Imperial legacy

Published : Sep 07, 2007 00:00 IST

Learning the English language at a school in Coimbatore. A file picture.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Learning the English language at a school in Coimbatore. A file picture.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The English language, it seemed, did not have any of the attributes of empire nor did it symbolise colonial oppression.

SIXTY years ago the British left India. Their departure was not an erasure of an era because memories remained. And with the memories, institutions, systems, even relationships. We had some that were not pleasant the methods of policing, for example, which never really changed very greatly after they left. There were other infrastructural institutions such as the railways, the rudimentary telephone system, the postal network and so on. They were necessary and aide d the new nation as it fumbled towards establishing an identity. The Army stayed, preserving many of the traditions while replacing its loyalty to the King Emperor with loyalty to the new nation.

What then did the British leave behind that we rejected? Very little, to be frank. In fact, in our Constitution we consciously brought in from their country what the British sought to deny us through their years as the colonial power, the very British concept of parliamentary democracy. And, to this day, 60 years on, the Lower House echoes to such sentences as Those in favour may say aye, those not in favour may say no and I think the ayes have it, the ayes have it, which are faithful copies of what is said in the House of Commons.

Perhaps, what is uniquely ours is the way we use these institutions. Our method of gaining or nurturing political power is not based on any system followed elsewhere the massive crowds mobilised to hear leaders speak and the incendiary speeches and slogans are all tactics used during the freedom movement and have been changed only a little so that they are used in a context that is real today. This system needs an adversary, and adversaries abound in politics. It needs passion, and there is much that our people are passionate about. Not for us the elegant speeches to clubs and societies; nor the glittering party conventions of the United States. We have perfected the art of the demonstration, the gathering of hundreds of thousands, each in a sub-group with its quota of strident, inflammatory slogans.

These ways appear, often, to carry into legislatures, transforming the Westminster model of Parliament into a collective expression of the strategy adopted against an oppressive ruler slogan-shouting, and the ubiquitous demonstration. The tactics are thus national, in that they are used in almost the same manner all over the country even though each has a different language and differing traditions.

But the system, parliamentary democracy and the legislatures themselves, so carefully built on the Westminster model, still continue. As do the other systems of governance in the districts and to a large extent in the State governments and very substantially in the Central government. Only the rulers have changed.

However, one particular feature of the British era has not just remained but has become fundamentally a part of India: the English language. When many things were seen as impositions by the British the imported clothes and textiles, for example, that were burnt symbolically as a part of the freedom struggle the English language was not. Through all the years that India fought for freedom, and, indeed, for almost a century before that, hundreds of thousands of Indians assiduously learnt English, not merely because they were required to, which they were in schools and colleges, but because English opened the doors to their intercourse with the West, with advancement as they saw it, whether in the world of ideas or of enterprise and material wealth.

It is true that the great leaders in the freedom struggle advocated the use of Hindustani Gandhiji certainly did but none of them ever asked people to stop learning English. The language, it seemed, did not have any of the attributes of empire nor did it symbolise colonial oppression. If it was used by the colonial power, the same language was the means of access to ideas that subverted that very power. Without it there would not have been any spread of the communist ideology, for example; the writings of Marx and Lenin were accessible to young Indians through English.

As the anger against the British abated through the years, as their systems and institutions were made a part of the collective national systems and institutions, from the railways to the post and telegraphs, roads and bridges and even the systems of governance, the English language became more and more an integral part of the countrys mode of advancement. University education was in English; and many schools taught their children in English.

The frenzy of Hindi zealots to bring in Hindi as the national language led to an inevitable backlash among those who did not speak that language and helped sharpen regional identities, which had hitherto been a part of a larger consciousness of being Indian. That, ironically, helped to keep English as a working language in India. Indeed, it has also been a factor for unity, in that some of the States in the northeastern region, such as Nagaland and Meghalaya, have English as their State language and Hindi is not used in these States at all.

After 60 years of being independent, one fact cannot be disputed. Without English the nation cannot prosper. Our young have to not only know but also be fluent in English to get good jobs, to advance in their careers and through it bring to India, as they have been doing, the economic prosperity that is now discernible.

In our rural areas there may not be facilities for people to learn English, but there is an awareness that they will do better if they did learn it. Some States have been unwise enough to try to do without it for reasons best known to them and the young of at least one generation in those States have paid the price. They have consistently lost out on opportunities for advancement not just in the commercial world but in the world of medicine, of academic enquiry, of scientific research and every field where knowledge of English good English is absolutely essential.

While some States realised the mistake they made in downplaying the teaching of English and reversed their policies, others like Karnataka have tragically refused to change. The consequences are clear; it will take only a few years for Karnataka, including its capital, Bengaluru, to cease to be the centre for the rapidly growing world of information technology. It will fall by the wayside as Tamil Nadu, notably Chennai, and other States and cities build up their information technology centres and the centres for economic development in different fields.

All that Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy had to do was to come to Delhi and travel to Gurgaon, Faridabad and Noida. The burgeoning hole-in-the-wall teaching shops guaranteeing young men and women fluency in English are crammed with people desperate to learn the language; in some areas of Punjab these teaching shops work in shifts because of the demand. More than anything else, these speak of the awareness among the young of the need to learn English.

But there are problems, naturally. In most States the teaching of English is a travesty of what it ought to be. The teachers can barely speak or read the language, and as the examining boards, such as the Central Board of Secondary Education, reduce examinations to one that involves indicating a yes or a no against questions, thus dumbing down a process that could have been a truly strict evaluation of merit in different languages, the knowledge of English is becoming something strange. It is not helped by the electronic media either, in which advertisements make a virtue of bad English What your programme ees? and youngsters begin to speak a strange pidgin intelligible only to themselves. They will, sadly, soon learn that that is not enough to get them into the processes of greater development and of high enquiry be it academic or financial or scientific. And this is an area the governments, State and Central, seem to dismiss as of no consequence.

So 60 years on, we have a very major feature of the colonial legacy as a part of ours, but because of the professed reluctance, the refusal to give it any importance lest it should be seen to be less than patriotic, policy-makers have let it decay. Those in positions of high authority, in government and in the Opposition, will not have to pay the price; they are old enough to move on to the other world soon enough. But our young, who are their charge, will. And the young will remember them with an anger that could have been avoided.

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