Sunday, May 11, 2014

Contra Macaulay: 1

Macaulay, a dead English Lord, gets more credit than he deserves in India. Some people, uneasy about the English ideas and education in India, mocks 'Macaulay's Children', the English speaking Indians, and resent the country they have built. They point to the arrogance and corruption that English speaking class has brought upon India, as well as the division and distress this caused. However, they also fail to offer an alternative except going back on time and resurrecting a mythological ancient India which may not have ever existed.

The case contra Macaulay, therefore, has to be made. And, it can be made not in revivalist terms, that all truth comes from the Vedas and Indians had nothing to learn from anyone else. The case against Macaulay, and revivalism, stands simply on the premise that education needs to change when the society we live in, changes.

English, in India, has so far been the language of privilege. This is the code that the elite uses to connect to other elites. This was indeed in Macaulay's tradition, as he wanted a class of people who are 'Indian in colour, but English in taste', an interpreter class. However, it is perhaps a mistake, as the Hindu nationalists claim, that this English-speaking elite has no mind of their own. They have beaten Macaulay in his own game, and despite using English, they are no longer go-betweens. The Indian elite has created an idea of India, which is very European in conception but Indian in aspiration. So, one could claim that they have grown out of the role Macaulay wanted them to play and re-imagined the possibilities.

What they failed to do, however, is to make English the language of possibility. The Indian state excluded too many people, it remained too distant. There are some great achievements, indeed: The commitment to constitutionalism and democracy, and the steadfast ideal of secularism, allowed the Indian leaders to reshape an ancient nation in the space of a mere half decade, and create aspirations of a new kind. But as the aspirations developed, the polity degenerated. The prosperity was cornered by the few, the democracy subverted and the institutions politicized and tamed. What the makers of India built was merely the foundation: Today's India remains a bare-boned structure in the need of a purpose.

Set in this context, there could be a new national consensus to exclude English and adopt Hindi in everything. This was the direction of the constitution, but never really happened. One clear rationale for developing a national language, that is to create an even playing field for everyone, does not hold in India: Any language would leave a vast majority behind and in the need of learning a new language. So, in a way, creating a new Indian language that everyone can learn and speak across India, and making it mandatory in all communication, is perhaps one way to think about it.

However, the context has changed since the last time we debated about it in the Constituent Assembly. Globalisation has shaped our trade and commerce, and has now shaped our lives. While countries which strongly and unequivocally adopted local language and developed it, like Russia and China, are trying to catch up on English as the world's business language, it may be problematic to go back in time and develop an Indian language all over again (which will anyway leave more than half of Indians at a linguistic disadvantage). This, then, sets the case for making English a language of possibility in India.

The case contra Macaulay is not about abandoning English, but making English an Indian language. However counter-intuitive it may sound, one could clearly abandon "Queen's English" as a marker of privilege and exclusion, and develop instead an Indian English, based on a simplified grammar and mixed vocabulary drawing on common-use terms. This is not unlike what the Chinese has done with Mandarin, coming up with a simplified version in 1962, which has greatly boosted literacy. For India's national integration and literacy, the case for 'Inglish' remains strong.

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