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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


Some might think the title suggests a banal subject, 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. However, the case of India is exceptionally unique 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 over a billion inhabitants. The people are divided mainly along mass and massive ethnically heterogeneous societies with 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. 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 extended 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. Great Britain finally gave up on ruling India and handed the mantle of power to the Indians. The country was declared an independent state as early as 1947. Although still in use, the English language 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 vital 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 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. Though very subtly, there were, and still are, movements to kick English out of the country. This has affected the spread of English in India. According to a recent discovery, Communist ‘anti-American’ China now has more English speakers than the biggest democracy and pro-American India, an advantage which hitherto the latter (India) bragged against the former (China), its salient rival. Discovering this, nonetheless, raises the 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 from science, technology, finance and literature commenced. The government of India, in many instances, funds the translation project. For example, all of 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 specific purposes. This brings us to the English language issue in India's education system.

English in Indian Schools
Chetan Bhagat, one of the leading Indian writers in English and a columnist, and of a relatively young 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 before I came, knowing long ago that English had been taught and learned in India for over 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, the British colonial government established their first universities in India in 1857. The medium of instruction and a major concern of the universities was teaching English and European history. This makes the status of English in India different from its status in many countries. For instance, it is considered a foreign language in the Philippines, Japan and China; English 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 most 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 mainly from lower and lower-middle classes, show because they cannot access the ‘prestigious’ language, which is almost only for the privileged ones who can afford the elite schools.

Some schools 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, the English teacher is usually the detested teacher in the schools. However, language usage at the university level generally becomes more intense, but this is often met with the students’ strong dislike and dismissal at pre-graduation, graduation and post-graduation levels. The university in which I study is one 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, several 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 students above), 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 good proficiency. But among the students, he complained that the proficiency varies widely and wildly as if the students belonged to different countries! This is, however, due to a reason—mostly the socio-economic status of the students—as described in the foregoing. Those who studied at English-medium primary and secondary schools, which not everyone could afford, especially in relatively urbanized states such as Punjab, are much better than those who studied at Hindi-medium, Punjabi-medium, etc. 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 me 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; he always speaks Hindi and Punjabi in class. When I contested his choice of language and threatened to report him for not using English as enshrined in the university policy, he honourably confessed that his English is very weak. He further revealed throughout his educational career that 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 translate what he said during the lectures. His reason, also noted in the form of confession, was that: he could not have mental rest to allow a free flow of thought when giving lectures, and he emphatically added that he possesses “many vocabularies”. While having a chit-chat outside the class on how things were like that, one of the two appointed translators determinedly defended his kinsmen and mother India, saying: “English is a foreign language in Japan, and nobody doubts their development”. But, 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, their take on English ought to be reconsidered for India to stay relevant in this contemporary, competing world of technology, military and finance. No doubt, the country has some of the best users of English, especially in their media (mainly 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 possible to keep my head above water. Else, I would be left far behind. However, some of the lecturers could, yes, communicate well in English, but the fact (a painful one) be said: the majority cannot. They undoubtedly possess knowledge of their subject but lack the medium to ‘impart’ it. No matter their abhorrence, aloofness and apathy towards it, the English language has come to stay and to be used for many purposes. Although I also don’t believe in linguistic imperialism, this is a fact that regardless of how many times one tries to jettison, one will constantly flatly fail. It remains an immune truth. Do you want to keep pace with this contemporary world? Learn the English language.


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