The Future of English in India

Article excerpt

Of late the debate on the status of English in India in the coming years has acquired a sharply negative tone. The consensus is stridently chauvenistic, with patriotic fervour getting the better of enlightened self interest, or even commonsense. This is the general impression. But it is not quite correct. For the politician in India, the hollowest and most hypocritical of the species, opposes English publicly for political reasons and supports it privately for personal reasons.

English is opposed for many reasons. It is a foreign language. It hampers the growth of regional languages. It is used only by a very small fraction of the total population. It is humiliating for a great country with such a rich cultural heritage as India not to have a national language which English can never be. Creative or critical expression is not possible in a foreign language. The quality of English written and spoken in India is so appallingly poor that sooner or later the language is bound to die a natural death. So why worry about a dying language? It generates a feeling of exclusiveness, a sense of alienation, an attitude of social superiority totally out of tune with the ethos of democratic culture. If other countries such as France, Germany, Russia, Japan, etc. can scale such dizzy heights of achievement in science and technology, through higher education imparted in their respective national languages, why not India? No serious effort will ever be made to promote higher education through Indian languages so long as English remains in the country. The Constitution (Article 343/1) forbids the indefinite use of English which will have to give way gradually to Hindi, India's officially recognised national language. The sort of English the Indians have developed over the years is so quaintly un-English in idiom and syntax that it will not be acceptable to the international community. The Indians have learnt nothing despite their two hundred year long British connection.

These are all very fragile arguments. Whatever the politician may say against English, and he says many negative and nasty things, the future of the so-called foreign language is assured in India. Paradoxically, he himself is the main cause of English's undiminished popularity and durability. For while denouncing it vehemently on the public platform, he accepts it secretly by seeking admission for his children desperately, first to exclusive, `high profile' English medium convent and public schools and later to prestigious British and American universities.

However, the atmosphere in the country, poisoned by pseudo-patriotic postures of politicians, works against the spread or even the bare survival of English. This is no doubt only partly true. Undeniably the general standards of instruction through English in schools and colleges and of the use of the language by the general public have collapsed alarmingly. But, at the same time, the quantum and quality of creative and critical writing by Indians are amazingly on the increase. More books, both fiction and non-fiction, by Indian writers have been published abroad in the post-Independence years than during the two hundred year-long Indo-British connection.

English is a language in which critical and creative writing at its very best is possible, as demonstrated by Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Nirad Chaudhuri, to mention a few, who have given telling evidence of their mastery of the language to which they were not born. The pre-Independence triumvirate, Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand, continue to be read by the older generation. But they have no chance against such hot favourites of the more demanding readers of the global village such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth.

No matter what noises the politician makes, English will stay in India and stay comfortable. There is no threat to it from him. Actually his prejudice against it is only his envy in disguise. …