Madhya Pradesh chief minister exorcises English, exercises investors

November 12, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters.)

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)


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Real picture from ground zero, I fully agree with the annoyance towards attitude, Global issues must be handled in global manner and CM is most welcome to promote Hindi in with strong global attitude.

Posted by Ashok.Sharma | Report as abusive

Ashok, that sounds like a lovely idea.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

Good Article, Bob.

But what about China?

They receive 10 times as much foreign investment as India does.

Do they speak in English out there? Or are the foreign investors comfortable with Mandarin?

Or is this problem you mention ONLY applicable to India?

Please let us know your considered intellectual view on all this.

Thank you for your article.

Posted by ImamHaq | Report as abusive

Let me think before replying. Also, it’s “Robert.” Thanks for reading!

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

ROBERT MACMILLAN wrote: “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.”

According to the World Bank–

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) FY 2010: 24 Billion$

Foreign Porfolio Investment (FPI) FY 2010: 40 Billion$

This tells us, from Macroeconomics 101, that a total of 64 Billion$ was invested by Foreign Investors in India in FY 2010.

That is good.

But the World Bank data also tell us that the TOTAL investment from all sources in India in FY 2010 was 600 Billion$

That means that (600-64 =) 536 Billion$ of the total FY 2010 investment in India did NOT come from foreigners.

Do you have any idea where a dirt-poor country like India could have managed to get that kind of money?

Posted by ImamHaq | Report as abusive

Let me think before replying. Also, it’s “Robert.” Thanks for reading!


It would also be helpful if you were think before actually writing your articles.

Thanks for contributing to Internet Journalism.

Posted by ImamHaq | Report as abusive

Thanks for your advice.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

^^^Do you have any idea where a dirt-poor country like India could have managed to get that kind of money?

Care to answer the question?

Just so that your readers don’t think that you are being evasive.

Posted by ImamHaq | Report as abusive

I can’t. What are your thoughts?

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

I am not the one pretending to be a part of the “informed journalism” crowd.

You are.

Opinions are common. Knowledge is rare. –A.C. Doyle.

PS: In an interesting parallel of Gaelic names, just like the name MacMillan originates in Alba, the name Doyle originates in Eire. We go out there to learn about others; only to realize that we know so little about ourselves.

Posted by ImamHaq | Report as abusive

Hi Robert,
Your understanding on this issue is absolutely correct. I completely agree with you that English can act as a link language more than Hindi. I have traveled to many parts of India, and have found that not many people know Hindi. Even, when I lived in Gujarat,only the middle classes were aware. But the problem comes in our interaction with the west. I do not expect our foreign friends to learn more than 22 languages to interact with us ( believe me 22 is just an official number, India has extreme form of diversity, extreme!There are more languages). I don’t favour Hindi, even though it is indigenous, because it rightly implies that one indigenous language is superior over other. We are all living together anyway so why create more problems. If someone wants to learn more languages one can decide for oneself. Many of my south Indian friends know hindi and they study it because it helps in communicating while staying in north India. but it’s okay if Southern people do not want to learn it. What use it will be there? let other local languages and their media (films, radio, literature) flourish.
it was indeed heartbreaking to know about that conference and the inability of the politicians to understand the situation and importance of English as a link language. Chinese don’t have so many language diversity ( correct me on this) so it’s not a problem to learn one language but Indians do and many of us want to maintain the diversity! so its not right to compare China and India.

Posted by Woman21 | Report as abusive

Just saw your conversation with ImamHaq. Couldn’t resist asking,” Do you know the origins of Indian middle class?” Just exercising you not exorcizing!

Posted by Woman21 | Report as abusive

After that conversation, I must confess that I know nothing. Perhaps I’ll have to make sure that I never write another word about anything…

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

“I’ll have to make sure that I never write another word about anything…”

Okay dear sir I am sure this is an exaggeration =D. And from the look of it seems he too had no answer to the question. They say,” Offence is the best defence”, that’s what he did! Otherwise he would have cared to answer it :).
I will try to answer the question, and perhaps explain difference between Indian and Chinese growth. As you may be aware Chinese growth model is state led capitalism + external demand whereas India is individual capitalism + internal demand.

Posted by Woman21 | Report as abusive

You may be forgiven because you are a foreigner who has not grown up in India. I will tell you a perspective of someone who grew up here, took everything taught in the text book at face value, and conveniently overlooked the origins of our class and roots. Of course I must clarify my background. I am not a member of the upper elite class, but yes I grew up in a reasonably well off upper middle class family. My investigation made me realize that we existed even during the British and if someone was to interview my grandparents, their perspective of British rule will be of denied opportunities (what Dadabhai Naoroji called the moral drain) but not of starvation and famine.
This is what I expected of “My experiments with the Truth” (Gandhi’s autobiography) and despite my reading of Indian National Movement at least three times at school, I had no clue of the origins of the man. I thought he will be of a poor peasant family, regularly oppressed by the British, and one day when oppression crossed limits, he will rose up in revolt. Not even in my wildest dream had I imagined Gandhi’s England trip, his violin lessons, his trying to be an English gentleman and the gold watch. The last one irked me and I couldn’t help thinking how careless he is, his parents (a very poor family in my opinion) would be bankrupt. Of course after few pages I was relieved when he admitted he must stop all this as his brother must be working very hard. But still Gandhi’s amazing (in my opinion) love for luxury continued. When in South Africa he wanted to travel first class because he is in a habit of it and he cannot compromise.
The point that I am trying to drive here is that Indian society is not just of poor people. A stat from my school textbook indicates that 40% of people in India are below the poverty line, this means that 60% are above it, right! And history/ historians know that it is always the rich or the middle class that revolts. The poor have their own ways – lies, deliberate not listening, deliberate mistakes etc. ( from the Weapons of the weak by James C Scott). Do you know that in the initial years because of the policies of Congress (hereafter INC), British govt was able to project itself as the protector of the poor people! This is because INC had objected to reforms like the factory laws which affected the labour of Indian industries (but they were okay if these laws were imposed on British owned plantations :D). INC essentially was an elite club of lawyers, doctors and other educated professions. It was not until Gandhi that INC became a leader of the masses.
To cut a long story short, during the British, Indian economy could be divided into three levels: Level 1: dominated by the British mainly the import-export trade. Indians were not allowed to operate here. Level 3: the farmers and the peasants. They are ruthlessly oppressed by exposure to the free market, unreasonable British tax collection (no concession during famines, drought, crop failure, while in traditional taxation this provision was always there), and in deep debt to money- lenders. The level 2 is important to understand the recent prosperity. It consisted of the traders involved in internal trade. While the British did import Lancashire cloth, it was Indian traders who sold them to the masses. They were a rich class with potential and capital to set up industries. But British policies of course discouraged setting up industries in India till World War I, when there developed an acute shortage of industrial goods in India. In fact, on the eve of India’s independence, she had the most developed industrial complex in the developing world. ( Nehru’s socialist policies and Bombay plan of industrialist 1944 arrested this growth :( ). There were nearly 18 big business families (3 of them Muslim, so after independence their number has come down to 15 :(). If you ever investigate the origins of the Birlas, Bajaj, Tatas, you will realize these are families traditionally involved in trade. Once liberalization happened ,you often end up reading about them in Forbes richest people list. And they have also been investing abroad (or rather prefer because of senseless socialist policies of Congress).
So if I have to answer your friend’s question. I may not be surprised that the entire money was raised indigenously. (also read Tata steel plant story 1907, how after being given harsh terms by British merchants–profit we share, loss only on you, Tata raised the entire capital from the indigenous market). Even in IPL, 4th richest sporting body in the world, most of the money is indigenous. (There may be some investment from Malaysia, Mauritius, but rich people also exist in India). That’s why India’s growth model is like individual capitalist (coming from already existing trading class) and indigenous demand (coming from an already existing middle and upper class, remember we consist 60% India).
Just to conclude with the middle class. Recent reforms and opening up of new employment avenues has furthered the purchasing powers of this middle class. But even before liberalization there are important indicators of their purchasing powers. (What comes now is not a proper study but what I have heard in drawing room discussion on politics and economy). It seems that Bajaj has faced an enquiry on the selling of his scooters. The way he manufactured it, it seemed like he had overstepped the quota. The truth it seems that Indian govt was not aware of the buying powers and demand of the Indian middle class. It is also said that when Maruti Suzuki began selling Maruti 800, they were so surprised by the sale figures that they actively began pressurizing Indian govt to allow their other products in the market. ( Indian govt was resisting because of grand socialist ideals).
I hope, in the above writing ,I have partly answered some of the questions regarding Indian growth.

Posted by Woman21 | Report as abusive