Sunday, May 30, 2010

Undoing Macaulay: The Case for 'Inglish'

Since I wrote about Lord Macaulay in 2008 and praised the brilliance of his scheme, I have been engaged in the debate about Macaulay endlessly. If anyone has any doubts about how profound the effects of an education reform can be, Macaulay is a case in point. He used English Language as a weapon of empire building, and helped dominate a much larger country, India, through the creation of a franchise of privilege based on the language.

Indeed, India was divided and had no sense of nation, as John Stratchey would later say. With the breakdown of state power, the indigenous education system was dying. These factors made Macaulay's passage rather easy - he did not have to engineer any full scale cultural revolution. Besides, his scheme was not an original invention as some would like to say. An education system based on the language of the state was an established way of dividing and governing a society, somewhat since the Roman time. In all fairness, Macaulay was only applying the liberal logic - of progress, reason and enlightenment - to an old and well used method of establishing power relationships.

India was no stranger to the imperialism by language phenomena. Arabic and Farsi were widely studied in the days of the Mughal empire. In fact, if Macaulay was seeking to replace an education system, it was the one based on Farsi, which ambitious middle class students went on to study in the hope for an administrative job. Macaulay's Minutes were not an agenda for change; it was codifying a political shift already well under way.

After Independence, if one issue generated maximum debate in the Indian constituent assembly, it was the issue of Language. English was widely seen as the language of bondage, so needed to be replaced. However, most of the founding brotherhood of the Indian Republic were English trained, most of them steeped in the British way of life. So, they mostly went through a bizzare exercise - debating in English how to replace English as a state language.

It was more difficult to decide what English should be replaced with. While India adopted a state language - Hindi - its acceptance was by no means universal, particularly in the South and the East of the country. The debate was furious, and finally the issue was settled by allowing English to remain a parallel language of business for fifteen years, and by allowing a number of languages, which stands at twenty-two at the last count, somewhat equivalent status in the Schedule Eight of the constitution.

The journey that followed was marked by a see-saw in the Hindi-English balance and a relentless struggle for all other languages, there are more than 300 of them, to get the privilege of Schedule Eight. Now, one has to remember that we are not talking about extinct or historical languages here [the near-extinct, traditional language of India, Sanskrit, is spoken by about 16000 people, but has a special status], but languages potentially spoken by a few million people: The Schedule Eight, therefore, has been a contentious, continuously evolving list.

However, if one has to locate a pattern in the story of languages in India, there are two discernible turning points. One came when, after years of dithering, the government of India allowed public TV broadcasts to start in the Mid-1970s. That was a major turning point in the fortunes of Hindi. Initially, the television was seen as an extension of the Ministry of Information and used as a government mouthpiece. But, beyond this, television in India was largely about promoting Hindi high culture to all non-Hindi speakers. Dating back to my childhood, I remember the anger at the language 'imperialism', the sense of discrimination that television brought and how, such organized culture, made the Indian Union seemed repressive to some of its constituent entities.

The advent of television was largely successful in establishing Hindi as the language of Indian culture. The stunning rise of Bollywood, which used to be a comparatively small, somewhat regional (appealing to Hindi heartland of India) and intentionally unsophisticated film industry, to a professional, world class and world's largest movie-making machine, is completely due to the integration of Indian culture around Hindi. This allowed the 'scale' that a mass culture needs, though this came at the cost of complete demise of some of the rich regional cultures.

The next turning point in the balance of languages came with the rise of India's IT and ITES industries in the new millennium. There were the inevitable pull of Globalization, and the demographic dividend that India was enjoying; the positive spirit was aided by a relative peace dividend after the war in Afghanistan started destabilizing Pakistan, and unlocking of 'inner city', which happened with the telecom revolution, middle class mobility and diffusion of culture [aided, not least, by Hindi and Bollywood] and rise of a post-national Indian identity. This generation, largely linked through internet and mobile phones, consumes the cultural input mostly in Hindi, conducts family life mostly in their native tongue [though cross-region marriages are on the rise and was subject of a new, popular book] but conducts work and business in English. This helped English; state governments which banned English from state schools in the Eighties scrambled to bring it back, and federal ministers who obligatorily spoke in Hindi started feeling comfortable tweeting and blogging in nuanced queen's language.

This, in a way, could be seen as India's Macaulay moment. But, considering the intentions of the dead peer, it is just the opposite as well. Macaulay wanted to create a class of Indians who are Indian in colour, but Englishmen in taste and habits; we are at just the opposite point at this time, when millions of Indians, Indians in taste, habit and upbringing, are knocking the doors of English language and wanting to take it over. As I keep saying - the days of English as a language of privilege is over, and if India has to move on, we must turn English into a language of opportunity.

This brings me to the final point: How to integrate English into Indian society and make it a common platform of business and work. This is indeed a part of the two hundred year process and very much part of the Indian historic reality. There is already a considerable amount of diffusion of culture and common words and understanding already exists. A sense of Indian culture has emerged around Bollywood, where movies with titles such as 'Life in a Metro' or 'Karthik Calling Karthik' are already being made. The Liberation Generation in India is already exposed to computers, mobile phones and Internet, and even in the remote villages, English words and concepts have arrived. But this is not the idiomatic language of the British or the Americans, but a set of culture-neutral words and concepts like Menu as in a telephone, connect as on the Internet and friend as on Orkut.

So far, the educators have missed it. The reigning orthodoxy in English learning in India is to shape the curricula to lead to a Call Centre job, oblivious of the deeper and bigger change already underway. English as a platform of communication, a way to freedom and mobility, of opportunity and connection and technology, are far more powerful motivators for learning the language today, though these motives are less well articulated and often boxed indifferently under the label of 'getting a job'. That job is any job today, as, with the expansion of private industry and people mobility, English is the language of business in India and it is hard to get by without it.

In this changed context, the dominant requirement in India is not to learn English as it is spoken in Buckingham, or in Manhattan for that matter; nor it is to learn the 'English ways' of life. The need is for 'Inglish', a simplified, culturally adapted language platform integrating millions of Indians with each other and with the global workplace. The barriers of privilege erected by Macaulay and his ilk is past its sell-by date. This is a new inflection point in history of India, and must be attained to by the millions who are eager, innovative and hungry for success.

The idea is not foreign or new. Indian culture is known not to reject anything and adapt anything. So we did in architecture, language, literature, religion before. This is another such idea, when we turn Inglish an Indian language. Already, various variants, Hinglish, Benglish, Teglish, wherein local words are mixed into English sentences, exist; the point is, however, to create a common structure and grammar - minimizing the differences, that is - so that a common platform can emerge. We already know of such social experiments: the new simplified Mandarin facilitated rapid growth of literacy in China and two modern, successful nations, Indonesia and Malaysia, were constructed on modern languages, Bahasa-s.

How this can be done? In India, the usual answer, that the Government should do it, does not work. In India, things happen not because of the government, but instead of it. I think the Indian industry should be the starting point here, who will benefit enormously from such an effort. [Not just the solution to their skilled work needs, this will also mean a truly integrated domestic market and a scale to die for].

This will need civil society participation and academic acceptance, organizational work and efforts by people who wants to take India forward. But, in India, such enterprise, imaginativeness and effort are never in short supply. Macaulay is long dead and gone; this is the time to truly bury him.


John Doe said...

I think there were two things that contributed in the failure of hindi in the context of becoming 'the' national language. and both of these are related.

the first part of course is the way, it is pushed down the throat of non hindi speaking people. therefore people who'd have otherwise no problems to learning hindi feel the need to resist it.

the other is what sanctimonious hindi supporters have done to the language itself. when we got independence, hindi was a dynamic growing language - like many other languages in india (by the way, if partition hadn't happened bengali would be the language of the majority in the country.)

a language grows as it absorbs ideas from various sources. now hindi had a few. one was of course the folk culture. hindi was enriched greatly by various dialects that prevailed across the country - from brijbhasa to awadhi, from bhojpuri to pahari. another rich source of ideas was urdu with its bank of farsi and arabic. urdu provided a convenient channel through which ideas from across the borders flowed into the language.

now since independence, we have banish urdu to ignominy. it is spoken and written by a very marginal section of the population. it is almost as if we exported it to pakistan during partition with millions of our countrymen.

now when you look at it today, hindi is one of the most bankrupt languages in the country. great stuff is being written in tamil and malyalam, oriya and bengali - but hindi literature languishes unnoticed.

well there.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Point taken. I have nothing against Hindi though, but your point is valid. That is possibly the problem with court languages, they decline because they can't grow. It is a sort of Icurus Paradox they suffer from, their success becomes their reason for stagnation.

I think Hindi was chosen for a reason: This was to give India's rural millions a voice. It was an affirmative action by stealth, primarily engineered by Gandhi, who saw the great dangers of the country and the freedom being stolen by the English speaking minority. However, he would not have foreseen a bureaucracy stealing both the language and the freedom.

But we can't keep blaming poor Mahatma for every problem we have. He is long gone, and his message, if anything, was to tell us to get started and build a nation.

Sourobh said...

Dear Supriyo,

Your blog is a lovely read... Keep it up


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