India Insight

Madhya Pradesh chief minister exorcises English, exercises investors

(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.

Nilanjana Roy on writing, English and telepathic cats

From Ahmed Ali’s “Twilight in Delhi” to William Dalrymple’s “City of Djinns”, many books have tried to unravel the layers of Delhi’s history. First-time fiction writer Nilanjana Roy took a less-trodden path in her novel “The Wildings,” which came out in August in India — and which might come out in the United States as soon as next year. She wrote of life in the alleys of Delhi, but chose to do it from the perspective of cats in her novel.

“The advantage of writing about animals is that you can make it all up,” she said. Walking around Delhi, the journalist and literary critic took a fancy to the secret lives of cats, got a kitten, and a couple of years later, wrote about them.

“I started noticing cats and dogs and all these subterranean creatures, and I stopped thinking of the city as a human space,” she said. “And at some point it occurred to me that there was something interesting going on in here.”

Has India squandered its English advantage?

When the British were finally expelled from India in 1947, driven out of a country scarred by decades of imperialist rule, they left at least one parting gift: a linguistic legacy that has formed a crucial ingredient in the country’s economic miracle.

English proficiency is hailed as an invaluable foundation in India’s rise to the top of the world’s information technology and knowledge outsourcing industries, fuelling the country’s rapid growth with billions of dollars of business every year and streams of overseas investments into global IT centres such as Bangalore.

Nine-year-old Chinese pupil, Sun Minyi, listens to his teacher during a special English class at Chongming county, north of Shanghai July 12, 2002. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

But, as Asian rival China surpasses India’s English proficiency rates for the first time, that advantage over other developing economies looks to have been squandered.

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