There is no need for Mr Bhagwat’s equivalent in these countries to lecture anybody on why they “should start respecting (their) own mother tongue”.
I wonder if Rashtriya Swayamswevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat was hitting out at subordinates in the parivar like M. Venkaiah Naidu, the vice-president of India, and Rajnath Singh, the Union home minister, when he said the other day in his now famous three-part lecture that “the dominance of English is not in day-to-day work, it’s in our minds”. He might have added that the vice-president and the home minister would not have felt it necessary to launch into a diatribe against English if they had not suffered acutely from what is called elsewhere the “colonial cringe”.
Mr Naidu’s description of the English language as an “illness” left behind by the British is another example of the BJP’s unfortunate aptitude for spoiling a good case through overkill. It would appear that since he was speaking under the aegis of the home ministry, he took his cue from Mr Singh, who once declared when he was BJP president that English had caused “great loss” to India.
“We are losing our language, our culture, as there are hardly any people who speak Sanskrit now”, Mr Singh had appeared to lament on the eve of the 2014 general election. Of course, the dominance of any foreign language must mean some erosion of indigenous ways, but the more astute Mohan Bhagwat knows that English is spoken by less than 10 per cent of Indians. Those 10 per cent certainly haven’t marginalised Sanskrit. The government has done so by neglecting all language teaching while politicising the subject.
Mr Singh was obviously playing to the gallery for votes. But that didn’t justify the retort by Congress leader Manish Tewari about the “paradox” of the BJP “outsourcing its vision document to anglicised policy wonks while ranting” against English. There is no paradox in making the fullest use of English for practical purposes while nurturing the nation’s soul in languages that reflect its culture and traditions.
There is a need for a balance between English and local languages. France and Sweden, China and Japan manage perfectly well by confining English to special niches where it serves the greatest purpose. They can, therefore, live their lives in French and Swedish, Chinese and Japanese. There is no need for Mr Bhagwat’s equivalent in these countries to lecture anybody on why they “should start respecting (their) own mother tongue”. They do it as a matter of course.
Here, when it came to an important matter like his partial demonetisation, Narendra Modi must hve felt he would be taken more seriously even in the saffron ranks if the announcement was made in English. But when it came to boasting to the hoi-polloi how chummy he was with the US President of the day, Mr Modi spoke in colloquial Hindi. That guaranteed instant understanding by his dazzled listeners.
It was different with Jawaharlal Nehru. He could afford to give public orations in English. As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew put it, people didn’t need to understand what Nehru said. Just to be in his presence, to hear the sound of his speech, was blessing enough.
There will never be another Nehru to mesmerise the multitude with the magic of his voice. Nor will Macaulay’s stated and oft-quoted objective of creating a genre that is “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” ever be realised. That far-fetched fantasy might arguably have been possible with 100 per cent literacy and a booming economy that converted the entire country into a sparkling urban paradise whose inhabitants were all assured of comfortable white collar employment that enabled them to eat with knives and forks in pukka houses.
Even Macaulay, I suspect, only meant that a small handful —- those few whom India’s British rulers trusted — would undergo this cultural transformation. The paddy cultivator and toddy-tapper, the road-mender and the bricklayer would remain ordinary, uneducated and impoverished desis as before. It sometimes seems as if independent India’s ruling parties operate exactly as the colonial regime did.
India’s greatest failure since 1947 lies in not having done more genuinely to empower these depressed sections of society. So-called compulsory employment schemes are like Britain’s old dole, now renamed benefits. They don’t add to self-respect or to a man’s ability to stand on his own two feet and earn a decent living. Appealing to primeval passions through linguistic populism doesn’t improve their lives either. It’s only a distraction that encourages people to believe that safeguarding the nation’s cultural identity means lynching those who are suspected of eating beef, desecrating churches, and converting Indians of other faiths to Hinduism. That is an ugly and bigoted perversion of true nationalism.
Young Indians need far more education and far less propaganda. It is no part of a university’s legitimate functions to celebrate something called “Surgical Strike Day”, however important the date and event might be for the government or a ruling party that is going all out to woo voters as the 2019 general election approaches.
Just as the old three-language formula churned out millions of students who were virtually illiterate in English, Hindi and the mother tongue, tirades against English by high functionaries only expose their own gnawing sense of failure. Those few with a mastery of English may still enjoy an edge over those who don’t enjoy this advantage. But listening to All India Radio’s English-language reporters or trying to converse in English with public sector employees is a painfully frustrating business nowadays.
Things can only get worse if India’s 900 or so universities and 38,000 colleges focus even more on celebrating the government’s achievements to the neglect of academic work. It’s hardly the blueprint for a vigorous “Bhavishya Ka Bharat” — the theme of Mr Bhagwat’s three-part lecture series last week — to give language politics precedence over language or try to pass off sectarian propaganda as nationalism.