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.

India stepping up to the challenge of post-2014 Afghanistan

Racing through the deserted streets of Kabul at nighttime, you are likely to be stopped at street corners by policemen once, twice or even more. If you are a South Asian, as I am, their guard is up even more. “Pakistani or Indian?” the cop barks out as you lower your window. When I answer “Indian”, he wants me to produce a passport to prove that, and as it happens, I am not carrying one. So I am pulled out of the car in the freezing cold and given a full body search, with the policemen muttering under his breath in Dari that everyone goes around claiming to be an Indian, especially Pakistanis.

To be an Indian in Kabul is to be greeted warmly wherever you go, whether it is negotiating a security barrier or seeking a meeting with a government official. There is an easing of tensions (in Afghanistan, the fear uppermost in the mind is that the stranger at the door could be an attacker and you don’t have too long to judge), Bollywood is almost immediately mentioned, and your hosts will go out of their way to help.

To be a Pakistani is a bit more fraught. The body search is rigorous, the questioning hostile, and, more often than not, you have to be rescued by a Western colleague especially if you are entering one of those heavily guarded, unmarked restaurants frequented by foreigners.

Bob Geldof, Goa and the Maldives: take offense where you can find it

(Any opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Any offense that the author causes is unintentional.)

Writing anything about India, no matter how picayune I think the topic might be, means that I run the risk of offending someone. Someday I’ll write a book about the unique culture of offense that I’ve found in India, but until then, I’ll write about examples that I see in the news. This weekend’s come from pop musician and poverty activist Bob Geldof as well as a senior government official of the Maldives, and an irreverent drummer from the heart of Punjab.

First, Bob Geldof, as reported by India Today:

Irish rockstar Bob Geldof’s remark that he got his “best drugs” from Goa has come under attack from a right wing Hindu organisation which has accused him of hurting national sentiments. While tourism industry players in Goa have said that Geldof’€™s statement was not in the context of current situation, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) has filed a complaint with the Irish embassy against the rocker.

Elsewhere in India: Maria Sharapova wins hearts, minds of cameramen

Here’s some more news that we found in the Indian press over the weekend and would like to share with you. Rather than present stories of great national importance, we would like to highlight some of the items that you are less likely to see in world news reports. Any opinions that the author might express are surely beneath contempt, and are not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters.

Tennis pro Maria Sharapova visited India. Gushing ensued. “The 25-year-old, here to announce her partnership with UK-based real estate company Homestead, sported an infectious smile throughout the interaction even though the lensmen could not get to focus enough of capturing the blonde beauty. ‘Well, it is just the hair and make-up you know. I don’t wake up looking like this,’ quipped Sharapova when a scribe called her pretty. Here only for a day, Sharapova said food and culture was something she would take back from India. ‘I arrived last night and asked the chef what should I try of the Indian food. I had a dosa which tasted really nice. I wanted to have this great Indian experience. There is so much energy in the city, I have been in some quiet areas recently, resting. I really like the culture and people. You all have been really welcoming.’” Final score: love-love. (NDTV)

Mulayam Singh Yadav’s interests spread wider than wrestling or politics. He is also a lover of poetry. “For more than 35 minutes, Mulayam Yadav analysed the content of the book, ‘Yatharth ke Aas Pas’, written by a Congress leader, Chandra Prakash Rai. “This collection of poems on some very sensitive issues like girls, female foeticide, loneliness, loss of faith and other human emotions must be read by everyone,” he said. (The Indian Express)

Elsewhere in India: girls, mobile phones and slapping your tormentors

Here’s a short roundup of regional news in India that attracted our interest this weekend. Any opinions expressed by the author are no doubt ill informed and ridiculous. Aditya Yogi Kalra contributed to this post.

Another politician, another reference to women being the root of all man’s troubles. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh blamed “girlfriends, bikes and  mobile phones” for the rising number of road accidents in the state.  ”It’s a common sight to see youngsters driving two-wheelers while talking on cellphones which often leads to accidents. Youths should avoid such habits,” Singh said. (PTI via CNBC-TV18)

Shivakumar of Uliyakovil, Kollam, was arrested after promising to marry a woman, but demanding that she sell one of her kidneys first. “The victim was identified as Manju (alias Chinchu). Police said Manju had lodged a complaint in 2009. The operation to remove her kidney was conducted at KIMS Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram.” Shivakumar reportedly abandoned Manju, and took the kidney, which he sold for 1 million rupees, or $18,289. (TNN)

Elsewhere in India: a Hitchcock escape at Kashmere gate, and more…

(Editor’s note: please bear with us as we find a digest that you can digest. Anything that causes indigestion is the result of something that the author said, and is in all likelihood incorrect, specious and wrong)

Here are some stories from the Indian press that caught our attention in recent days. We hope that you find them as interesting as we did.

    If you’re a police officer and transporting a robbery and murder suspect from one city to another, don’t do it via public transportation. Two cops from Gurgaon lost their suspect at the Kashmere Gate metro station in Delhi when he jumped on a train and slipped away Hitchcock-style. The suspect apparently was tied to one of the cops, who had to untie the rope quickly to avoid being dragged away by the train. The cops took a bus from Chandigarh to Delhi, along with the criminal, and were planning to take the Delhi metro back to Gurgaon, where the suspect was to be jailed. (Times News Now) Avoid insulting the protagonists in major Indian epics. Lawyer and BJP politician Ram Jethmalani is taking some heat after saying that Lord Ram of the Ramayan was a bad husband. The BJP, which relies on the support of often conservative Hindus, says it does not approve of Jethmalani’s statement. Without getting into the whole story — it is an epic, after all — I would say only this: according to his Wikipedia entry, Jethmalani married twice, back when polygamy was legal. Maybe he knows from good husbands? (The Asian Age) The same rule applies to insulting Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize-winning author of “Home and the World,” the “Kabuliwallah” and India’s national anthem and what feels like millions of other works large and small. “After his public criticism of V S Naipaul, writer-actor Girish Karnad has kicked up a fresh storm by calling Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore a “second-rate playwright”. Talking to reporters near Nelamangala in (Bangalore’s) outskirts, he said, “Tagore was a great poet but a mediocre and second-rate playwright. He produced his plays but those were never produced by his contemporaries. The contemporary Bengali theatre never accepted them. I think they did one or two plays. His comedy succeeded but not his other plays.” Not only that, poor people in his plays are “cardboard characters.” Karnad said. (PTI) One boy, two moms! “His genes will decide whether he is Ravish Kumar of Ranchi’s Sukhdeonagar or Sunil Oraon of Ganeshpur village in Chanho block.” (The Telegraph) Life is hard when you’re Malaysian national oil company Petronas. First, Canada blocks a huge buyout that you were about to pull off. Second, you start posting funeral music for major Indian holidays: “Malaysia’s national oil company Petronas was left red faced after angry viewers pointed out that a music video it posted on its official YouTube page to mark Diwali depicted a funeral dance. The three minute clip was pulled out after the Company reviewed the mixed feedback on the video, which had drawn more than 130,000 views. The video featured young Malaysian ethnic Indians performing the ‘Dappan Koothu’, an energetic form of Tamil folk dance performed to loud music on any occasion not necessarily funeral.” Hindu groups in Malaysia also took offense because they said the dance had nothing to do with Diwali and portrayed Indians as a bunch of dance-happy people. As one NGO chief said, “Dancing on the street is not Malaysian Indian culture.” (The Hindu Business Line) Honor killing? A man and his son were arrested for killing the man’s 24-year-old daughter. Police said that she was pregnant, and that the father and brother tried to procure an abortion for her before resorting to murder. (PTI) “A normal root canal treatment procedure at the Government Dental College Hospital here turned into a nightmare for a youth with a needle used in the surgery ending up in his stomach. ” Don’t ask yourself how this happened. The story never says. (TNN) A stray cobra has shown up at the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Chandigarh. It reportedly was warming itself in the underground parking lot. Attendants found snake catcher Salim Khan, who was suffering from a “raging fever,” and hauled him off to work. The story features a sentence that I suspect my journalism career will never allow me to write on my own: “Reptiles often slither into the area from the wooded area nearby.” (TNN) A man was killed after confronting neighbors who told him that his children were watching TV cartoons with the volume turned up too high. They beat him with iron rods and bamboo. (TNN) Five hundred pigeons dropped dead in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district over four days. The incidents caused people “to fear that something was amiss.” (IANS) Being Naomi Campbell means having people around who can get arrested for you. Indian police arrested an event manager for excessive use of fireworks at an extravagant party hosted by supermodel Naomi Campbell in the desert city of Jodhpur, officials said on Friday. Mumbai-based P.K. Pareek was held on charges of “noise pollution” at Campbell’s star-studded party held to mark the 50th birthday of her billionaire Russian boyfriend Vladimir Doronin at a 15th-century fort.” Neighbors objected to the fireworks, among other noise. Among the guests: the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson. The night’s entertainment was Diana Ross. (NDTV) The nose doesn’t lie: The Yamuna river really is an open sewer. That’s what you get when you dump the sewage of 17 million people into it every day. Here is a masterpiece of understatement: “The court noted the submission of CPCB counsel, Vijay Panjwan that the cumulative assessment of all parameters of water quality indicates that river Yamuna is not conforming to the desired levels and it more or less resembles a drain, especially after the Wazirabad area in Delhi. ” More bluntly, there is no fresh water in the river, Panjwan said. (PTI) And here, to end your day, is a collection of great Indian mustaches. (The Hindu Business Line)

 

Keep your distance, speak English

I discovered when I wrote the blog post, “Hindi, Tamil and English: linguistic lessons in pragmatism,” that I am not the only person who thinks languages in India is an interesting topic. The comments that I received in that post, in which former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju wrote about the value of learning communal languages such as Hindi and English, reflected opinions from all over the map, and usually centered on how my language is best vs your language is worst.

Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, made several points in his controversial opinion pieces, but he emphasized that common languages such as English in a country of incredible linguistic diversity is important for people who want to be literate, sophisticated and successful.

Shoba Narayan, writing in Mint, offers a different reason to use English: to keep some distance between you and the person you’re talking to. Here’s an excerpt from Narayan, who caught my attention and affection with her author’s note that she can “swear like a truck driver in multiple languages.” The story concerns a young man who works with her husband, who came to their house to invite them to his wedding. Judging by his name, accent and story, she decided that he was Tamil, and was prepared to speak to him in her language. But she stopped. Read why:

Civics clashes with religion as women face bans from some Indian shrines

(The opinions expressed are the author’s own, and may not necessarily reflect those of Thomson Reuters)

Mumbai’s Sufi shrine Haji Ali Dargah Trust has barred women from entering the sanctum that houses the tomb of the Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. The reason: authorities said that they saw a woman visit the tomb in inappropriate clothing.

This might not be entirely surprising. The mosque and dargah – or tomb – sit on a tiny island in the waters off Mumbai that is connected to the mainland by a tiny causeway. It is one of Mumbai’s most well known tourist attractions, and many people from India and other countries walk past the mendicants and beggars, some of whom are missing limbs and often chanting, on the causeway to admire the architecture and the view.

Women fast for their men on Karva chauth, but why?

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

Nov. 2 was Karva chauth. I wouldn’t have known it if it weren’t for the special discounts at stores, the diamond and sari advertisements, and articles wondering whether newlywed actress Kareena Kapoor would fast.

I wouldn’t know about the festival were it not for films like Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge or other Yash Chopra and Karan Johar productions.

How to insult people, Indian politician-style

If you were a reporter covering the Shiv Sena in 2006, the place to be was a nondescript restaurant located midway between party offices and those of Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj, who rebelled and formed a new party after a fall-out with his uncle.

At this hole-in-the-wall eatery, party workers from both sides would let it all out — the vitriol would flow freely against Raj, the Thackerays and the Congress party. A lot of these barbs were never repeated outside those four walls, but some of that vitriol certainly seeped into the public speeches of their leaders.Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters during an election campaign rally ahead of the state assembly elections at Dokar village in Gujarat October 11, 2012. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is certainly taking over from the Thackerays when it comes to handing out insults — he’s been targeting almost every single opponent in his election campaign.

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