Bihar: As Indigenous Languages Get a Raw Deal, Mother Tongue Education Project Fails

Although the Bihar government has ambitiously announced to make learning possible in Maithili, Magahi and Bhojpuri languages, the plan has come a cropper due to no clear workable roadmap. 

The issue of language has been a matter of contestation in post-Independent India and is deeply rooted in questions of cultural identity and survival.

The controversy over language goes all the way back to the Constituent Assembly. It vigorously debated the possible official language for the country but eventually imposed Hindi as the official language for the purpose of national assimilation and integration instead of recognising multiple sub-nationalities within the nation. It was also decided that the use of the English language would be continued for 15 years, and the parliament could decide whether to continue with English after 15 years.

Despite their early reservations, states agreed to this arrangement as they could choose their own official language within their territory. Most of the states used their dominant regional language for administrative and educational purpose, and English was used as the link language between the states and the Union government.

Also read: Language Policy: Education in English Must Not Be the Prerogative of Only the Elites

However, as the constitutional issue of phasing out of English came in 1965, the controversy over language resurfaced once again as the non-Hindi speaking states started agitating against the imposition of Hindi. One of the consequences of the entire debate over the language in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in:

(i) the continued use of English indefinitely under the Official Language Act, 1963; and

(ii) the idea of implementing the three-language formula in education, reinforced by the first Education Commission (1964-66).

Formally adopted in 1968 by the ministry of education as per the National Education Policy 1968, the three-language formula was touted as a panacea for the complexities associated with the linguistic diversity of India. It required that the whole country learn Hindi and English. The third language in the case of Hindi-speaking states should preferably be a South Indian language, and in the non-Hindi speaking states, a regional language. The purported idea was to accommodate group identity, promote multilingualism and national unity.

However, in reality, it was a political objective that sought to make non-Hindi speaking students learn Hindi; and to balance it out, students in Hindi speaking areas were required to learn a third language, preferably a South Indian language.

The three-language formula was more honoured in the breach than the observance. The states preferred to impart education in the dominant regional language (including Hindi) and continued English as a compulsory subject in the schools, which put students from indigenous linguistic backgrounds at a considerable disadvantage. One of the fallouts was the high dropout rate of the students from these communities since the language in which they were taught was alien to them. With time, the consensus grew among policymakers that the children should be taught in their mother tongue as they learn and grasp better in their mother tongue.

Grand promise and poor implementation 

To give effect to this understanding, one of the significant reforms sought to be brought in by the National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP 2020) is that the medium of instruction for the education of students in primary schools should be in their mother tongue. Pursuant to this policy, the education minister of Bihar Vijay Kumar Chaudhary announced that the indigenous languages of Bihar such as Maithili, Magahi and Bhojpuri would be the medium of instruction in elementary schools of Bihar. With this objective in mind, Rs 38,035 crore has been earmarked for the education sector for the financial year 2021-22, an 8% increase from the previous fiscal year.

However, even three months after the announcement, the details regarding the implementation are conspicuous by its absence. The absence of a clear workable road map fuels uncertainty and questions are asked of the Bihar government.

Also read: Why Children Should Learn in Their Mother Tongue

First, of the money allocated to the education sector in the budget, what percentage of money is allocated to ensure that the kids are taught in their mother tongue in elementary school?

Second, there could be multiple mother tongues in a classroom, and neither the announcement nor the NEP 2020 is clear on how the students would be taught in such a scenario.

Middle-aged children learning in a classroom. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Photo: PTI.

Third, there is a major challenge of the lack of textbooks in the regional languages of Bihar, and the task further requires extensive training of teachers in such regional languages. So far, no progress has been made in this regard.

Fourth, there is a lack of a systematic plan for higher studies for the indigenous languages. In such a situation, how is the government going to produce materials, train teachers, formulate pedagogy and frame standards for evaluation for the elementary school in the indigenous languages?

The fundamental limitation with NEP 2020 is that it does not envisage the marginalised and underprivileged languages to become ‘proper’ languages as the medium of instruction and transmitters of the knowledge system at the higher levels, not even as a vision. They could be taught as bridge languages in elementary schools, after which students must be prepared to learn their subjects in socio-economically empowered languages (‘target language’) such as Hindi or English. Such patronising treatment is an affront to a language and its people as it insinuates that their language is good enough only for primary schools.

The use of indigenous languages as a bridge language perpetuates the socially constructed hierarchy of the languages and should be replaced with an inclusive multi-lingual model where the indigenous languages could co-exist with the target language right up to the highest level. This could only happen when the indigenous languages are going to become a subject in itself for the purpose of acquiring knowledge about them rather than serving as a formal learning tool in elementary schools.

What is the rationale for the three-language formula? 

It is also not clear whether the Bihar government is going to implement the three-language formula as envisaged by NEP 2020. The NEP 2020 gives fluidity to the three-language formula, and the only requirement now is that of the three languages taught by the state, the two languages should be native to India. While this spirit of federalism should be appreciated but the question is why to continue with the three-language formula in the first place. Why, on earth, should children be ‘immersed’ in three languages? What is the instrumental reason for learning a language other than the language spoken by the local community? For kids, learning a second or third language becomes especially difficult where the second or third language is not a part of their social surroundings. The NEP 2020 shoves down the throat a cognitive burden on young learners to learn three languages at a very foundational stage. There is no underlying philosophy that gives sanctity to the three-language formula, and therefore, we must question the purpose the three-language formula serves and the worth of such formula/compromise.

In such a situation, the two-language policy as it exists in Tamil Nadu could be used effectively in Bihar. In other words, students should be required to learn only two languages: their mother tongue and English. In the absence of their language being recognised for education purposes, the speakers of a marginalised language try to identify themselves with the dominant regional language such as Hindi.

For a long time, Biharis have sacrificed their regional languages for Hindi to merge themselves as part of the mainstream Hindi belt. For instance, Maithili has lost its own script to Devanagari for the sake of national integration and for the cause of Hindi. Moreover, as a kid, I had difficulty talking to my grandmother because I didn’t get to learn Maithili. I had to learn Hindi not because it is part of my immediate environment and defines my identity but because my own language has been stigmatised and disempowered.

The other language should be English because Hindi has not taken Biharis any far. English is a language of power, social mobility, and economic upliftment in as much as it opens the doors for jobs in private sectors and multi-national companies. It becomes all the more important to learn English because the Indian government is keen to privatise all its undertakings which would eventually demand an English-speaking workforce. To catch up with English-speaking elites in this globalised India, Biharis need to learn English right from the elementary school.

All the brouhaha has been made for education to be in the mother tongue, but nothing much has been done in that field except grand announcements and grand visions. Language has played a crucial role in forging sub-national identities. The recent announcement by the government of Bihar provides a unique opportunity for the Biharis to assert their sub-national identity and claim rights over their indigenous languages from the government.

Mayank Labh graduated from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.