humiliation of many English neoliterates in India. As a tentative speaker of English, he draws on it as a symbol to entrench a neoliberal and Hindu nationalist conservatism. Vemula, on the other hand, turned to English as the language of scientific rationalism to challenge the centuries-old practice of caste in India. In his English language suicide note, which has become the symbol of anticaste struggle today, he saw English as the language of Dalit leaders like B. R. Ambedkar and not of British colonialism.
For both Modi and Vemula, English is the language of aspiration, global affiliation, and the future. Steeped in the asymmetries it offers to erase, English holds the promise of democracy, parity, and equality. In the name of these political aspirations, Modi turns to English to uphold a neoliberal and casteist Hindu Indian state, whereas Vemula used English precisely to resist this vision.
Modi has cultivated a larger-than-life image by presenting himself as an everyman. Equivocating about his low caste identity, Modi has claimed that he belongs to “the caste of the poor” and never ceases to remind his audience that he used to be a tea vendor in the early years of his life. Modi’s humble-origin narrative is distinctly lower class, local, and divorced from the elitism of English as well as upper-caste culture. It is a welcome contrast to his political opponents and upper-class pedigreed predecessors, all of whom have been fluent in English.
While Modi gives inflammatory public speeches in Hindi and Gujarati to rally Hindus against Muslims, his poor English language skills have been mocked. He has been farcically “challenged” to speak in English by his political rivals. On his visit to India in 2020, even Donald Trump teased Modi by saying to the press that “his English is actually very good, you don’t wanna hear about it!” Modi’s rise to the prime ministerial position has represented to his supporters the victory of many things: the victory of Hindu nationalism, of exclusionary economic policies, and of the economically marginalized underdog.
In the international arena, Modi falsely naturalizes Hindi as India’s national language, boosts his Hindu nationalist stance, and intensifies his brazen attempt to alienate non-Hindi speakers within India. He has addressed the United Nations in Hindi. He converses in Hindi with world leaders and audiences in non-Hindi-speaking parts of India. Modi’s proud embrace of Hindi only further emboldens other Hindi-speaking and Hindu resident and diasporic Indians. The equation is almost mathematical—Hindu nationalism=Hindi. But in the figure of Modi, it has constellated seductive associations with Hindu virility, economic development, and social mobility as well.
Still, even (especially?) Modi cannot resist the allure of English, and he regularly appeals to its symbolic power. As he uses it, English is both the ally and the foe of Hindu nationalism. For instance, in an address to the Indian Parliament, Modi used English and Sanskrit to proclaim what he and his party saw as the essence of India. In an aggressive vocal performance, Modi repeated the English phrase “idea of India” like a chant, and followed it with Sanskrit verses and Hindi aphorisms that translated to “victory of truth,” “the world is a family,” “god lives in a plant,” et cetera.
By glossing the idea of India in Sanskrit without translation he created the parliament as an upper-caste Hindu space where everyone understood Hindi and Sanskrit, and welcomed English into this space. The English phrase called to mind a popular Indian advertisement and sounded like an advertisement itself. His performance left out millions of Indians who knew neither English nor the classical caste-marked language of Sanskrit. Modi’s translation erased India’s linguistic and religious diversity, and yoked English to a Hindu idea of India.
Modi does not often speak in English. In contrast to his aggressive posturing in the parliamentary address through an English phrase, the few times he has spoken at length in English, his speeches have lacked luster. Critics and commentators have pooh-poohed him for sounding self-conscious, slow, and strained.
But he has used English—not as a language to speak in—but as a language to wear, as a symbol to invoke, and as an object to fetishize. In 2015, when Modi wore a pinstripe suit to meet his guest, Barack Obama, the stripes were really his own name embroidered in gold thread in the Roman script across the length of his outfit like a brand name. In his meeting with Obama, Modi maintained his pro-Hindi stance by conversing in Hindi, but he literally wore the English language to make up for its absence and to accrue transnational recognition of his own person. Using an interpreter in his meeting with Obama freed Modi from the burden of speaking in English. Modi’s sartorial choice was criticized by national and international press that saw in it the most indefensible act of a megalomaniac and a “narcissistic parvenu.” Contrary to a world view where the affiliation with English elevates one into the upper echelons of society, Modi found himself to be the laughingstock of the nation. His exhibitionist performance of the English language showed him to be lacking in sophistication. Instead of uplifting him, Modi’s appropriation of English as a brand offered the surest characterization of him as an upstart.
Now seven years in power, Modi has continued to rely on the English language as a brand to make him and his politics seem progressive, popular, and palatable. Over his two terms, Modi has launched a number of campaigns that include: #IndiaSupportsCAA, #SheInspiresUs, Digital India, Make in India, and #selfiewithdaughter. For instance, Modi asked people to use the hashtag #IndiaSupportsCAA to express (only) support for an unconstitutional act that proposed to strip many Muslims of their citizenship. In such initiatives, Modi leverages the symbolic power and sociotechnical effects of English along with the infrastructural power of social media to reach (only those who have access to the Internet). While he favors Hindi as a political gesture, Modi instrumentalizes English for its metonymic association with global capitalist modernity.
On January 17, 2016, when Rohith Vemula died by suicide in the hostel of Hyderabad Central University, he left a suicide note. This note is both an autobiographical life narrative in the English language as well as a witness to its traumatic end. Vemula’s death has sparked a strong wave of anticaste activism in India. The clarity of the note— heartbreaking and inspiring—has become a symbol of that agitation. The note has been excerpted on posters, woven into poems, adapted into plays, and read at protests. In its textual and material afterlife, the English of Vemula’s letter draws attention to the educated Dalit subject.
Vemula presented his life-narrative as a rejection of the casteist bias of the modern Indian state. The letter describes his alienation by calling his birth his “fatal accident.” Vemula’s death reveals the possibility and the limits that the English language signifies for the educated Dalit. Vemula wanted to be a writer like Carl Sagan, but finds himself hopelessly condemned by and to his caste identity. He wished to imagine the human as “a mind” and “a glorious thing made up of star dust” rather than a body regulated by caste practices. Instead, Vemula found that the value of a human being is reduced to the caste he is born in, to what he called “the accident of his birth.” In the arithmetic of democracy, human life is measured in votes and statistics.
The English language appears in the letter as Vemula’s means of accessing a world beyond this one, a realm of what he called “Science, Stars, Nature.” The promise of English is highlighted in the Ambedkarite politics Vemula practiced and the letter that has outlived him and sparked a revolutionary fervor. But perhaps, most important of all, it is evident also in the fact that—inspired by the works of Sagan—he believed he could “travel to the stars.” Vemula’s letter illuminates the role that the English language plays in narratives and experiences of caste. It is an invitation to take seriously the role of English in advancing as well as thwarting a Dalit critique of the casteist state.
The use of English by Modi and Vemula conjures a vernacular English that is belied by and buried under the rather flat narrative of global English. By interrogating the grounds of comparison, this vernacular English uncovers the shame, anxiety, and hope of a language that has long been read only through colonial compulsions as hegemonic and elite.
Modi’s English limns the limits of his pro-Hindi stance and the inadequacy of using only Hindi in the democratic address. In Modi’s suit, English is materialized as an image that even those unlettered in English can understand. The circulation of English as Roman script—its visual character—transforms the language from something to read to something to see. It also imbues English with a different, nonelitist register of power, associated with technological modernity, mass connectivity, and populism. Rohith Vemula’s English, on the other hand, brings to us most forcefully the need to reckon with the role of English in caste struggles and as a site of caste struggle.
Together, these two figures stand in testimony to how different English looks in India today—on Modi’s suit and in Vemula’s crushing note—and to the inadequacy of our conceptual understanding of it as simply a global language.
Akshya Saxena is an assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt University.