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(10): Is English a Value-Free Tool or a Language of Domination? My Experience in India

Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim
Bayero University, Kano


The title suggests a banal subject, some people might think, which has been at the centre of hot debates among many writers, particularly the Nigerian Chinua Achebe and the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o for many years. The case of India is exceptionally a unique one as the country is also very unique in the world. India is a place of myths and legends; a birthplace of some of the world’s leading religions and creeds; miscellaneous cultures and traditions, and other peculiarities. It is the second most populous country after China—and would, as projected, overtake China in the ranking in a few years to come—with population of over a billion inhabitants. The people are largely divided along mass and massive ethnically heterogeneous societies that share little or nothing in common. It was gathered in a recent report that ‘Over 1652 languages belonging to four different language families…’ (—eighteen of which were given recognition by the government—are spoken in the varied and vast geographical entity of India. Nonetheless, one of such languages, being more or less understood by at least more citizens than the others, enjoys a special, elevated status above them, and it’s widely accepted as such. The language is none other than Hindi, an Aryan language with more than 300 million speakers across and beyond India.

However, being one of the earliest places the British colonialists settled and had a very long stay, the Hindi language has what is seen by many as its antithesis, and this is the English language. Like all other former British colonies, English was introduced (or imposed, as the nationalists would have us believe) to the people for governance and other leadership undertakings of the British imperial government in India, hence it occupied a huge place, yet a very rare one much unlike in the other former colonies like Nigeria, the country I come from. There was a shift in the mission of Britain, which was comparatively akin to the French assimilation policy in Africa, as they intended to breed people that are “Indian[s] in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect (Macaulay, 1835)”. It’s, again, unique because Macaulay’s goal was met with steep opposition and rejection. The greatest Indian statesman expresses his, which was equally others’, opinion about that language thus:

Our language is the reflection of ourselves and if you tell me that our languages are too poor to express the best thought, then I say that the sooner we are wiped out of existence, the better for us. Is there a man who dreams that English can ever become the national language of India? (Cries of 'Never') (Gandhi’s Speech at Banaras Hindu University, February 6, 1916, cited in Saksena 1972: 28).

What followed afterwards is history. The Great Britain finally gave up on ruling India and handed the mantle of power over to the Indians. The country was declared an independent state as early as 1947. The English language, although still in use, was officially given a status of an assistant language, which was supposed to terminate after fifteen (15) years from the independence. English however remains the important language of India, for that decision is yet to be hammered out. Pavan K. Varma, a very realistic Indian writer on contemporary India says, in his illuminating book, Being Indian (2004), that the decision to axe English out of official dealings “could never be implemented” because of what he calls “linguistic chauvinism” of some pan-Indian English-speaking elites. Those ‘chauvinists’ are in conflict with more or less the majority pan-Indian Hindi-speaking ‘ordinary’ people among whom some even immolated themselves for the agitation during a protest, and whose resistance is backed by some powerful politicians.

Politics of English and on English
India is a country where the English language issue has been heavily politicized. And I use the word politics in its broadest sense. For instance, speaking ‘Standard’ English, especially in public, gives one a pride—even narcissism, at times—and attaches him/her to elitism, for it simply means he/she was able to attend English-medium schools known as “convent” schools. The politicians, perhaps because of their concern to bridge that gulf, and to more thoroughly and systematically decolonize India, have intruded into the matter. It was India whose foreign minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1979 famously addressed the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi. There were, and still are, though very subtly, movements to kick English out of the country. This has affected the spread of English in India. That’s why, according to a recent discovery, the Communist ‘anti-American’ China has now more English speakers than the biggest democracy and the pro-American India, an advantage which hitherto the latter (India) bragged against the former (China), its salient rival. Discovering this, nonetheless, raises eyebrows of some concerned Indians.

It is in one of such ban English movements to curtail any potential, or perceived, threat of marginalization of minority languages by a foreign language that it was made compulsory for students throughout the country to learn three languages (namely, English, Hindi and their mother tongue) except in regions where Hindi is the mother tongue. Massive translation of all books ranging from science, technology, finance and literature commenced. The government of India, in many instances, funds the translation project. For instance, all William Shakespeare’s plays and some other major critical works on him are translated into Hindi and/or other major regional languages. Therefore, since the need to learn English is not much, crippled by the avalanche of translated books, at least locally speaking, learning aims cannot be defined in terms of any specific purposes. This brings us to the issue of the English language in the education system of India.

English in Indian Schools
Chetan Bhagat, one of the leading Indian writers in English and a columnist, and of a relative youthful age, wrote in the article, Learn and Share English Lessons with All that “Hindi is our mother, English is our wife, and it is possible to love both”. Nonetheless, only a minuscule percentage sees the truism in Bhagat’s words. This I say, for it is, I understand, very common in India to meet a professor even in the Arts whose English competence is no better than that of a good secondary school student in Nigeria. It is, again, to say the least, a disappointment to me as an international student in the country. I had never expected anything like this prior to my coming, knowing long ago that English has been taught and learned in India for more than a century. Moreover, I so reliably used to think that English would be the only language for teaching in a country more than mine in terms of linguistic heterogeneity.

Historically speaking, the British colonial government established their first universities in India in 1857. The medium of instruction as well as major concern of the universities was to teach English and the European history. This makes the status of English in India different from its status in many countries. Where, for instance, it is considered a foreign language in the Philippines, Japan and China, English language is a second language in India, and, as such, it is widely used in the media, schools, administration, business, etc. Though English was the medium of school and university education during the British regime and beyond, it is now mainly used as the medium of instruction in English-medium schools in mostly big cities and towns. However, as efforts by the government and other ‘concerned’ bodies deepen towards a thorough Indianization, the status of English, particularly in the schools, is rapidly waning. The movements target to uplift the status of Hindi to approximately a National Language neck and neck with the English language. This gives birth to some sort of nonchalant attitudes many Indians, though largely from lower and lower-middle classes, show because they cannot access the ‘prestigious’ language, which is almost only for the privileged ones who could afford the elite schools.

Some of those schools make it a rule that students only speak in English within the school premises. In other non-English medium schools, English is only taught as a subject within the curriculum. In this case, English teacher is usually the detested teacher in the schools. However generally, the usage of the language at university level becomes more intense, but this is more often than not met with the students’ strong dislike and dismissal at pre-graduation, graduation and post-graduation levels. The university in which I study is one of such. Only a handful and truly prestigious institutes use English as the medium of instruction, examination and administration. Two more similar and clear-cut cases reassured this belief in me: First, a number of Bhutan students were officially transferred from one university in Chennai to my university (in Punjab) because the lecturers there could not accommodate non-Hindi speaking students in their class. Second, a Nigerian student was also formally transferred to the university from another university in Gujarat due to the same problem. In his case, the university certified his ‘wasted’ year and gave him a “To Whom It May Concern” that boldly indicates (laments, I suppose) their reason for the action. However, unknown to them (the aforesaid students), it is the same as running from the lion’s den to the tiger’s.

However, not all universities are in the same league, for according to a friend doing his PhD in a neighbouring university, the professors there demonstrate a good proficiency. But among the students, he complained, the proficiency varies widely and wildly as if the students belonged to different countries! This is however due to a reason—mostly socio-economic status of the students—as described in the foregoing. Those who studied at English-medium primary and secondary schools, the schools which not everyone could afford especially in a relatively urbanized states such as Punjab, are much better than those who studied at Hindi-medium, Punjabi-medium, etc schools. And, the schools in this second category are much more popular. For a typical instance, an Associate Professor in my department on seeing my wife and I together in one of our early meetings, falteringly commented thus: “Muhammad, your wife is more longer than you”. I was visibly taken aback. The surprise does not stop there; in class, he always speaks Hindi and Punjabi. When I contested his choice of language and threatened to report him for not using English as enshrined in the policy of the university, he honourably confessed that his English is very weak. All throughout his educational career, he further revealed, he attended non-English medium schools, for he came from a poor family!

Another lecturer assigned two member-students of the class who majored in English in their first degree to be translating what he says during the lectures. His reason, also said in a form of confession, was that: he could not have mental rest to allow a free flow of thought when giving lecture, and he emphatically added that he possesses “many vocabularies”. One of the two appointed translators, while having a chit-chat outside the class on how things were like that, he so determinedly defended his kinsmen and mother India, saying: “English is a foreign language in Japan, and nobody doubts their development”. Unbeknownst to him, English is now a compulsory subject in schools there (Japan); while in China, as mentioned earlier, learning the language has become a national mission. Thus, for India to stay relevant in this contemporary, competing world of technology, military and finance, their take on English ought to be reconsidered. No doubt the country has some of the best users of English, especially in their media (particularly print) but that seems to be then; as of now, things are deteriorating.


I am not simply bewailing my predicament; I wake up to fix it. I have been procuring as many books as I can so as to enable me keep my head above water. Else, I would be left far behind. However, some of the lecturers, could, yes, communicate well in English but fact (a painful one) be said: the majority cannot. No doubt they possess knowledge of their subject, but lack the medium to ‘impart’ it. English language, no matter their abhorrence, aloofness and apathy towards it, has come to stay and to be used for serving many purposes. Although, I also don’t believe in linguistic imperialism, yet this is a fact which regardless of how many times one tries to jettison will constantly flatly fail. It remains an immune truth. You want to keep pace with this contemporary world? Learn the English language.

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