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The importance of English

English as a language may not be native to India but there are certainly more English speakers in India than in Britain. Knowledge of English in our country symbolises better education and greater sophistication. In our multilingual country English is popular in almost all the regions.

AK Ghosh |

While the rest of the world is struggling to learn English (and that includes many Britons), part 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. ~ Editorial in The Times, London, 6 April 1990

It is not always realised today that fundamentalism not only has a religious connotation, but a linguistic one as well. Under the present fundamentalist dispensation, Hindi is synonymous with Hindu in an effort to buttress Hindi as the national language. Yet it must be acknowledged that in order to get out of the medieval mire of superstition ~ human sacrifice, child sacrifice, widow burning and massive polygamy ~ English came to serve as the passport to freedom of the mind.

The urge towards reinforcement of English as the language of freedom from prejudice in social and cultural transactions is sometimes vitiated today. It is time we remember that it was English and the urge to modernize that had provided the impulse towards the development of Indian literature. To the extent that English is considered unIndian, it sets back the growth element in Indian languages.

What makes The Times predict so many years after the end of British rule in our country that it is history that decides the future of the world. Geography or the linguistics map which decides ours. A part of that history ,of course, concerns imperialism which we detest, while another part relates to science, technology and production. Since the successful venture of the Sputnik in 1957, English has progressively replaced French and German in international communication.

It has been growing synchronically with development in all fields of science. Admittedly,we did have science and technology and also a system of education before the British came, but the education system along with the impact of Science, Technology and Production as we experience today has not germinated from Aryabhatta or Nalanda. They are the outcome of our cultivation of English language-based western civilization.

The English language in the nineteenth century was the most important subject of study. Out of this emerged a novel Indian mind in the same way as out of Rome’s Greek education was created a vibrant Latin mind. The Greece-Roman culture of the West is as much a creation of Greece as it is a creation of Rome. We know that Cato, the Roman statesman, orator and historian once hated Greek literature, but in the last years of his life he mastered the Greek language. The Romans studied Greek to be truly Roman.

We Indians tend to disparage English perhaps because we tend to go through the rigours of education.The basis of the Indian National Congress was Dadabhai Nairoji’s Poverty and Unbritish Rule in India which observed that colonialism was economic exploitation. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, Latin was the language of the Elizabethan court. The British did not indulge in any form of sanctimonious vernacularism to make the language of their literature identical with the language of their politics.

In 1825, there was no university in India. There was only a Muslim college, a Bishop’s college for training of Christian ministers and a Hindu college for the pandits of Benares. However, the hereditary customs of all creeds were respected and upheld. The usual medium of education, business and law continued to be the native vernacular languages.

In the following decade, of course, there was a change in outlook. It was the outcome of a combination of well-being, liberal reform wedded to a local demand that appeared to be reasonable. There appeared a sense of ambiguity over whether indigenous culture should be emphasized or introduction of English-style education adopted. At the helm of affairs were Lord William Bentinck as Governor-General and TB Macaulay as his principal advisor to proceed with liberal reforms.

The press was fully freed from state control and attention was turned to state education which was then in its infancy. Incidentally, a predilection was gaining ground in Calcutta for English education and the demand for it was pressed on the Education Board. The Board also came to be divided into two distinct parties ~ the Orientalists and the Anglicists.

The former was anxious to devote the funds to the study of Shastras and the Koran, while the latter to the object of unfolding European science and literature to Indians through English education. Macaulay denounced the irresponsible force of the promotion of Orientalism. He asserted:”We are at present a Board for printing books which give artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics and absurd theology.”

Finally, a resolution was passed in which Bentinck said that “the great object of the British government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the people of India, and the fund appropriated to education would be best employed on English education alone.”

This gave an impetus to the cause of English education and the language and literature of English became as familiar to the educated classes of India as was Latin to the educated classes of Rome. The difference is that as British influence and Pax Britannica spread throughout the globe, so was the language learnt on an extensive large scale.

As for Indians, they en masse fell for English only after its native speakers had left. During pre-Independence days, however,it was generally hoped that some Indian language, maybe Hindustani, would eventually replace English as the lingua franca. The Muslim League boycotted the Constituent Assembly.

At that point the Rules Committee of the Assembly decided to conduct its proceedings primarily in Hindustani, which Gandhi, Nehru and their followers had always advocated as a compromise language. But in July 1947, when the decision to partition the country came to be known, a group within the Congress consisting of PD Tandon, Seth Govind Das, Sampurnand, Ravi Shankar Shukla and KN Munshi worked overtime to put Hindi in place of Hindustani.

Sivanath Sastri in his Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Bangasamaj made a very significant remark on Macaulay’s Minute. Emphasising stressing the need for English education, he wrote: “Lord Macaulay sowed his seeds on the prepared soil, and rich was the harvest reaped”.

Tagore also acknowledged the influence of the English Muse on his literature. In his Sonar Kathi, the poet claims that the “sleeping princess of Bengali poetry was awakened by the Magic touch of the golden wand of the prince coming across the sea.” “I will never drive out English from the few languages I know. I Don’t want to forget that language nor do I want other Indians to give up or forget it”. Mahatma Gandhi echoed similar sentiments in Harijan (25 January 1948).

English as a language may not be native to India but there are certainly more English speakers in India than in Britain. Knowledge of English in our country symbolises better education and greater sophistication. In our multilingual country, English is popular in almost all the regions.

This is obvious from the fact that English medium schools are mushrooming everywhere. It would be wise to visualise that if we could get rid of our prejudices and opt for English as the second official language in the country, most of our nagging difficulties regarding language would be addressed. This would require every child to learn his mother tongue as well as English.

Moreover, English being the language of science and technology our children can easily update their knowledge and further enhance the progress and prosperity of our nation. It may be agreed that though it would be ideal to impart education always through the mother tongue, India’s sheer diversity will give rise to problems which the use of English alone can avoid.

The majority of native experts have agreed that “English” means not only “the English of native speakers of the language” but also “the English of non-native speakers” which must be treated in its own right and accepted on a footing of equality. This seems to have resulted in the Oxford English Dictionary taking note of foreign words and expressions. The BBC which used to make a virtue of the Received Pronunciation has among its newsreader’s persons of different tongues. Even Indians teach English in many countries. Indian English has a substantial body of literature, which is appreciated the world over.

True, English is the language of the elite in this country. It is also true that for the vast majority of the population, there exists an emotional bond with the mother language which helps to shape its vision of the world, its culture, in the broadest sense of the term, even though there are areas of cultural contiguity and interference because of bilingualism and biculturalism of a significant proportion of the urban population.

A country like ours, where many languages, some of them mutually antagonistic, are spoken, needs an elite that can manipulate the techniques of government and administration and constitute an effective interface with the world.

The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata.