India Insight

Class divide puts English to the test in India’s civil services

Indian students in recent weeks have protested the use of English in the country’s difficult civil service examinations. The students, usually from Hindi-speaking regions of India, say that the exams reflect a class divide: if you speak and write English well, you are seen as part of the educated, urban elite. If you do not, it’s because you are one of the disadvantaged, usually from smaller towns or villages.

(Here’s a counterview by Swapan Dasgupta)

English is a tricky subject in India. A language imposed by colonists who exploited the people and resources of the land for centuries, it also was the one language that people seeking independence from the British could use to speak to one another. It remains one of two official languages across India, though many people do not speak it well or at all. I spoke to some of the civil service aspirants who have complained about the language requirement and the structure of the exams, and learned about the role that they hope the exam will play in their lives.

Ashutosh Sharma is a 25-year-old psychology graduate from Basti district of Uttar Pradesh, who has been camping in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar neighbourhood for the past two years, hoping that he will crack the examination one day.

“The entire protest is presented as a language issue. It’s much more than that. It’s about how a group of elite people in the country want to govern the things. How they cannot digest that a villager, who doesn’t match their lavish lifestyle, rises to the ranks on the basis of his knowledge and hard work,” he said.

Ashutosh said he comes from a village, and is better acquainted with the problems the country faces in these places. “When I was in the village primary school, I remember that the teacher would hardly come to take classes. There was no accountability. As a district magistrate, I would know better how the problem can be fixed and I can deal with the problem regardless of whether I speak English or not.”

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.

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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