Should the Centre have a say on languages taught in schools?

There has been a furore over the draft New Education Policy 2019, as many non-Hindi States feel that it is a barely-disguised plan to impose Hindi on their unsuspecting youngsters.

The government has of course clarified that this is this is just a draft policy, and nothing has been finalised.

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The draft NEP, prepared by a panel led by eminent scientist K Kasturirangan, has put forth a plan to implement three-language formula in schools across the country. It means students in Hindi-speaking states should learn an Indian language, apart from Hindi and English and, in non-Hindi-speaking states, Hindi along with the regional language and English.

The part that the non-Hindi state 'should' learn Hindi is seen as problematic. Considering the sensitivity of the issue, especially in States like Tamil Nadu, the government was quick to react with a clarification.

The government had the two Tamils in the Union Cabinet, S Jaishankar and Nirmala Sitharaman to put out a tweet (in Tamil) and explain the situation. Jaishankar, the new Minister for External Affairs, also had an English version under his Twitter handle.

The matter may soon die down, but the language issue is indeed a ticklish one. States like Tamil Nadu, which have their share of own language chauvinists, are always distrustful of various Central governments over imposition of Hindi. On the other hand, many people find TN's approach a bit pig-headed when it comes to learning Hindi or other languages.

There is merit in both points of view. But the real, and the larger, issue is why the Central government should have a say in school education and languages taught at all? In a country as large and diverse as India, people sitting in Delhi continuing to have a say on what should students in Pathanamthitta or Hubli or Gangtok learn seems unfair.

That Education is in the Concurrent List (Seventh Schedule to the Constitution) is in itself problematic. Education, as it happens, was in the State List only till the Indira Gandhi government moved it to the Concurrent List through the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, controversially brought in during the Emergency period.

In 1968, Indira Gandhi wanted to implement the 3-language policy (based on Kothari Commission report), but huge protests broke out in States like Tamil Nadu, and the plan was dropped then as education was a state subject. But during the Emergency, a slighted Indira Gandhi moved Education to the Concurrent List.

"Much of the confusion that India witnesses in its education sector stems from that fatal mistake of moving education to the Concurrent List," says Professor Mohammad Riaz of Osmania University. "Indira Gandhi for her political interests made that change. The country is still paying a price for that."

The Modi government should be more sensitive on an emotive issue like language and can also try and shift Education to where it belongs: the State List.

Of course, it takes a lot of political will to give up one's hold and power. But true leadership is empowering systems and people down the chain.