Top members of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Union health ministry have, for the last two months or so, been holding a daily press conference to answer journalists’ questions about the coronavirus epidemic in India and the government’s various efforts to contain it.
As it happens, the government has been progressively making this media event less and less accessible. First, it restricted entry to journalists from “accredited” news organisations, thus excluding most of India’s digital news publications (including The Wire). Then it banned video recordings of the event and forced everyone to use the state broadcaster’s footage. Then it switched the press conference’s language to pristine Hindi, alienating not just all journalists who don’t use Hindi but also a lot of Hindi-speakers unfamiliar with large numbers, epidemiological terms and healthcare measures expressed in this language. Finally, it limited the duration of the event to around 30 minutes, which barely leaves time for two or three live questions.
At this point, expecting the health ministry or ICMR to be open to suggestions about how better to conduct their event will be futile because such an expectation assumes the government has nothing to hide and wishes to communicate clearly and in a way that’s accessible to everyone. This is simply not true.
The government surely knows that despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fondness for thrusting Hindi down the throats of all Indians, it is not understood in large parts of the country, as well as that English is the language of science.
The government’s principal scientific adviser K. VijayRaghavan wrote in 2017 that he would like to see the country’s millions of (potential) students learn and practice science in the language they are most comfortable with (often their native tongues). This is a different vision from that of the BJP because it is multilinguistic, whereas the BJP’s vision is monolinguistic. But for better or worse, both visions are unlikely to take root because they both overlook two episodes of history.
First: if the Germans are able to study science in German – often the first example invoked in support of the nativisation argument – it is because premodern Europe was a scientific powerhouse that assimilated a voluminous scientific literature in the German language, and others. Such a corpus lets others understand and build on what you are saying, being fully confident that your choice of labels for an idea or concept is historically, conceptually and semantically equivalent to their labels for the same idea or concept, and so enter into easy collaborations. Additionally, the existence of a corpus itself signals the presence of a local intellectual tradition supported by funds from the state and benevolent aristocrats, and this feature is independent of the language being spoken.
So obviously one must be skeptical of a promise that India will become an intellectual powerhouse with the revival of intellectual traditions in any other language when the one centred around the existing language has, by any measure, not been fully potentiated.
Second, both monolingual and multilingual substitutes for English overlook the inherently irreversible nature of colonisation and then globalisation. Neither of these projects is a zero-sum game: the cost of their imposition is far exceeded by the costs the world as a whole will incur if we wish to undo their effects and return to a ‘prior’ state.
The ability of a German to think about complex issues in the German language may not be a necessary condition for Germany’s “intellectual powerhouse” status but it couldn’t possibly have been achieved if not for many of the country’s greatest minds publishing research papers in German for hundreds of years until the mid-twentieth century (and because, unlike India, Germany wasn’t colonised). India on the other hand may be justified in pointing fingers at colonialism for damaging its intellectual culture but aspiring to substitute English with another language near the mid-21st century at best vastly underestimates the scale of changes required and at worst is a red herring, distracting from why the best minds that already exist aren’t able to achieve much without not inconsiderable struggle and luck.
Ask yourselves the following. Say we extract a value ‘X’ by translating a portion of the scientific literature to a particular language, teach it in that language, and then have this newly taught individual participate in and contribute to the scientific endeavour. Say we extract a value ‘Y’ by teaching English in the same particular language, and then have the newly taught individual participate in and contribute to the scientific endeavour in English itself. Isn’t Y likely to be greater than X? Even if X and Y are likely to be equal at the primary and perhaps even secondary schooling level, once we go higher, Y will begin to exceed X.
English is the language of modern science by historical providence, of course, but the more it is used, the more its use becomes necessary because modern science is continuous, international and collaborative. The importance of having technical terms that everyone everywhere uses the same way is inestimable, as are the yottabytes of knowledge locked up in the scientific literature that will continue to expand in English.
At this time, fragmenting the scientific lexicon into multiple languages will only divert a tremendous amount of resources – which we are fond of saying are limited in India – into a massive and unending translation exercise that will do relatively little to improve research itself. It will also likely shrink the learners’ potential pool of collaborators, research labs, journals to publish in and teaching opportunities.
Now, considering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s well-known desire to popularise the use of Hindi at all costs, it could have one of two intentions with its Hindi-only COVID-19 press conferences: to obfuscate or to familiarise (its listeners in the use of Hindi). The former is likely because of other measures the government has taken with the press conference; the latest – which kicked in from yesterday – is that it will be held only on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The latter is likely because of its longstanding ‘Hindi even if by force’ agenda. Obviously any observer will see that the party is failing on both fronts (although less so with the obfuscation; the truth will eventually out through a shrewd combination of whistleblowing, good journalism + the RTI Act and the Streisand effect, but precious time could be lost forever) – especially on popularising Hindi itself.
If anything, the government will do well to remember the pitiable mess it has reduced the Vedas to in the public imagination, by repeatedly shoehorning the ancient texts into contexts in which they simply didn’t belong. Similarly, the harder the government pushes Hindi in a setting that practically demands the use of English, the more distasteful its linguistic belligerence and the more heightened the need perceived for a common language of science will become.