A Window on the World
The Hindu, Tuesday, October 19, 1993.

ENGLISH, the much loved and hated surrogate child of the British rule in India, has managed to remain in the centre-stage of controversy even after 45 years of the country's independence. To an impartial observer, it seems that it can neither be thrown away nor can it be adopted completely.

It is clear that when English was introduced in the country in the early 19th century, the purposes were far from harmony with the ideals of the country. Lord Macaulay introduced the teaching of English in India to produce what he called "a class of people Indian in blood and colour, but English in opinion, in moral and in intellect." At that time, his decision was wholly supported by the intellectuals (and even patriots like Raja Ram Mohan Roy) who believed that through English they would be able to enter into the realm of western thought and culture and western view of life.

Post-independent India, naturally, witnessed a great deal of anger against English since it was seen as a tool of oppression in the hands of the foreign aggressor. Perhaps much of it was also to do with the hatred against the British rulers. Rabindra Nath Tagore, for instance, fought for Bengali at a time when the prestige of English had grown supreme. He was a strong adherent of the theory that the medium of instruction should be through the mother tongue of the child. Delivering his famous Convocation address at the Calcutta University as far back as in February 1937 in Bengali, he said. "Learning should as far as possible follow the process of eating. When taste begins from the first bite, the stomach is awakened to its function before it is loaded, so that its digestive juices get full play. Nothing like this happens, however, when the Bengali boy is taught English. When one is choking and spluttering over the spelling and grammar, the inside remains starved, and when at length the taste is felt the appetite is vanished."

Mahatma Gandhi also made a strong case for instruction through the mother tongue. He is on record having said, "I must cling to my mother-tongue as to my mother's breast... It alone can give me the life-giving milk." Though he himself wrote a great deal in English, he was never a votary for the retention of English in India and generally perceived it as a "symbol of our slavery."

Now in the 1990's, the question of doing away with English or retaining it still continues to haunt the nation. There are many who are on the either extremes—some want to totally do away with it, while the others would like to retain it.

The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle. It is a fact that English has assumed a great role as utility language not only in India but throughout the world. Within the country, despite its great opposition, English was adopted by the Constituent Assembly to continue as the "associate official language" for 15 years from the date of the adoption of the Constitution (that is, 1950) after which Hindi was to take over. However, in 1963 on vehement opposition to Hindi from South India, the Parliament enacted the official Languages Act providing for continued use of English for an indefinite period. In this connection, the then Prime Minister Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru's words are worth quoting: "...English is likely to have an important place in the foreseeable future." What, then, are the important functions that English continues to perform in the modern day India that make it almost inseparable? From the various commission reports appointed by the Government of India from time to time to assess the role of English in India, the following pertinent conclusions can be drawn:

English is the language in which nearly all contemporary knowledge is accessible. It is the language of development. Obviously, then for healthy development in all fields of our national life, our scientists, technologists, doctors, engineers, agriculturists, economists and experts in numerous other fields must have access to the international professional literature in their respective fields, be able to contribute to it and exchange their views on important issues with their counterparts in other parts of the world. Most of these functions can, at present, be performed only through the medium of English and therefore it would not be wrong to say that it is the "window on the world."

English enjoys the status of the "associate official language" and the de facto link language in our country. It is the language favoured by the Union Public Service Commission, the legal and banking systems, trade and commerce and defence.

English continues to be the medium of instruction at many post-graduate institutions, All India Institutes and other professional and technical institutions of higher learning. It is expected that English will continue to perform these functions for a long time to come. It is, therefore, necessary to provide facilities for learning English to those students who may want to pursue their

higher studies at these institutions.

The role of English as a "library language" cannot be undermined even where the medium of instruction is other than English.

At the individual level English serves as the "language of opportunity." Any individual seeking socio-economic development would find in English an asset.

English is essential for the purposes of translating the relevant texts from and into modern Indian languages.

English is required to exchange views on and gain from various international schools of thought, diverse cultures and world literature and also to interpret Indian thought and culture aboard. Hence, English is found to be essential in India at present for its utility value and not necessarily for the purposes for which the British had introduced it. Further the role and functions English vis--vis national/regional languages has to be understood.

While the important role English continues to play in post-independent India is accepted the role of ones mother tongue cannot be undermined. There is a sort of an emotional attachment and something sacred about the mother tongue as it is a part of ones cultural heritage. It is a moral obligation to love and cherish this heritage. It is the language through which first experiences of the world were organised and environment recognised. One’s basic needs are often expressed in this language even in later life. Ideas, thoughts, joys, sorrows and other feelings are generally conveyed in the best manner through ones mother tongue.

However, love for the mother tongue should not prejudice one against other languages. Current linguistic research has proved that no language is superior to any other language. All human languages have similar potential. The development and growth of a language depends upon .its use.

It is only right and just that most of the States of India should have adopted their regional languages as the Official State languages and also as media of instruction till the graduation level. At the national level, there is need for a national link language. Unfortunately, the official language of the country has still not been decided. And as far as English is concerned, it is indisputably the national and international language for our country.

Language tensions are normal in a world where over 6,000 languages co-exist in 160 countries, and it is all the more normal in a country like India where 880 million people use over 1,650 languages and dialects (as mother language) including more than 200 classified languages and 15 constitutionally recognised languages of national importance. English is not the cause of cultural insecurity or ethnic prejudices in India. It is no longer the foreign oppressor's language, nor is it the exclusive possession of the elitist; it has become the common property of millions of ordinary citizens.

 

—Anil Sarwal