Madhya Pradesh chief minister exorcises English, exercises investors
Shivraj Singh Chouhan appears to be tying himself into a linguistic knot. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh on Saturday said that the English language is a ghost that India must exorcise, according to the Press Trust of India newswire. Even though only a small number of people speak English, these people have managed to show that you need English to be successful in whatever you do, Chouhan said.
Chouhan has a point about English, if you look at the numbers. Judging by the statistics published on Wikipedia, there are only 226,000 or so “native English” speakers, although you must add another 105 million who speak it in addition to their native language. Then there’s another, real number if you want to include the number of people who get by with some English, even if they’re not strictly fluent. What that number is, I don’t know. Either way, we’re talking about a fraction of India’s estimated 1.2 billion people, the majority of whom speak Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and many more, in varying combinations and at varying degrees of fluency.
The chief minister’s desire to flush English away is in some part an appeal to populist sentiment. If English were not required — or highly desirable — for working with different people from different parts of the country, more talented people from rural or poor areas could get government jobs that could give them a living wage and a more comfortable life. English, meanwhile, is the historical language of the oppressor. Britain exploited India’s resources for hundreds of years, subjugated India’s people, and a mere 65 years after independence, has decided that it’s paid India enough aid money for now.
But consider what English does for people. In India, there is no guarantee that the person you work next to speaks your language. In much of the country, you can use Hindi to get by. It’s an official national language, but the problem with Hindi is that there are millions of people who don’t speak it or refuse to speak it despite compulsory education. This, as I’ve learned, stems from a sense of pride and a perception among Tamil speakers and other groups in India that Hindi has been forced on them by malevolent interests in the North. What language does that leave behind if you want to communicate across state and cultural borders? Most likely, the answer is English.
English also can be a ticket to economic prosperity. Whether you agree or not that foreign investment is good for the place you’re living in, being able to speak and understand English appears to have some bearing on whether people from other countries want to drop a bundle of money in your lap. Consider this story from the Hindustan Times. It was filed from Indore in Madhya Pradesh:
The three-day Global Investors Summit in Indore from October 28 to 30, was ‘global’ only in name; its flavour was overwhelmingly domestic. Though, delegates came from 15 countries, most went away without committing anything…
While the who’s who of the Indian corporate world took part, it was only minor officials from foreign embassies, with only one delegate addressing the gathering.
The state government as organisers too missed the vital language point. Most of the bureaucrats and industrialists spoke in English, but the political class, be it industries minister Kailash Vijayvargiya, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, leader of the opposition Sushma Swaraj, or veteran LK Advani spoke in Hindi, flummoxing the foreign delegates.
As consulate general of Republic of Singapore, Chung Ying Lin, said, “I could not follow a single word of what was being said by Hindi. The condition of Joseph Gamliel, CTO, Dmulasia Solar Energy, an Israeli firm was the same. The organisers realized this and Vijayvargiya later said that next time they would ensure that there are interpreters.
The article does note that the lack of international flights at the Bhopal and Indore international airports might have contributed to a sense that Madhya Pradesh is off the global map. But think about it: every word spoken at that gathering that was not in English diminished the ardour that any of these potential investors might have harboured about investing in the state. Here’s more from the Hindustan Times:
Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan admitted before the media that the investment from foreign countries was lower than expected, but said it was good that they now knew about Madhya Pradesh and the facilities it offers. “This is just the beginning of a relationship that we will pursue to help them invest,” the chief minister said.
Should potential investors work on Hindi? Or Kannada if they want to open in Bangalore? Or Telugu for Hyderabad? You can if you like. I’m studying them, but investors don’t necessarily see it the same way: it’s their money to spend, and attracting them usually means accommodating the investors’ needs.
Chouhan might reconsider his stance on English in that case. And if he doesn’t, his own state education department appears to be doing it for him. From the Times of India:
A day after chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan opposed the dominance of the English language, officials at the state school education department have chalked out a plan to motivate students to get rid of their phobia for the language.
For this, joint director education, Bhopal division, is mulling that students practice it every day for half an hour to hone language skills during school hours.
Why is the department doing this? It wants the children in its care to be better equipped to get in to private schools. There is no reason that anyone should misunderstand the notion that this is the beginning of a path to prosperity. Everyone admires a polyglot, and there is no harm in learning another language. This is something that Chouhan undoubtedly knows already.
(Photo: Robert MacMillan)