For the self-serving elite, mother tongue poses hindrance

[ DNA, 27 May 2014; Echo of India, 7 June 2014; Dhaka Tribune, 3 June 2014]

My parents, both of whom went to Bangla-medium schools, had decided to send me to an English-medium school. Among other things, this was a marker of relative affluence. From Kolkata’s insular perch, it was perceived to be an essential lubricant to socio-economic ascendency. It was also true that much of Kolkata’s upper-middle and middle classes had deserted public institutions – schools and hospitals were the major casualties of this trend because institutions of the poor and administered by the rich without a stake in them run very poorly. This reality may have also worked in my parent’s minds – the only son needs to succeed and earn. In the 144 municipal wards of Kolkata, there were only a few Bangla-medium schools that matched the English-medium schools in public imagination. This illusion of being the choicest medium of successful (however defined) education was perpetuated partly by a cabal of ‘good’ English schools (places where the superiority of people-like-us was ingrained as ideology), which competed against in other and created their own legends. Public imagination is not the same as a public examination and this is where many of these English-medium schools were cut to size. The state board examination results (Delhi head-quartered boards are numerically marginal and hence irrelevant in this discussion) brought into our consciousness these ‘others’, some in Kolkata but mostly in other districts of West Bengal, who competed successfully with ‘us’ and often out-competed us. What one must not forget is the competitive advantage English as a medium had, given that the elite had invested hard in English medium schools when it came to infrastructure and most other things that state-funded public institutions could not match. But still they matched. And when I gained admission to my undergraduate institution, a medical college, I saw that a majority of my classmates came from a non-English-medium background. The odds of gaining admission to a medical college were higher if one was from the Bengali-medium Bankura Zilla School than from my alma mater South Point High School. One saving grace of my high school was that its English-medium was only in name. We wrote our answer-scripts in English but the instruction and rebuke was in Bangla. Thankfully, there was no ideology or ‘manners’ that was taught – making unlearning an easier and less self-destructive process. The alienated chose to be alienated and they had their circles and ‘hobbies’. By Mother Saraswati’s grace, most of us remained Bengalis writing answer-sheets in English. I felt that this long introduction to my background was necessary for readers to know where I come from. Disclosure is good practice.

On May 6, when the 5-judge constitutional bench struck down the 1994 language policy of the Karnataka government that mandated that either Kannada or mother-tongue be the medium of instruction for Classes I to IV. The judges cited the lofty ideal of freedom expression and speech as well as protection of minority rights. It has been widely documented that mother-tongue instruction is far superior when it comes to grasping ideas and foster creative thinking. In fact, all the judges agreed that children ‘learn better’ when initially taught in their mother tongue. One can easily guess which sector of society will feel most ‘persecuted’ by the 1994 language policy. This is the same class that increasingly converses in English with people from the same mother tongue. Some of them even scoff at the idea of mother tongue in this ‘globalized era’ of ‘cosmopolitan ethos’. Lord Macaulay must be a happy man today.

The judgement goes against the spirit of the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 that also points out that the child’s mother language or home language is the “best medium of instruction”. This judgement is a triumph of the powerful Anglicized class which has typically punched above its weight. The implications of this judgement go beyond the court matter. It signals the confidence of the elite in using the language of rights to marginalize the masses.

Let us be clear on a few things. This push comes from English and Hindi-ized sectors of the Indian Union, the most vociferous cheerleaders of the new Indian project. By their inordinate grip over certain urban centres (Bangaluru, Delhi, Mumbai), they have been exerting an influence over policy that they cannot otherwise gain by democratic means. Karnataka’s populist Chief Minister Siddaramaiah knows that his people have no great clamour against mother-tongue instruction. In recent times, Karnataka has been one of those few states that have tried to restore dignity of their languages. The deliberate marginalization that comes with terms ‘regional’ / ‘vernacular’ language has now become normal. If the judiciary is so concerned about freedom of speech and expression and rights of linguistic minorities, it might want to look at the primacy accorded to English and Hindi. A staggering majority of the people in the subcontinent does not know English. The same goes for Hindi outside the Hindi-ized belt.

The elites and decision-makers of the subcontinent comes from a class that would start perspiring if they were asked to speak their mother’s tongue only, even for a week. The classes of people who actually perspire due to hard labour that puts food on the tables of the urbane and the entrenched elites can accomplish this easily. The subcontinent is almost unique to have a class that looks to non-mother tongues with so much pride. No wonder, when it comes to scientific creativity, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, etc surpass this nation. What is common between these nations is that their mother-tongue is their language of instruction, often all through the university level. The narrative of incompatibility between ‘higher education’ and mother-tongue is a creation of the self-serving Anglicized classes of the subcontinent whose privilege and entitlements would be threatened and their ‘authentic spokesperson to goras’ status threatened if mother-language education in the subcontinent went the Japanese way. But privilege doesn’t self-destruct. Hence we remain a self-hating land of forgotten mothers and persecuted tongues, good for creating a class of cyber-coolies and enthusiastic documenters of Euro-American mood-swings. From building high-rises to making highways, the real heavy lifting in the cosmopolitan cyber-coolie haven of Bengaluru is done by Kannada mother-tongue folks. Next time, look at the counter-girl in a chain-coffee store, uncomfortable in her dress. You walked up to her and placed an order in English. She breaks into Kannada when you are not looking. We are all complicit in the annihilation of her cultural self. Perverse word play is displayed when the calls for the rights of the marginalized majority is denounced as chauvinism. Freedom of speech and expression, anyone?

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Filed under Academia, Bengal, Education, Elite, Identity, Kolkata, Uncategorized

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