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English as a Tool of Liberation for Dalits in India

Anjali Shreshth

In April 2010, the Dalit members of Banka, a remote village in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, inaugurated a unique temple. The temple was symbolic not because of a mythical history attached to it but rather because it was symbolic of the reclaiming of agency—social and political—by the Dalits. It was a temple dedicated to learning. But the chief deity—a goddess—was not Saraswati, a symbol of Brahmanical exclusivity, but rather Goddess ‘Angrezi’ (English). The two-foot-tall bronze statue is modelled after the Statue of Liberty, symbolising the western idea of freedom. In the words of Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist whose imagination culminated in this temple, “She is the symbol of the Dalit renaissance. She holds a pen in her right hand, which shows that she is literate. She is dressed well and sports a huge hat; it’s a symbol of defiance that she is rejecting the old traditional dress code. In her left hand, she holds a book, which is the Constitution of India, which gives Dalits equal rights. She stands on top of a computer, which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.”

Let’s compare this event with what happened in the lower house of the Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha, after the 2019 general elections. In a bid to decolonise parliamentary proceedings, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha sought to address the members of the house as “Mahoday” or Sir in Hindi in a setting where members of Parliament have usually been addressed through English terminologies. On the outset, this looks like an empowering attempt to rid the country of its colonial customs. However, the state’s recent attempts to decolonise chart a much more complicated terrain marked by caste and class in contemporary India.

Apparently, the two events compared here seem to be in opposition to each other.  One category of citizens holds English- a tool of colonial oppression to be emancipatory, and imagine it as a means to claim agency.  The other category of citizens, sitting at the highest seats of power, seek to rid the country of the language of English, and hence claim agency. The contention can be broadly understood by caste difference. It represents a historic tale of oppression against a political category of citizens in India known as Dalits or “the broken people”, formally the untouchables or the outcastes. The system that ails them is the caste system, a heinous system of hierarchization that seeks to demarcate bodies on the basis of the “pure” or “impure’ work they must do. It is imposed on you by the very virtue of your birth. It is sustained by endogamy. It can be equated with a punishment for life from which even death cannot offer a respite.

Epistemological Control through Language of Sanskrit

The Dalits were excluded from all learning. The epistemological control of the Brahmins over the Varna system, on which the Dalits were placed at the lowest, was exercised through the instrument of Sanskrit. The language of Sanskrit was the medium of all high knowledge in the Brahmanical cannon. We know that language is intrinsically intertwined with one’s identity. The medium through which we contemplate and comprehend our “Self”, in relation to the “Other”- is through language. But language is political.  The lack of access to this language is a way through which the Self’s socio – political agency can be destroyed. By depriving the access to Sanskrit for the outcaste, the Brahmin Self sought to epistemologically install himself at the top of Indic world. The access of a certain language is also how, politically, the Self produces knowledge about the Other. The Brahmins, through an absolute control over Sanskrit sought to negatively define the Dalit, infantilising and demonising him. In contemporary India, the tool of domination has made a shift from textual Sanskrit to Sanskritised Hindi- the language of internal neo-colonialism that the right-wing Hindutva government seeks to force upon its citizens. The main opposition to this forceful imposition comes from English.

It was the Lord Macaulay, a British colonial official, who introduced English education in India. Given the linguistic diversity of the newly formed postcolonial Indian State and the subsequent linguistic nationalism that brewed over in  non-Hindi speaking Southern Indian States, English was retained as the language of administrative functioning, broadly. However, the imagination of what English could bring to the postcolonial State was infused within the hopes and imagination of the newly independent Indian nation. Having the knowledge of English enabled you to tap into the socio-political and economic opportunities of an aspiring economic powerhouse. English symbolised the dawn of modernity in India. However, the benefits of this modernity were cornered by the historically upper- castes, relegating the Dalits, back to periphery of a vicious sociality.

English and the Politics of Decolonisation

The politics of decolonisation has bemoaned the loss of language- Sanskritised Hindi -the crucible of upper caste domination, that has befallen the “great Indian civilisation”. They want to gradually phase out the usage of English from the public sphere. The New Education Policy -2020, seeks to implement a measure wherein in her formative years of elementary schooling, the young student is taught in her regional language, instead of, say, English.  The NEP, 2020 also indirectly mandates a study of Hindi for every child, apart from her regional and other language through its three-language formula. The calls for de -colonisation grow louder at a time when the upper caste, broadly, has gained the fruits of the English based modernity- social prestige, financial prowess and political representation in a context where a command over English is the entryway into social mobility. The attempt at invoking the rhetoric of decolonisation, uncritically, offers us a window in a world where the upper caste is unwilling to share the benefits of the English driven modernity with the Dalit. The answer is evident when we think about the fact if the upper caste has stopped sending their children to private English medium schools, with sky-high fees, in an attempt to “decolonise”. No. It is the economically weaker, underprivileged and caste afflicted students who will suffer at the hand of an education that does not prioritise English, and hence, will have the gateway towards the world of opportunities in the developing Indian economy, closed for them. The decolonial (read ethnocentric) endeavor to undo the colonial corrosion of Indian values and its representation in contemporary culture is falsely praised as liberating. But the Dalit would like to ask: What values, what culture and whose language?

Caste in Language, Language in Caste  

Let’s consider the Sanskritised Hindi word ‘Pranam’. It is a   term used to greet someone, often with great respect.  Its translation corresponds to greeting the divine within someone. It is a word reeking of caste hierarchy. Chandra Bhan Prasad asks us to question if the upper caste would ever have used the term ‘pranam’ to greet the outcaste, the coming of contact with whose mere shadow would have the upper caste running to perform oblatory, purifying absolutions in the Ganga, and would bring upon a certain death on the outcaste? Most of slangs that the Hindi language has comes from the names of the lower caste communities in various parts of the nation. The life and breadth of the language rests on the Brahmanical canon. Consider the name of days in a week in Hindi. The same are derived from the “navgraha” or the planets of the Brahmanical pantheon. Brahmanical imposition does not end at Hindi. The printing press, press circulations, and thereby all textual regional knowledge produced in the region becomes inaccessible for the Dalits, as they are unable to break the caste barriers.

In Search of a Casteless language?

In the above context, the search of a casteless language becomes essential for the emancipation of the Dalit. Postcolonial modernity brought English to the Dalit. English, today, has assumed an emancipatory potential for the Dalit. Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the stalwart of Dalit intellectual and political life has referred to English as the milk of the tigress, without drinking which the Dalit cannot roar. A command over English can enable the Dalit to break free from an epistemology that seeks to oppress him. The search of a casteless language has brought the Dalit to embrace English- the purported tool of colonial subjugation. The casteless language of English also has liberatory potential for Dalit because of its global character. The linguistic and cultural diversity in India, according to Sharan Kumar Limbale, a proficient Dalit writer, can be a limiting factor in way of satisfactorily internationalising the Dalit movement. The global character of English presents an opportunity for the Dalit to project herself in the world, recounting her story in her words. This becomes significant in the light of the Indian State’s incessant attempts to block the internationalisation of caste and its equation with the question of case. Dalits look up to English as their foster mother-tongue, a mother tongue through which they can articulate a vocabulary for anti-caste resistance, something they are deprived of in their own mother -tongue.  In a similar vein, Kanchan Ilaiah Shephard, a prominent Christian intellectual notes that English texts have been questioning the conspiratory silence of Brahmanical languages and culture. English becomes the sole tool for the Dalit for upward social mobility in contemporary India. Hence, Goddess English becomes the chief deity of Dalits, guiding them towards socio – political empowerment. It is through an English based education that the Dalits can claim their rightful agency. Hence, Ilaiah remarks that even if ten percent of the Dalits had the knowledge of English, the tide would turn.

The relationship that the Dalits have with English leads us to broadly question the dynamics of internal colonialism in India, and how have the internally colonised, the Dalits, reclaimed a colonial tool of oppression from the otherwise colonised, the upper castes, to use it to claim their political rights. The emancipatory potential of English lies in its purely democratic nature. Hence, the need of the hour is to ensure that all Dalit children can access the language of English to break off the chains of caste.


Anjali Shreshth is a recent graduate from Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. She is an incoming  LLB Hons. student at the National Law School, Bangalore. 

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