At a time when the Centre is pushing for the teaching of technical subjects in the mother tongue, a “personal opinion” expressed recently by the present IIT Delhi director that teaching entire B.Tech programmes in this medium would mean the “beginning of end for IITs” puts the credibility of the education minister’s assertion that IITs and NITs would offer B.Tech courses in the mother tongue from 2021 in question. Also, it has been iterated time and again that such a move might damage the brand image of these premier schools.

That education is best imparted through the mother tongue is not always true. Whenever and wherever possible, education of all descriptions should be imparted through the mother tongue. But a large number of children will always miss education through the mother tongue even at the primary stage. A recent report says that more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in our country. There are 121 languages which are spoken by 10,000 or more people in a population of 121 crore. However, 96.71 per cent of the population have one of the 22 scheduled languages as their mother tongue. The question that confounds us most is: how many of them can the government, a votary of education through the mother tongue, arrange to teach as subjects, let alone use as medium of introduction?

It is a foregone conclusion that for speakers of major Indian languages, the language-medium school where English is well taught is the best. It is time we asked how good the mother tongue is as a medium of instruction and how bad English is as such.

Admittedly, the public schools do much better than government- run schools. It may also be admitted that as long as the former operate, the pupils of have-nots will be beaten in the race with those of the haves. This certainly amounts to an admission of the fact that rather than obfuscate classroom instruction, English helps the learner all through life.

The two skills crucial to education are reading and writing. It is generally believed that other things being equal the comprehension of a topic is better in the mother tongue than in another language. Judged by the number of serious books published in English, and the countries where they are sold or written, the world’s most difficult studies are being done in “another tongue”, which does not seem to hamper reading for pleasure either. Writing, which offers the maximum challenge, makes hardly any special concession to the mother tongue, for the language the child picks up in his home and on the playfield is that of sound.

The written language comprises patterns of shapes, which have to be systematically mastered with persistent effort. The best medium of instruction, then, is a language in which the resources of teaching and learning are sufficient. Practically speaking, the best schools for by far the largest number of our children are the Indian language medium ones where English is taught well.

In our country, we tend to disparage English because we are unwilling to go through the rigour of education. In the Hindi speaking states, there is an element of linguistic patriotism which gives a special status to the vernacular. In the south the vernaculars have now a special importance, but English is still valued as something unavoidable for a successful career.

English education in the 19th century seemed to make us very English in many things. Out of English education emerged a new mind just as out of Rome’s Greek education was created a vibrant Latin mind. Let us remember that when Shakespeare wrote his immortal plays, Latin was the language of the court of Elizabeth. The people of England did not then indulge in any form of sanctimonious vernacularism to make the language of their poetry identical to the language of their politics.

The intellectual history of the world shows that a civilisation cannot grow on the basis of a single language and that worship of the vernacular to the exclusion of all other languages can only blunt a people’s intellect. The infiltration of criminals into our public life may be mostly due to the fact that education which almost necessarily demands knowledge of a foreign language is no longer a prerequisite for a political career. We have vernacularised our politics for over seventy years. By disparaging English, we have become losers. Sibanath Shastri made a very significant remark on Macaulay’s Minutes stressing the need for English education in his Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Banga Samaj: “Lord Macaulay sowed his seeds on the prepared soil, and rich was the harvest reaped”.

Rabindranath Tagore was very critical of British rule in India, but the poet acknowledged the influence of the English Muse on his literature. In his essay Sonar Kathi (Golden Wand), the poet says: “The sleeping princess of Bengali poetry was awakened by the magic touch of the golden wand of the prince coming across the seas.”

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee said that the British influence is a creative force in Bengali life and letters. In his essay Bharat Kalanka, he says, “Amongst the invaluable things we have received from England, I mention two ~ individualism and nationalism”.

Let us begin to realise that English is no longer the language of England alone; it is now a world language that is creating a global mind. It is true that English is the language of the elite in our country. It is also true that for the vast majority of the population there exists an emotional bond with the mother tongue which helps to shape its vision of the world and its culture, in the broadest sense, even though there are areas of cultural contiguity and interference because of bilingualism and biculturalism of a significant portion of the urban population. What is to be done, especially in a country where many languages, some of them mutually antagonistic, are spoken, and equality of opportunity is at stake? There are no easy answers. To generalise the use of English is also not that easy, given that providing good teachers of English as a foreign language in large numbers might be a herculean task. An editorial in The Times, London, on 6 April 1990 declared: “While the rest of the world is struggling to learn English, parts of India are trying to forget it… The reason is Hindu fundamentalism. Sweeping across the northern plains like a monsoon, it is trying to engineer its own cultural revolution. Its gurus should be forewarned that both history and geography are against them… English simply will not go away.”

So many years after the end of British rule in India what made The Times so confident was history which decides the future of the world, and geography which decides ours. A part of that history, of course, concerns imperialism or slavery which we detest, but the other part relates to science, technology, and production.

Though it would be ideal to impart education always through the mother tongue which has been favoured by the New Education Policy, it is argued that India’s sheer diversity will give rise to problems which the use of English alone can avoid.

This would be one rational way of fostering the spirit of equality of opportunity and at the same time national unity too. This was the original idea of a leader of the stature of C Rajagopalachari, the first governor general of India.

The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College and is presently with Rabindra Bharati University