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.