Away from Delhi, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy is waging a cultural battle which is of momentous significance to his state and indeed the rest of India. His government has decided to make English the medium of instruction in government schools up to Class VI, with the intent of extending it to Class XII in the future.
He has asked the education ministry to institute teacher training plans for Telugu and Urdu medium schools to make the transition by 2020.
Opposition parties, including the Telugu Desam Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, are opposing the move on the grounds that it would affect the transmission of the Telugu language. Jagan has hit back by asking TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and actor-politician Pawan Kalyan to clarify which medium their own children and grandchildren have studied in.
Reddy has come up with the English medium idea to overcome his current troubles. He stormed to power in May, winning 151 of 175 seats in the state Assembly but continues to be beleaguered by corruption cases pending against him. The CBI has been strongly opposing Reddy’s plea to be exempted from weekly hearings for those cases and the state BJP unit, keen to gain a presence in Andhra Pradesh following Chandrababu’s decline, has been playing up Jagan’s “identity as a Christian” and accusing him of promoting missionary work.
Jagan Reddy has decided to counter these with several populist announcements including the annual grant of Rs. 15,000 for every mother who sends her child to school.
Instituting English as a medium of instruction, however, moves much beyond standard normal politics for its potentially radical transformative social possibilities.
If teachers do manage to faithfully impart English language training to students ̶ not always a given in government schools ̶ several possibilities emerge for altering caste dynamics and the economic landscape in Andhra. The promise of English is politically astute as most poor families instinctively understand it as a vehicle of social mobility. Indeed every single middle class family in India which employs domestic workers knows that the one thing the latter aspire for their children is for them to learn English.
Thousands of poor families send their children to private schools, at great expense, principally in the hope that they learn the language that renders them bereft when they encounter it in the worlds of government, law and medicine.
In asking opposition leaders what medium their children study in, Reddy is nudging the public to be alert to the hypocrisy of elites, which tend to see English as a form of reservation that they want to keep for their own children while expecting the poor to be the custodians of the culture that they pay lip service to.
He will continue to imply that English is a public good which should be available to all and that denying it to the poor is a form of social warfare, a deliberate act of social engineering and an investment in caste futures by those who want to retain privilege.
Andhra Pradesh is a state where such narratives will resonate. A section of Dalits have historically benefited greatly from Christian missionary institutions that were established during colonial rule.
For that matter, a significant chunk of the Telugu-speaking elite has graduated from English medium Christian schools and colleges in Hyderabad and coastal Andhra. Several leading figures, for instance, like actor and former chief minister N.T. Rama Rao, his acting peers like Sobhan Babu and Jaggayya, several writers, and politicians like N.G. Ranga and K. Brahmananda Reddy were products of the Andhra Christian College, Guntur – once a highly-rated institution.
Many in Andhra Pradesh will have also seen that English and competence in IT services has enabled thousands from the state to emigrate to the US.
There are other structural reasons why English is important for the state. The people of Andhra Pradesh lost Hyderabad as a capital, a city they invested in (after being stakeholders in Madras earlier). They are having to build a new capital after enduring a brain drain owing to the flight of professionals to Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi and the West.
Andhra Pradesh needs to now prepare for the future by leveraging its geography, as a region within reach of both Southeast Asia and West Asia. An English-speaking, prosperous province in peninsular India that is roughly equidistant from Singapore and Dubai will, no doubt, have its advantages even while there are competitors in south India and Sri Lanka.
And there really is no better way to take advantage of globalisation than to build mass English language capacity. It’s worth noting that China focused on primary education during Mao Zedong’s reign while India puts its resources behind higher education and even though China was slow to take off, the effects of mass literacy are all there to see now, while India still grapples with vast inequalities in access to education.
Reddy’s plan is an ambitious but a dangerous one. No politician who seeks to overturn caste hierarchies en route to economic modernisation can be expected to last very long in power.
That’s the reason why even subaltern leaders like Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, or Mayawati did not dare to use push English during their reign. Any policy tide that lifts all boats – Dalits and OBCs alike – has been presumed to be socially destabilising: upsetting local caste dynamics and inviting blowback from the privileged.
Reddy is likely to run foul of the BJP before too long for this. Reddy’s English gambit can generate similar pressures from other states, if it shows results, and that goes against the Centre’s agenda of pushing Hindi. English is a cultural vector that the BJP is instinctively allergic to and Andhra Pradesh is anyway a state the party has in its sights as it seeks to expand into south India.
We can hence expect Reddy to be targeted on grounds of corruption and owing to his identity as a Christian.
Why he needs a JNU
Reddy is not without options. To push back, he will need to look beyond English in schools and enable the development of a robust, visible Andhra intelligentsia. This is crucial.
Telugus are extraordinarily successful and prosperous, they have a strong literary tradition but punch well below their weight in national conversation. Those in Delhi will struggle to name five significant Telugu-speaking intellectuals who have a presence in the nation’s public sphere.
They would, on the contrary, easily name luminaries from Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and so on. Regional leaders like Jagan need an influential more visible English-speaking intelligentsia for several reasons: to forcefully advocate progressive policies, to be watchdogs of India’s fading federalism, to raise Andhra Pradesh’s visibility in the international arena, and as a cohort to mentor the generations that will graduate out of the English medium schools.
By pushing English, Jagan is in effect forcing through a form of modernity that students will be exposed to through various disciplines but they will need an intellectual collective to harness and shape it – and be a force to reckon with if progress is stymied.
The only institution that can develop an intelligentsia like that is a public university like JNU, one that is deeply steeped in the humanities and social sciences. It is now clear from the kind of firepower that the Indian state is directing at JNU as to how much of a incubator of democracy, a bulwark against authoritarianism and a resource for progressive thought and narrative a university can be.
JNU is simply a space where India’s democracy and intellectual calibre reproduces itself – and Reddy, or other regional leaders for that matter, would need a university to provide intellectual depth to the project of social transformation.
That is of course easier said than done. It would entail establishing a campus where accomplished faculty capable of being published by university presses is hired, where students from across India, across the caste and tribe spectrum, rich and poor, are admitted, where speech is protected and ideas allowed to flourish in order to produce an intellectual sensibility, rigour and networks without which great nations cannot be made.
It is such universities that will still stand while other institutions buckle under pressure. But such universities do not materialise overnight. They take time and entail a measure of tolerance from politicians. It’s not clear if Reddy has the requisite temperament to achieve this.
He inherited the political network of his father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who was known for having a ruthless streak, besides being a capable administrator. Jagan himself does not handle media criticism well and has occasionally taken the politics of vendetta to absurd lengths. He will need to reign this in to extend his political career and ensure the success of his English language plans.
Reddy rightly intuits that the English language is a vehicle for radical social change. He will have to imbibe a measure of democratic sensibility for his career to endure and his state to prosper.
Sushil Aaron is a political commentator. He tweets @SushilAaron.