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An Indian State to Ban English?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on May 8, 2009 1 Comment

Samajwadi Party (a regional Indian party) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s campaign promise to abolish the use of English, “angrezi hatao” (Remove English) in UP (Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state) has been causing quite a bit of tumult. Mulayam specifically promised “to ban English in education and computers in new projects.” My parents live in UP, in the satellite town of Noida (a suburb of New Delhi), and so this is something that’s of some significance for me; and since I plan to spend my summer there, this is a news story I have begun tracking closely in recent days.

Nobel laureate (and Harvard professor) Amartya Sen made some interesting remarks regarding the incident at the London Book Fair. He argues that English is the language of the elite, and that the way of lessening disparities (between the rich and the poor) is by increasing English education, not banning it. English, if banned, would function to drive a deeper wedge between the have’s and the have-not’s, he reasons. He ends by claiming that English is after all, an “Indian language”, defined as “that which is in use in India and English language has been in use for quite a long time.” He goes on to argue that foreign languages have been highly influential on ancient languages as well, such as Sanskrit, and continue to influence languages to this day. I have to say here that as I was reading this paragraph, I was a little taken aback. I have never considered English an “Indian language,” though it’s one of our most important constitutionally recognized ones. I guess I have always thought of it as an “import,” but an import that circulates widely. But it stays always at a distance, never quite capturing the Indian tongue.

My perspective? I think Mulayam’s take is unrealistic, as Sen also points out. There’s little chance of stemming the tide of English. And I also think that Mulayam’s reasons for trying to ban English are somewhat dubious. While I understand the fears of language loss are very real-and I deeply sympathize with those concerns-I think local languages will continue to thrive. Most Indians are easy multilinguals, and the acquisition of one language does not necessarily come at the cost of another. It is easy to foment negative feelings against English in India, at least in some places, where it is still strongly tied to the colonial context, and seen as the language of the former oppressors. I understand that sentiment as well, and I sympathize. But this, a kind of language prohibition, is hardly a solution. Economically it is somewhat suicidal: it would entail an expensive overhaul of curricula, educational policy itself, and the implications of trying to get the “Internets” Hindified…ahh, that’s not going to be easy. In such tumultuous economic times, can we or should we really take a chance? Though I understand…again, I understand…Hmm, why not invest money into building better curriculum in local languages, resourcing those? Why not encourage the use of local languages, in addition to ensuring that students have certain basic communicative skills in English (which, surveys show, are important in the Indian job market)? How on earth are we going to police the language, anyway, if that is also a part of the grand design? There are hundreds of other questions, and no right answer to any of them. But I know a wrong answer when I see one, at least in this case. It’s Mulayam’s.

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One Response to “An Indian State to Ban English?”

  1. daveski on: 15 May 2009 at 7:15 pm

    A really interesting post! It’s striking reading your reaction as to whether or not English is an “Indian” language, to see Sen say, quite simply, that “An Indian language would be that which is in use in India”. And that (at least the way the article portrays it) Mulayam Singh Yadav’s frustration about the failure (?) of Hindi to become the ‘nation’s’ language has to do with the fact that Hindi is so strongly tied to its regionality in the north. It seems like a catch-22 without a solution so long as people want to have (at least) ‘a’ ‘national’ language…

    And what’s that about Mulayam’s promise “to ban English in education and computers in new projects.” That’s banning English in computers, right? And not banning computers?

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