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624 M. Madhava Prasad, Language, education and political existence

Language, education and political existence

The most important fact about the Indian student’s education is
that he is untouched by it.
– Robert L. Gaudino, The Indian University.1

DISCRIMINATION may be an inadequate term with which to try
and come to grips with the most important problems faced by a
majority of students who enter the Indian university today. Not that
there are no instances of discrimination. Just in the last couple of
weeks, reports of dalit students in universities committing suicide,
broken down by neglect, discrimination and hostility, have once again
begun to appear in the media, leading to more proposals for reform
of the educational system.2 The term works best when it is used to
identify the informal and selective application of prejudices, in formal
situations, to people belonging to minority groups. Dalits are not a
minority group in Indian society, though in the university they are. But
once you look beyond such spaces at society at large, the conditions
under which discrimination could serve as a useful critical tool simply
do not exist.
Instances of discrimination provide an occasion for revisiting basic
questions. It is astonishing how much first-rate, enlightened and welltested educational theory is available out there, should anybody wish
to reconstruct the system.3 But the crucial ingredient, which is always
factored in and whose absence is always lamented, without which no
amount of enlightened theory can make much difference, is the will to
change. Thus Professor Jacob: ‘The concept needs to be supported
by a commitment from the institutional administration and faculty to
support those who have made the minimum necessary grade required
for academic success through the course, provide an environment
which encourages individual growth and attempt to overcome the
pernicious effect of long-term deprivation… Successful institutions
are motivated by social uplift rather than political considerations.’

This follows after a diagnosis of the ills of the educational system
where it is pointed out that ‘equality of opportunity does not happen


com/2011/624/624_m_madhava_prasad. In the field of education – and the future of higher education cannot be treated separately from education in general – the perpetuation of the linguistic divide was the instrument by which this was accomplished. which was under threat in the new order. It would be a reasonable guess that in the entire history of humanity. it has not been the shared feature of a militant class with a history of fidelity to republican democracy. and yet in the end it appears that there is no remedy that does not depend upon a miraculous transformation of the mind-set of the people who run the institutions. There is ample evidence to suggest that this class subverted the democratic project in order to safeguard its own position of privilege. policy has always been vulnerable to being commandeered to serve the colonial bourgeoisie’s class interests. despite the fact that the latter’s achievements are personal triumphs against high odds. in the form of the Constitution. It is a particularly perverse situation. only structural changes brought about by political means and sustained against the resistance of entrenched class interests will provide any hope of success.’ that ‘the combination of class and caste is toxic with an exponential increase in difficulty for those at the bottom of the ladder. education and political existence in societies as grossly unequal as found in India.’ that ‘academia and professional organizations seem to prefer and perpetuate class privilege’ and so on. never was the gap between letter and spirit as wide as it has been in India since Independence. an affliction that needs to be carefully examined. but while it induces practices of politicoethical hygiene in individual members of the intelligentsia. When we rue the absence of the will to change. It is a devastatingly hopeless situation that is described by the article. without the spirit. So there is no militant class backing the Constitution with its iron will.htm 2/9 . which indicate not an absence of will so much as the presence of a counter-will. once again.’ and that ‘overcoached but mediocre applicants from private schools win over bright but underprivileged students from substandard institutions. Madhava Prasad. I believe the time has come.8/25/2015 624 M. Language. to renew the demand for a radical change in the language of education.india-seminar. we are merely acknowledging the fact that we have the letter of the law. It is customary to call for a renewed debate rather than straightaway demand a change. actively pursuing goals contrary to those laid down by policy. And after all these years. in the spirit of self-critique. It is clear now that from the very beginning of our free existence. In such a context. That court of appeal called the conscience may not be entirely absent from our midst. Reports about non-implementation and misuse of resources allocated for implementation of reservation for OBCs are circulating on the net. but a review of the accumulated literature of past debates shows that all the necessary arguments have http://www.

ministers and public men. I mean the Constitution. teachers of higher education and so on – the personnel that count for everything in the present order. English holds the field rendering itself into a vested interest for the classes. upholds it. by ignoring the pleas of the political classes for cooperation. But their position was compromised by the fact that while they favoured changes in conformity with republican ideas. In this way. and if he studies further. It would be mere sophistry to reopen the debate on the language of education. a third modern language like English. The class supplies Government servants. Language. Madhava Prasad. and by ridiculing the vernacular languages. fought the new ideas by simply refusing to fall in line. education and political existence already been made by some very competent people. put it: It is this class that mainly holds the reins of Government and controls education. It was not for lack of ideas that Indian democracy got hijacked by a privileged minority.india-seminar. …it must be obvious to any unprejudiced mind that the first language of study will be the student’s own regional language. The political leadership did by and large remain committed to a new language policy (though divided over the place of Hindi). in the service of narrow class interests. then his country’s common language Hindi.P. removal of English and introduction of the use of Indian languages instead is not a mere linguistic or academic question.htm 3/9 . The only thing that needs to be discussed thoroughly is the history of the suppression of all the universally accepted ideas on the subject. composed primarily of the traditional mandarin castes and fearful of the proposed changes. otherwise a staunch supporter of a change over to Indian languages. forces of reactionary conservatism born of a century of English education seem to be too strong for the obvious to be accepted and I fear an insidious movement is afoot in the educational world to stem the tide of the demand for recognizing this obvious principle of priority…4 This conflict between democratic and status-quoist forces continued throughout the 1950s and upto the mid-1960s when the anti-Hindi agitation in the South provided a convenient excuse for letting this important aspect of democratic political existence disappear from public discourse. The colonial bureaucracy and sections of the university. it is socio-political and cultural. http://www. Desai. But unhappily. they showed an overall tendency to give greater importance to coexistence than existence in deciding matters of vital public interest: it was always a question of the sacrifices people had to make. in order to stay together. a Gandhian. The fundamental law of the land. the things they had to give up. This is quite obvious and natural.8/25/2015 624 M. As M. as I said earlier. Therefore.

‘preferably from the South’ as Gandhi once recommended. John. which has always demanded ideological corvee labour from the people to nourish an elite fantasy. But its acceptance would have required that (i) the nationalists abandon the idea that India’s primary need was a single link language (or inter-language/antar-bhasha) and (ii) the colonial bourgeoisie accept the dilution of its privileges and a temporary devaluation of its cultural capital. separated by several decades. the ‘idea’ of India.5 The three language formula is the product of precisely such an otherinduced Indian nationalism which privileged the compulsions of coexistence over the more basic requirements of sheer political existence.’6 A simple alternative to the three language formula was available all along: education and administration at state level in the language of the state and a choice of Hindi or English as second or link language. The demand for a single link language (rather than a pragmatic provision of choice between Hindi and English) was strange: all the while that Congress leaders kept declaring that the link language was a functional necessity and not a substitute for the various modern languages. These at the cost of already existing India. as a way of reciprocating the other’s gesture of learning Hindi. Language.htm 4/9 . Madhava Prasad. As V. But in the end it was not this but the colonial bourgeoisie’s recalcitrance. that proved to be the really insurmountable obstacle.india-seminar. whose reflections on the question of language and education are as apposite today as they were forty years ago.8/25/2015 624 M. http://www. irrationally obsessed with what language states would employ to communicate with each other and appeared to find this a far more life-defining problem than that of how people might best lead meaningfully democratic lives. He was. are revealing of the character of Indian nationalism. and English once again for purposes of specialized higher education. ‘It is irrational to oblige children to learn languages to satisfy a political formula and to solve the difficulties that grown-ups have created. education and political existence is a good example. The three language formula imposed a compulsion on North Indians to learn an Indian language other than Hindi. their insistence on a single link language (Hindi) seemed to place an unnecessary ontological burden on a functional tool. put it. an advertising film maker and a musician collaborated to produce a television plug for Indian nationalism in which a large crowd of people lifted a gigantic flagpole adorned with the tricolour and planted it in a desert landscape. like others in the Congress. a burden which was really for the languages of the nationalities of India to carry. Not too long ago.

Here I am not talking only of the disadvantaged students. even those with the best possible school education are often unable to turn knowledge into a way of thinking. What can a poor. At the Centre for the Study of http://www. socially oppressed and devalued person bring to the common ground of republican existence that s/he can share with others (without loss). The annual cultural studies workshops organized by the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. Anglophone education has eliminated understanding from the list of desirable skills and turned knowledge into information. Let me now bring into focus the ‘discipline’ that I formally belong to in the university. at all levels.htm 5/9 . It does not make a difference to how the person thinks. landless. And so we have an education system which. this class pushed its case for a socially significant (and therefore continuous with colonial rule) presence of English in the new order while the political leadership. education and political existence Like the cat that profited from the quarrel between two monkeys. The student who learns in a language known to him/her would not remain untouched by what s/he learns. devalues the only resource held in common by rich and poor. of understanding the world.8/25/2015 624 M. students are able to repeat quite competently the arguments even of difficult philosophers. The practice of cultural studies immediately highlights. But it is all information. Kolkata since the mid-1990s have been emblematic of this particular tendency. sank into incoherence. of acting. Madhava Prasad. Thanks to these efforts the wall between social sciences and humanities has developed cracks. In its roughly 15-year history in India.india-seminar. as no other discipline has done before. On the one hand it has served as a place of occasional retreat for scholars in the social sciences to explore new areas of research and to experiment with interdisciplinary projects made possible by the theoretical upheaval in the international academy of the last 30 years. The name of cultural studies served as a sign of cutting edge research and of transgression of disciplinary boundaries. In classrooms. cultural studies has remained ambivalently positioned between the social sciences and humanities – a division specific to the Anglophone academic world. the question of the language and subject of knowledge. high and low in any community: language. and through which s/he can debate and argue with them and secure political existence? What apart from language? The ultimate expropriation of the vast Indian majority was achieved by denying their languages any public worth. in their overestimation of the link language. by devaluing them by comparison with English.

and the Department of Cultural Studies of the English and Foreign Languages University. The department of English served this function for as long as was possible under the circumstances. the programmes in cultural studies have been equally interdisciplinary and innovative but the point of departure for these programmes (perhaps more so for the latter than the former) has been on the humanities side of the divide. When seen from the perspective of humanities education in the university. The failure of the English department to maintain its central position in the university is directly related to the decline of the Indian national ideology and the dropping of the dirigiste mask by the colonial bourgeoisie. But it finds insupportable the easy objectification of subjective life worlds into translatable data or fields of study.8/25/2015 624 M.htm 6/9 . which was the English department’s special Bangalore. it relies on English to sustain the existential question at the ‘national’ level. As an Anglophone discipline occupying a void in the Indian national existential field. Cultural studies cannot turn away from the problem as others can. It is this provenance that puts cultural studies in a uniquely difficult and challenging position historically and in terms of the relations between faculties in the university. a field of subjective exploration that while relying heavily on social science knowledge. had to be abandoned by all but a few specially placed departments in the big cities. in this scenario. Cultural studies cannot treat lack of English proficiency as a sign of http://www. Language returns repeatedly as the ground of being. Madhava Prasad. The retreat of the electorate from the national mandate into state-level ones both contributed to and was a symptom of this development. Hyderabad. It is. The unresolved questions of one’s own place in the world always impinge upon scholarly effort. not by any revival of the Indian-national spirit but by economic considerations. rather a (probably transitional) discipline of the subject. has not acquired the methodological barrier that separates the subject’s historical existence from the knowledge produced by its labours. Cultural studies in its humanities avatar is not a discipline with its own object. education and political existence Culture and Society. The education of the spirit. the advent of cultural studies – however derivative it might be of the prior Anglo-American career of the project – appears to be the latest in a series of attempts made since independence to render humanities education more relevant to the life of the Indian student. before it succumbed to the pressures of vocationalization. As such here the language of life experience cannot be pushed back into the object of study as merely one of its features. The fortunes of English were revived. Language.

English in India also needs to be emancipated from its role as a marker of aristocratic privilege before it can become available as a specialized tool for advanced knowledge production. universal requirements of modern.htm 7/9 . There is. But it is also a fact that the matter does not seem as clear cut to everybody. The market is simply not able to meet the demand.8/25/2015 624 M. Some of them can be quite righteous. after the master’s departure. As a rule. The case for public and universal education in the national languages supplemented by English for specialized scholarly needs and for employment opportunities has been convincingly made before and only needs reiteration. if not the primary. In addition it accepts the dominant classes’ understanding that India can be a society only by representation. which renders us unfree participants who must indulge in intellectual acrobatics to avoid confronting the fact of unfreedom. is once again dependent upon the same change of mind-set and sudden expansion of goodwill that has proved elusive in the the more one loves and relies on the master for sustenance. Language. The English language’s power to bestow distinction and social rank is dependent upon its scarcity. cause of the decline in standards. But the remedy. universal access to English (medium) education. Universalization of English education for http://www. as the ideological motivation has faded.7 The possibility of open intellectual exchange with the outside world through English has been negated by the willingness to be peripheral and dependent members of the Anglophone academic world. education and political existence incompetence because here the competence in question is nothing short of existence itself. a demand for exclusive English medium schooling from the corporate sector anxious to ensure a steady and plentiful supply of labour for the IT-based service sector. This may take the form of articles or reports sponsored by various institutions. the more resentful one is going to be towards him. the quality of English taught in India has been steadily declining. The Good Will Hunting syndrome is the price we have to pay for repressing the simple. to bemoan the falling standards in higher education. a new demand for expanded access to English education for dalit and OBC children has been voiced by many intellectuals. not a single one of them has ever seriously pointed to the English language – the undemocratically sustained Anglophony of the Indian university – as an important. But as far as my knowledge goes. periodically.8 On the other hand. national existence. Madhava Prasad.india-seminar.9 The demand is based on an accurate diagnosis of the true source of the upper castes’ continuing domination of Indian society. Indian academics tend. on the one hand. Practically speaking.

Already. education and political existence economic needs is an altogether different issue.V. Education and Language Policy. 1964. in such a situation. 4. The Anglophiles had their own melodramatic arguments. However. Nachiketa Publications. 18. See especially. http://www. The Hindu 29 May 2011. Ahmedabad. p. M. rather than await the eruption of conflicts and then demonize the protagonists. John.htm 8/9 . 43. the Higher Education Cell at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society has in recent years sponsored a series of studies which make an effort to respond concretely to this situation.V. 5. John. See for example. the report ‘Social Science Teaching in Hindi: An Inventory and Analysis of Popular Textbooks at Six North Indian Universities’ prepared by a team led by Satish Deshpande. the compulsions of capitalist consumerism have led to substantial revival of the fortunes of regional languages. Navajivan Publishing House. towards attempts to acquire English. 21 May 2011. 2. Bombay. Jacob. Chagla apparently claimed with a straight face that he had ‘nightmarish visions of interpreters being needed in a high-powered conference to interpret what one Indian is saying to another’! V. would do well to take the initiative to enhance the freedoms of the population by proactive measures. Cited in V.P. seems an unlikely development given the polarizations that characterize Indian society today. 116-7 and 118-9. Yamini Deendayalan. towards greater assertion of autonomy from this Englishbased system of inequality. economic. p. however. Footnotes: 1. global capital still retains a disruptive. The Problem of English. John. By what means this can be achieved is an open question but there are indications that more and more people today experience lack of English as an annoying hindrance to personal dignity and public recognition. Language.8/25/2015 624 M.S. The federal This does not necessarily lead in one direction. if not revolutionary. M.V. ‘Privilege. Tehelka.. all that is solid may still melt into air. i. 3.e. That.C. 1969.india-seminar. character: in its wake. V. pp. The second factor that will play an important role here is global capital. 20. social and intellectual necessity. Desai. It is the minimum guarantee that any serious democratic republic should be able to give its citizens. 7. Deshpande’s introduction to the study which includes a lucid and insightful discussion of the question of language in higher education. 6. Madhava Prasad. Assurance of political existence to all by using the available linguistic commons is a political. p. It may also lead in the other direction. ‘Icarus Goes to Flying School’. Opportunities and "Merit"’. K. Unlike Indian capital whose compromise with brahminism is deep-rooted.

com/2011/624/624_m_madhava_prasad.8/25/2015 624 M. Imagining India. however. Penguin. now argues for a two language solution while insisting on the need for English as a means to the attainment of self-respect. http://www. Language. Nandan Nilekani. See for instance.htm 9/9 . Madhava Prasad. Kancha Ilaiah and Chandrabhan Prasad among others have raised this demand in various places. Delhi. Ilaiah. education and political existence 8. 2009. Allen Lane.india-seminar. 9.