By Sidharth Bhatia
Jul 22, 2013
It is not just the English language that bothers Rajnath Singh and his ilk. It is the catalysing effect of the language. English is an equaliser and a modernising force. And their discomfort is with modernity.
Every year, in February, activists of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai go on a rampage, attacking window displays and smashing the glass facades of shops selling greeting cards and gifts on the occasion of St Valentine’s Day. This is not because those cuddly teddy bears or cheesy cards offend their aesthetic sensibilities; their ire is against the festival itself, which they describe as a foreign import and therefore tainted. “Such influences from the West ruin our culture,” their chief Bal Thackeray had said, and therefore they needed to be destroyed and banished. Try pointing out that he had played host to Michael Jackson, no less an unedifying symbol of the same decadent Western culture and they will fail to see the irony. Indeed, the fact that Jackson visited the Sena Supremo’s home is a mark of respect the world has for him.
Similarly, Bharatiya Janata Party chief Rajnath Singh will probably not see the irony of speaking out against the use and influence of English. That his own party men and women send their children to English-medium schools and colleges, that their progeny work for foreign firms or that the BJP never tires of flaunting the success of Indians in the West, where they run top firms, as a mark of innate superiority. The techies in California or the champions of the Spelling Bee competition would have got nowhere in life, certainly not in the US, had they grown up speaking only Sanskrit. But then irony is not something the Parivar does.
Mr Singh made it clear that he was not against the English language per se, but against “Anglicisation”, i.e. those deracinated Angrez types who read, write and even think in the colonial language. The implication is clear — they are not true Indians because they are far removed from the Indian ethos. The India that Mr Singh and presumably the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh want is one in which everyone wears Indian clothes, eats Indian food, speaks in chaste Hindi (or even better, Sanskrit) and knows their place. Recall that Mohan Bhagwat had said that rapes happen only in India, not Bharat. So in this Bharatvarsh, we must all strive to attain, everyone knows their place, the wife dutifully does the household work and the patriarch dominates. Presumably deer gambol outside and the birds chirrup on the trees. This is Ram Rajya, or at least an Amar Chitra Katha version of it. For its adherents, modern India, in contrast is a chaotic, messy and even nasty place. All those foreign invasions, including by the Mughals and then the British, replaced Indian culture and values with their own. The first brought in Muslims, the second Christian missionaries and more importantly, the English language. Which is why we are in such a bad state?
It has been suggested that Mr Singh was speaking at a meeting held to find ways to protect the cow, hence he tailored his message to meet the expectations of his ultra-conservative audience. Perhaps that is true. We have seen how Amit Shah thunders about building the Ram Temple when he visits Ayodhya while Narendra Modi smoothly slips into the role of a CEO while addressing the charming ladies of FICCI. But what Mr Singh said cannot be far away from what Mr Singh believes in — the RSS, where he got his formative ideological education, has always harboured notions of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”, a vision that has little place not just for religious minorities but also for linguistic ones. Is it a coincidence that the BJP does not have any support in most of the southern states? No Tamilian or a Malayali is going to be impressed with a party that wants to propagate Hindi.
But it is not just the English language that bothers Mr Singh and his ilk. After all, he is smart enough to know that English has brought employment opportunities to millions of people and is now the language of aspiration. It is the catalysing effect of the language. The poor and lower middle classes want to put their children in English-medium schools, aware that it will boost opportunities. For Dalits, it offers an opportunity to bypass the traditional power structures of Indian society. Sanskrit was the language of the Brahmins who then used their privileged knowledge to increase their stranglehold on social structures. English is an equaliser and a modernising force. And their discomfort is with modernity.
It would be wrong to point fingers at just the BJP and its leaders; this feeling is more widespread than we think. Our khap Panchayats that oppose inter-caste marriage may be in the public eye, but their views are shared by even those who appear modern and educated. Despite all our apparent self-assuredness and claims to be the next global superpower, large sections of our society have not fully come to terms with the idea of modernity. It would be wrong to just point fingers at the BJP and its leaders who articulate this discomfort with the En We want to migrate to America, we love their burgers and cars and we are happy to wear the latest international fashions, but that is about it. Modernity of thought, of attitudes and of values troubles us. It demands change from old ways of thinking and behaving. We see modernity as an evil force that makes girls go out and drink; we refuse to understand that it actually involves allowing people to make personal choices. Modernity is about egalitarianism and freedom, both of which threaten to upset the old order. If you have to treat your domestic servant like an equal, pay her full wages and allow her time off, well that kind of modernity is unwelcome. If it implies higher standards of public behaviour, the rule of law and doing away with the VIP syndrome — which is nothing but a new version of the caste system — than we are better off with our old, traditional ways. English is the doorway to that modernity and, therefore, must be rejected.
No one imagines that the teaching and use of English will be rolled back. It is an Indian language now and more and more people want to learn it. And yes, there are many Macaulay put-ras and putris who think in English and they are not going anywhere. But the people, whom Mr Singh addressed, even if they are not visible to the English-speaking world, are very much around too. And they will continue resisting the march of the English language and all that it implies. Till that conflict is resolved, we will never be a truly modern nation.