Indians once displayed pride in multilingualism. Return of an instrumental English signals a new phase.

Gyanendra Pandey
Hndi, India official language, english, english language, multilingualism, diversity of language, indian express

Indian ruling class seems to believe that every country around the globe must become another United States of America. (File)

At a recent dinner in a friend’s home in South Delhi, his teenage son said to me, “Why should I be fluent in Hindi? I don’t want to learn Hindi.” That is the language of his birthplace and his parents: Perhaps the only language in which his grandparents are comfortable to this day. What a difference a couple of generations can make.

Not so long ago, educated Indians displayed considerable pride in the country’s inheritance of multilingualism: In children who spoke Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Oriya as well as English, and scholars who were accomplished in Persian and Urdu, Sanskrit and Pali, German, French, Russian and more. Leading thinkers stressed the richness and diversity of this inheritance. Indians needed to learn English and other foreign languages for use in their work, travels and interaction with the wider world. At the same time, must preserve and nurture their mother tongues, the language of love, poetry and story telling that they grew up with in their homes and local communities.

Now, the sons and daughters of India’s upper and upper-middle classes appear to have lost all pride in that inheritance. In a remarkable way, and perhaps without much realisation on their part, they have become more and more like the British rulers of colonial India. Today’s Indian elites speak incessantly in English — in shops and elevators, offices and homes, in person and online. They use Indian languages only for functional conversations with servants and trades-people. And parents occasionally reprimand their children for speaking in the “vernacular” — even in their own homes, at their own dining tables.

I want to be clear. English has an undeniably important place in India today. Leading intellectuals and commentators have noted that English is now an Indian language. Indian writers have contributed remarkable new works to the domain of English literature, and taken it in new directions. Yet the English in common use among India’s middle and upper-middle classes is hardly a sign of new literary encounters or sensitivity. It is a sadly reduced version of the language, in the jargon of the business-world and self-help individualism and text message slang. What it signals is a decline of pride in bilingualism (not to say, multilingualism) - indeed, a decline of pride in linguistic/cultural inheritance and skills, more generally.

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The re-institution of such an “English” language indexes the return of much else that British rule had sought to impose in its advancement of colonial interests and practices in India. Who or what is responsible for this?

I would point to two inter-connected factors. The first is an erosion of self-respect in the nation, with its rich and diverse history. The demise of an anti-colonial, inclusive and forward-looking nationalism seeking welfare and justice for all; and the rise, in its place, of a narrow, exclusivist, backward-looking jingoism — in which English (the language of “development” and “capitalism”) becomes the only language worth knowing or learning. A second factor reinforces that narrowness. This is the worldwide ascendancy of today’s neoliberal, market-driven, consumerist capitalism — in which literature, art, philosophy, the environment, intellectual work, compassion for others, concern for the poor and downtrodden, the aged and the sick, none of these counts against brute calculation of monetary profit and loss.

The result is paradoxical and painful. On the one hand, the sky is rent with slogans of the greatness of Indian civilisation, Hindu traditions and the tolerance of Hinduism: “Garv se kaho ham Hindu/Hindustani hain;” “Hindustan mein hi saari duniya ke dharma ek saath reh sakte hain;” “Hinduon ki hi vajah se Bharat ek dharm-nirpeksh desh hai.” On the other, we see the disappearance of a commitment to long-standing nationalist goals of freedom, equality, religious tolerance, economic and political opportunity, work, self-respect and dignity for all of India’s citizens, irrespective of caste, race, religion, language, gender, or place of birth. And, with that, the decline of serious interest in the preservation and development of India’s languages, and the literary and cultural legacies of Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, Oriya and so on.

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What a world of difference there is between Lal Bahadur Shastri’s simple slogan, “Jai jawan, jai kisan,” for that matter, Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi hatao,” and the Modi government’s “Howdy Houston.” Not to mention the latter’s “5 T’S: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology,” or “3 D’s: Democracy, Demography and Demand,” in which the last two words make sense only in terms of an aggressive new culture of consumerist capitalism.

The Indian ruling class seems to believe that every country around the globe must become another United States of America. In actuality, it chases a pale shadow, or imitation, of what is thought of as “America.” The surface show, emptied of its most energising and creative spirit. What the regime promotes in consequence (in India, and increasingly in America,) are half-realised dreams — or nightmares — of highways and air-ways, automobiles and airplanes, towering multistoried structures, gated communities and smart cities, military displays and aeronautical and space adventures.

Is this the only path open to the world today, the path of crony capitalism? A market-driven, profiteering order, built on speculation, tax breaks for the super-rich, manipulation of statistics, and financial fiddles by those in the know. A capitalism and an autocratic “democracy” made for the national and international one per cent, increasingly by the one percent that controls the political and economic resources of so many countries around the world, including the media, the bureaucracy and judiciary, and bodies responsible for conducting free and fair elections.

More and more ordinary Indian citizens have seen through this subterfuge. Poor Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims fighting for livelihood and home, opportunity, access to resources and equal rights, brave women of the lower and middle classes, and idealistic youth of all classes, protesting across the length and breadth of India against the government’s policies and actions. Their understanding is captured in the holding up of the national flag, the reading of the Preamble to the Constitution, the call to defend the spirit of anti-colonial nationalism, which the ruling classes are so reluctant to uphold.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 10, 2020 under the title “Two nationalisms.” The writer is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor, and Director, Interdisciplinary Workshop on Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, Emory University

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