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

When English is a pan-Indian language, why should it not be recognised as a national language of India and its teaching expanded by making it the medium of instruction for more subjects in government schools?

Released in the first flush of its stunning election victory, the NDA government’s draft National Education Policy categorically sought to convert our multilingual nation into a Hindi-speaking one. After protests in South India, the draft was ‘revised’ and a three-language policy mooted in which it was said that Hindi would not be imposed on states which did not want to compulsorily teach it. However, the policy envisages that every child should now learn three languages – English, the language of the state in which they are born and also one more language of another state.

The draft policy thus says that children in Hindi-speaking states will have to learn another language from some other linguistic region of India. South Indian states like Tamil Nadu must also teach, apart from English and Tamil, one more language of another state. This language could be from South India – i.e. Malayalam, Kannada or Telugu – or Bengali, Assamese, Odia or even Hindi or Urdu.

Bhartiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders are worried that their own ministers from South India are perhaps not so comfortable speaking Hindi. One could see that from the recent oath-taking ceremony. Nirmala Sitharaman and Sadananda Gowda took their oaths in English. That the BJP would come up with a plan to impose Hindi on all states is hardly a surprise. But this policy hit a roadblock and hence the NDA government has chosen to take temporary refuge in the ‘three language formula’.

At the same time, one point is worth noting: This may be the first time the BJP’s education policy endorses the idea that English should be taught across the country in all government schools. Of course, the plan envisages that government schools treat English as just another subject while the medium of instruction will be the language of each state.

In private schools – where the children of the ‘Khan Market gang’ study – the Congress-era educational policy allowed these schools to teach foreign languages. Now, since two Indian languages must be taught, children there may not have the linguistic bandwidth or time to absorb French or German. However, the medium of instruction in private schools will be English while the one constant in the government’s language policy from UPA to NDA is this: the mandi-bazaar schools, where the masses study, must teach their students only in Hindi or in other regional languages.

Also read: Glimmers of Hope and Reform in the National Education Policy Draft

While this government now recognises that English is a leading language that needs to be taught to every child in school, it will be fully taught – with better quality – only in private, English-medium schools. In government schools, English will be taught as only one of the language subjects.

The BJP has, nevertheless, taken a progressive step: It is not only allowing but mandating English to be taught in all Indian schools. This is certainly better than Rammanohar Lohia’s mischievous socialist all-Hindi or Indian-language policy. According to Lohia’s socialism, the poor should get stuck in the regional language medium while the children of those with means study in good English-medium schools.

The Communists, wherever they ruled in India, implemented this policy with greater sub-national sentiment. The best example is Tripura, a state with a population of around 40 lakh. Comrade Manik Sarkar, who speaks fluent English, allowed private English-medium schools for the rich – who could then manage jobs for themselves all over India and the world – while government schools teach the masses in Bengali- or Kokborok-medium, so that they could become slightly better-paid wage earners within the 40 lakh non-industrial, semi-tribal economy. This happened during his 25-year rule. Since no tribal man or woman in Tripura could speak good English and talk about Marx and Lenin, no tribal could become a Politburo member despite being 34% of the state’s population.

Similarly in West Bengal, the same system of starving the working masses of English education existed for 34 years. The Bhadralok comrades allowed private English-medium school education because they have money to pay the high fees. But rural Bengal was pushed backwards when Bengali was imposed as the medium of instruction with only one English subject to be taught. From Bengal as well, where SC/ST/OBCs account for 65% of the state’s population, you would be hard pressed to find one Politburo member because they have been deprived of any exposure to English.

Only 11.6% cited “English as a medium of learning” as a reason for studying in private schools. Credit: Reuters

The St. Stephen’s-educated Rahul Gandhi, even after becoming president of the Congress party, did not promise a uniform medium of instruction in private and government schools in his election manifesto. This could be because the present model of English medium in the private sector and regional language in the government sector is a legacy of Nehruvian policy.

Let us not forget that all secular, liberal communist intellectuals were fully content with this two language policy. That is why ‘Khan Market’ and ‘mandi-bazar’ are worlds apart. Now the BJP has, more or less, agreed with the same policy with one change – the foreign languages being taught in the biggest private schools will likely be scrapped because of the requirement that they teach one other regional Indian language.

Earlier we had the Nehruvian education policy where the Khan Market gang studied in English medium schools and the mandi-bazar masses studied in Hindi- or regional language-medium schools. Now we will have a ‘Bharatiya’ education policy where the children of Smriti Irani and her arch enemy Priyanka Gandhi  study in the same ‘Khan Market’ college while all the mandi-bazar children study in some Hindi medium college to become chowkidars and chaiwalas because they never had the chance to learn English properly in school.

Also read: Why Children Should Learn in Their Mother Tongue

When English is a pan-Indian language, why should it not be recognised as a national language of India and its teaching expanded by making it the medium of instruction for more subjects in government schools? We must realise that English has already become the mother tongue of airborne Indians. The regional languages are the rice field worker’s mother tongue. The Sangh Parivar contributes the highest number of airborne Indians now. All their children are in English-medium private schools.

In such a situation, why not adopt a two language policy – English and one regional language? And teach it more rigorously to all children in the tribal areas? Why not make all private schools also teach two languages equally – English and the regional language of the state where the schools operate?

Across India, people in the future could then speak in English to those from other regions while within their state, they could speak both their regional language and English. That is what Tamil Nadu is doing.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Jagan Mohan Reddy has already promised to make all government schools English-medium with one compulsory subject in Telugu. If he does that, Andhra Pradesh will be a model state.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author.