How English survived in India

Many ceremonies recently marked the 35th death anniversary of C N Annadurai, first DMK chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He is remembered mainly for ending Congress hegemony and Brahmin supremacy in the state. But today we should see him in a new light: he saved India from Hindi imperialism, ensured the continuation of English, and so made possible the outsourcing revolution that is moving lakhs of jobs from the West to India.

Today we boast that India has a competitive advantage in outsourcing because of its English-speaking population. But most politicians at independence wanted to eliminate English, then seen as a vile colonial implant, and replace it with Hindi. The Constitution in 1950 decreed that Hindi would be India’s officials language, but as a transitional measure allowed English to continue for 15 years (till 1965).

Nehru wanted Hindi as a national language, but also saw the value of English as a window to the world. Socialists like Lohia were rabidly anti-English, and launched an Angrezi Hatao agitation in 1957. The Jan Sangh in 1963 launched a violent agitation for abolishing English not only in official use but in shop signs, street signs and even car number plates.

However, non-Hindi states (above all Tamil Nadu) began to worry about the 1965 deadline. If English was abolished, would they not be disadvantaged compared with Hindi-speaking states?

Annadurai’s DMK viewed Brahmins as imperialists from north India, and (in its early years) wanted Tamil Nadu to secede from India to escape this domination. The DMK denounced the move to abolish English as brazen Hindi imperialism.

Nehru strove for compromise in his Official Languages Act of 1963. This allowed continued use of English after 1965. But under the same Act, the Home Ministry issued circulars making Hindi obligatory for all central government officers, and declaring that Hindi would become the official language of India on January 26, 1965.

Annadurai saw this as Hindi imperialism, and struck back with the most violent agitation the state had ever seen. Several Tamil students immolated themselves in protest. The police opened fire on rampaging mobs, killing at least 66 (official figures) and maybe 500 (unofficial estimates). Fearful that the language issue would stoke secession, New Delhi retreated and assured all states that their adoption of Hindi would be optional, not mandatory. In 1967 the Official Languages Act was amended to specify that both English and Hindi could be used as official languages for all purposes.

In the state election of 1967, the DMK won a landslide victory. The party has (in one of two factional avatars) ruled the state ever since. Many people think South India resisted Hindi. Not really. The resistance was specifically Tamil. Former foreign minister Dinesh Singh, from Uttar Pradesh, once complained bitterly to me that Hindi would have triumphed but for Tamil Nadu.

Note, that Annadurai was a champion of Tamil, not English. He wanted to raise Tamil to its pre-Sanskrit position of glory, and his party went out of its way to purge Tamil of words of Sanskrit origin (just as Hindi fanatics purged Hindustani of words of Persian or Arabic origin). A rising DMK star, Gyanasundaram, was embarrassed since Gyan and Sundaram were words of Sanskrit origin, and so translated these into old Tamil and renamed himself Mathialagan.

The Tamil Brahmin elite was proficient in English. Annadurai did not want this proficiency to become an advantage, and so limited their access to educational institutions and state government services through stringent quotas. As a Tamil fanatic, he wanted English for the limited purpose of keeping the Hindi-wallahs at bay, of ensuring that Tamilians were not disadvantaged in all-India exams (for educational institutions and the civil and defence services).

Unwittingly, he helped preserve English as India’s window to the world. This was something always wanted by Nehru, a north Indian Brahmin whom Annadurai hated. Decades later, English helped India storm the outsourcing market.

I often hear fears that India’s English-language advantage in outsourcing is temporary. Of other ex-British colonies, Sri Lanka has far better literacy and infrastructure, and Bangladesh has far lower wages than India. Why shouldn’t outsourcing shift there? The delicious answer is that language chauvinism has ruined their chances.

Sri Lankan politicians have severely curtailed English education, insisting that Sinhalese should be taught only in Sinhala and Tamils in Tamil. Bangladesh has replaced English by Bengali very widely. These countries never had regional chieftains like Annadurai insisting on preserving English. So India will easily beat them in outsourcing.

Annadurai was flayed in his lifetime by the Jan Sangh, which spearheaded the anti-English agitation of the 1960s. One of those agitators was Atal Behari Vajpayee. How ironic that the same Vajpayee should now boast about a Shining India based on comparative advantage in English!

3 thoughts on “How English survived in India

  • 2016.Feb.25 at 22:44
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    Kindly have a little look at the data from the field of education and international trade to know how the “English advantage” has ruined India. More people we have who know English, further below we go international rankings, be it education or international trade. India’s share in world trade was 1.78 in 1950. It had come down to 1.50 by 2012. India ranks 150th in per capita export. India shared 22 per cent of world GDP in the 17th century. That share now is about 2.5 per cent. Eight of the the top 10 countries in science education at school level are the ones which don’t teach in English medium. I wonder how ill-informed the apparently well-informed people in India are. They make statements just blindly. They English language has invaded Indian middle class minds in such a way that they have become incapable to see or hear. The following quote from a UNESCO book will be a blasphemy to them: (Improvement in the Quality of Mother Tongue – Based Literacy and Learning, published in 2008, pp. 12): ‘What seems to be standing in our way is a set of myths about language and learning, and these myths must be revealed as such to open people’s eyes. One such myth is that the best way to learn a foreign language is to use it as a medium of instruction. (In fact, it is often more effective to learn additional languages as subjects of study.) Another is that to learn a foreign language you must start as early as possible. (Starting early might help learners to have a nice accent, but otherwise, the advantage goes to learners who have a well developed first language.) A third is that the home language gets in the way of learning a foreign language. (Building a strong foundation in the first language results in a better learning of additional languages.) Clearly, these myths are more false than true, yet they guide the way policymakers tend to think about how speakers of other languages must learn dominant or official languages.’ In comparison to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (the countries which the respected author considers backward) India has proportionately more children suffering from malnutrition.

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  • 2016.Feb.25 at 22:30
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    This write up brings out important facts and figures which are essential to be taken notice of for a correct approach to language issues.
    1. For the past ten years, eight of the top ten countries in teaching of Science and Mathematics at school level have been the ones where medium of instruction is not English. In 2012, the countries teaching in English ranked 3rd (Singapore), 10th (Canada), 14th (Ireland), 16th (Australia), 18th (New Zealand), and 28th (USA) among the top 50 countries. These countries too do not teach exclusively in English at school level. For instance, there are French medium schools in Canada, Irish medium in Ireland, Dyirbal in Australia. Maori in New Zealand and several languages medium ones in the USA.
    2. Only a few of the top 50 universities in Asia are the ones where English is the language of instruction and none of the Indian universities is among them;
    3. In the 17th century (when barely any Indian knew English), the Indian share in world GDP was 22 (twenty two) per cent. It has now come down to around 2.5 per cent. Indian share in world trade too is coming down. It was 1.78 per cent in 1950 and hovers around 1.5 (one and a half) per cent now; Despite so much emphasis on English language, India ranks 150th in terms of per capita exports, what an English advantage!!!
    4. The international expert opinion and practice overwhelmingly support the view that education, particularly at the school level, can be imparted successfully only through the mother tongue medium, and;
    5. The following words from the field of Medical Science and their Hindi equivalents make it clear that our languages do possess vocabulary for each field of knowledge or it can be obtained with a very little effort:
    Haem – रक्त; Haemacyte – रक्त-कोशिका; Haemagogue – रक्त-प्रेरक; Haemal – रक्तीय; Haemalopia – रक्तीय-नेत्र; Haemngiectasis – रक्तवाहिनी-पासार; Haemangioma – रक्त-मस्सा; Haemarthrosis – रक्तजोड़-विकार; Haematemesis – रक्त-वामन; Haematin – लौहरकतीय; Haematinic – रक्तवर्धक; Haematinuria – रक्तमूत्र; Haematocele – रक्त-ग्रन्थि/सूजन; Haematocolpos – रक्त-मासधर्मरोध; Haematogenesis – रक्त-उत्पादन; Haematoid – रक्तरूप; Haematology – रक्त-विज्ञान; Haematolysis – रक्त-ह्रास; Haematoma – रक्त-ग्रन्थि।
    As these examples illustrate, the complete vocabulary of each language is constructed out of some limited basic elements, called roots (as is Haem in these cases) and affixes. And there is no marked difference among languages with regard to these basic elements. Thus, all languages are equal in terms of their lexical capacity.
    The poor international ranking of Indian educational institutions, the constant fall of Indian share in world trade, the expert opinion on language issues and the contemporary international linguistic scene and practices provide irrefutable evidence that India has suffered great losses by handing over mother tongue domains to English language. One significant reason for India’s lagging behind countries such as South Korea, Japan and China, etc. is the intrusion of English language in Indian education and other important domains.
    It is true that in the present globalized world, foreign language skills are an essential ability. But even here, the experience and research show that a student imparted education through mother tongue and studying foreign language as a subject learns the foreign language better than the one imparted education through that foreign language from the beginning. The following statement from a UNESCO book (Improvement in the Quality of Mother Tongue – Based Literacy and Learning, published in 2008, pp. 12) is very much relevant here: ‘What seems to be standing in our way is a set of myths about language and learning, and these myths must be revealed as such to open people’s eyes. One such myth is that the best way to learn a foreign language is to use it as a medium of instruction. (In fact, it is often more effective to learn additional languages as subjects of study.) Another is that to learn a foreign language you must start as early as possible. (Starting early might help learners to have a nice accent, but otherwise, the advantage goes to learners who have a well developed first language.) A third is that the home language gets in the way of learning a foreign language. (Building a strong foundation in the first language results in a better learning of additional languages.) Clearly, these myths are more false than true, yet they guide the way policymakers tend to think about how speakers of other languages must learn dominant or official languages.’
    Some more key factors about language matters are also essential to be considered: 1) In modern times, the life and development of a language depends on its being the medium of instruction. A language can sustain itself only if it is used in various domains of human life; The way English is occupying the language domains, the life of Indian mother tongues is under a severe threat; 2) The English medium instruction is producing a generation which has no appreciable mastery either over their mother tongues or over English and neither it can connect intimately with their own culture, tradition, history and people. It is not wrong to call these children as English children because by the time they complete their schooling their competence in English is more than their mother tongues, it is meager though in English too; 3. A successful delivery of any kind of service is not possible without the language of the people it is meant for; 4) The Indian constitution (an epitome of wisdom of the freedom movement) gives a right to every Indian citizen to receive education and services in the mother tongue (see article 347 and 350A); 5. Almost all of the countries start teaching foreign language after the age of ten. The foreign language skill of their children is not less than Indian children. Also, most of these countries are ahead of us in education and development as well; 6. Recently, there have been reports that European banks are not recruiting British citizens because they know only English and Britain is suffering trade losses to the tune of 48 billion pounds for not knowing languages other than English.
    These facts amply demonstrate that Indian people need to deeply reflect upon the present linguistic situation in India, so that a correct language policy could be put in place. We Indians are already very late in this and India has suffered great developmental losses due to this. The developmental losses of far greater proportion are bound to happen if the present policies are continued.
    A booklet titled ‘International Opinion on Language Issues: Mother Tongue is the Key to Education, Knowledge, Science and English Learning’ provides detailed information on the findings of worldwide research and expert opinion on language matters and the current international linguistic scene. This document is available in Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Maithili, Dogri, Nepali, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu and English at the web site http://punjabiuniversity.academia.edu/JogaSingh/papers .

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  • 2012.May.05 at 18:01
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    who asked out sourcing industries to come to India
    that benefit to rich world only
    not a positive impact in our economics

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