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Ideology of English

Ideology of English

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Kuffir Nalgundwar

It isn’t about the English language. It is about what the votaries of English medium education, primarily in government schools in India [want]. It is already there in private schools. There are very few private regional language schools left. Just looking at the stats also, now there are nearly 1.5 million schools in India. But the problem is that only 30% of students who enter Class 1 actually graduate from Class 12. That is the level of education spread we are talking about. It is basically very limited, a question which probably should be [raised]. It is mostly about the sections among the Bahujans who have managed to get into that 30% who graduate from school. As of 2020, those are the stats – only 30% graduate from class 12 [overall]. So we are talking about a very limited number of people, probably 5-10% of those students are Bahujans – SC, ST, OBC. 


What is this problem of English? As it is, the current mode of education doesn’t help the majority. It’s systems don’t help the majority. We can very objectively say that it has totally failed the Bahujan. But what is being projected is that it’s the Bahujan’s fault, they don’t have merit, they don’t have this, don’t have that … it’s basically another racist ploy, and it is very unfortunate that in this kind of discourse, there are a large number of Bahujan intellectuals who also participate very strongly. I don’t know what exactly they understand about the caste order, and what is the vision they have for the future, for an equal society.


Because English education primarily caters to the idea that English is these days a kind of caste marker, which is unsaid, but that it is what it means. It’s a janeu, a caste marker. Every professional degree, every diploma in India is a kind of caste marker. So, what we are looking at is something, an ideology – ideology, we need to discuss that a little, ideology is a set of beliefs, norms, values etc. Both Babasaheb Ambedkar, who talks of how the dominant ideas of any age are usually the ruling class idea. Marx says almost the same things, let me read out what Marx says:


The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production. The entirety or the system of the ideas of the ruling class would be the ideology of a given society. The function of ideology would be the continual reproduction of the means of production and thereby to ensure the continuous dominance of the ruling class. 


So this is what we are sort of participating in, that continuous dominance of the ruling class, to justify their failure in imparting education to the majority. Because Babasaheb imposed a great duty on the intellectual class and he said that it was traditionally the brahmins in India, and they failed completely. So we have to see how much the Bahujans have succeeded in undoing the work of the brahmins. They seem to be doing the same thing. 


Around 120 years ago, there were 10 lakh schools or so in India. 15-18% or nearly 20% were private schools, and about 30% of students overall went to these private schools. Counterintuitively, it was mostly the Northern states which had more private schools. It was not the Southern states. The Southern states had working, efficient, government school systems which, whatever their lapses, did provide education to a considerable number of people who attended schools. But since the 1990s, there has been a steady campaign, which was run by one of those organizations, it is still there, Center for Civil Society, of which Pratap Bhanu Mehta and others are members. It is a libertaraian organization. It seeks to promote the equivalent of the school choice or voucher programs in America, they are sought to be propagated in India. They came up with all sorts of literature and campaigns to persuade State governments and the Central government to increasingly allow private players to come into the field of school education. 


This was happening because of the expansion of what they called the education market. Ten years ago, it was supposed to be 20-30 billion dollars. By now, it is around 200 billion dollars. The education market in India. It’s not just the coaching centers which are the market. It is not the private schools that are the market. It’s a chain of schools that have come up. The Dalit economist and MP, Balchandra Mungekar said 5-10 years ago, he said we have 35 different types of schools in India. Among government schools also there would be 10-12 varieties. There is already a caste system in the public or government school system itself which is supposed to set an example of equality in education. Apart from that, there must be 35-50 types of schools, there are lots of private players now. The number of students going to private schools might be 40% of the total. What it essentially means is that there is a steady and vigorous journey towards privatization of schools. Concurrently, there is a campaign to point out that private education is education. It’s not English education which is education by itself. When you buy into that logic, it means that English education is the only education that is good for children, then you buy into the point that private schools are the best because they are repositories of merit and all. All this is shorthand for merit. It is not about the English the language.


Because that decision was made around 50 years ago, when the anti-Hindi agitation happened in Tamil Nadu. They said that there has to be a link language, which stitches together the Hindi speaking and non-Hindi speaking regions, which would be English. It is natural that English would be taught in schools, and it is being taught in school. But the education system is such a failure that there are constant anxieties and disappointments among the Bahujans, so they keep seeking these mantras. What is being reinforced in the name of English is an ideology which projects, once again, the ruling caste or upper caste superiority in educational achievements, their jobs, their entitlements, their wealth, whatever quality of scholarship they have as superior. And we have to ape in whatever way, this mantra. Forget all about universal education, forget all about equal education. What we have to pursue is what the Brahmin has been doing.


When you look at the 1901 census and literacy rates of the brahmins, in Baroda state 73% among males, Mysore state 68% among males, Bombay 58%, Madras province 57.8%, United Provinces 55.3%. And we keep talking about the North being bimaru and all, but the brahmins in UP, Bihar or wherever were never bimaru. The Central Provinces is 36.5% because the brahmin population itself, I think, was scattered there and the British presence was limited. 

They had the kind of educational attainments 120 years ago that even now for most of the Bahujans, even in the advanced states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu or Kerala, 73% literacy is impossible for the Bahujans. The 1901 census also talks about the Scheduled Caste literacy rates in 1901: among the males, 1.2% in Baroda Province, 0.9% in Mysore State, 0.7% in Bombay Province, 1% in Madras State, 0.2% in United Provinces, 0.4% in Central Provinces. 


One of the promoters of English language among the Bahujans is CBP, Chandrabhan Prasad sir, and the other is Kancha Ilaiah. These are star performers. They have been talking about English education a lot, and there are very consistent voices from Maharashtra also. You can see that CBP has been making a very vigorous campaign for labeling Macaulay some kind of a god, and he’s also come up with English as a goddess. I don’t know if he is making a mockery of the Bahujans who make their ancestors into gods and goddesses, their animistic beliefs. On one hand he promotes English as the gateway to modernity, jobs and advancement, on the other hand he promotes the idea of goddesses, adds one more goddess.


I will be rather frank in this. These campaigns run along with what the World Bank has been advocating across the world. It’s not just in India that we are facing this problem of English being projected strongly into every area. Even Spain, Portugal, every other area, and all culture industries, cinema industries everywhere in Europe itself, face so much of onslaught from English. I don’t know whether they are in any way deficient. The irony is that former colonizers are being colonized by their own languages, in some ways, it is a projection back. 


This idea that Macaulay has done something for the lower classes, where you have less than 0.2% literacy level in the 1901 census in UP, and everywhere across India, the Scheduled Caste literacy was less than 1%. This idea that colonists have been good … I would rather praise the missionaries for propagating some kind of education, and in their private capacities, whatever their structures. They had limited resources and many cases, as one of my friends, P. V. Vijay Kumar, has written on Round Table India, the missionaries faced severe problems from the colonial government in carrying out their work. There are so many ironies that you come across when you closely study the history of India. This projection that the British did something for the lower classes … and it was around 1900-1910s that the Justice Party and the Self Respect movement was pointing out that in many places the Dalit, OBC together, or the backward classes, as they were called then, had 5-10% representation in judiciary, ministries, in any place. So they had to bring in the communal award, and people like the Mysore Maharaja and Maharaja of Kolhapur had to bring in reservations. It is a false projection … we don’t know whether they were demanding English education. They were basically demanding education, a way to communicate with each other, the language of the majority, which means Tamil and Telugu or whatever, and the ability to do numbers, do arithmetic, type a letter – this was the basic idea of literacy back then. And the ability to communicate with State authorities. This purpose remains as important right now as it was over a 100 years ago. 


This ability to communicate with fellow citizens or subjects and with the State, with authorities, still remains the primary purpose, should be the primary purpose. What had been diluted in the pursuit of this ideology of the brahmin. 


The shift is very evident to me. What is the meaning of ideology? Ideology is the various set of devices, interests, norms used by the ruling classes to mask their interests and project it as the interests of the majority. They use various means, they use cinema, they use religion, religious institutions, every kind of media, journalism, schools, colleges, literature, all literary forums, of the minority elite, of the ruling class, as commonsensical ideas, values and norms to be followed by the majority, which we are foolishly following now. We are not asking for equality anymore. We are asking for caste maskers, which would probably identify as not non-brahmin, but we can pass off as brahmin in some ways. 


This is a reactionary campaign, and it’s nowhere an egalitarian campaign. What it entails in terms of practical cost, nobody is looking at, none of these people have looked at education stats or whatever. CBP looks at consumption stats and says ‘Look! We have a revolution here’. Because we use shampoo sachets, we have a revolution. CBP advises OBCs to adopt English education to take advantage of reservations. In 40 central universities in which there is some kind of reservation, there is not a single OBC professor. In 49 central universities, SC/SC/OBC together does not exceed 20%, whereas their population is 85%. The situation is as it was 100 years ago. Just because of the absolute numbers, there are more people going to universities, doesn’t mean that we have relatively advanced. If there was such a thing that Brahmins have come down from 70% occupation to 10% or 5%, and the rest of the seats have gone to non-brahmins or Bahujans that would be progress, that would be advancement. There has to be a certain % of Dalit Bahujan going into central univeristies. It is 0.01% and even that is put down everyday. The idea of central university is itself an elitist idea. 


Because CBP went to JNU, and Kancha Ilaiah chats around central universities every day, they think that what they have achieved in life is by itself a model for others to follow. CBP is more fancy, in the sense that he promotes private enterprise, individual which by itself means that only a few can follow him, because that is the norm in capitalism. I don’t know what Kancha Ilaiah is doing, bringing in this kind of racialized discourse. OBCs are being kicked out of all central universities and deemed universities like TISS, 50-75% of OBC, SC, STs etc. have dropped out, SCs are finding it difficult to get scholarships.


And now with this COVID, I am very scared how many school teachers will lose their jobs. They are now working in the fields, on farms, selling vegetables, as chai sellers … these are M.Scs, some are B.Eds. In the Southern states, Maharashtra and other progressive states, teachers are the only government space where Bahujans got some significant percentages, say 40% or so. Now, the norm has been since the last 10-15 years, since this World Bank and privatization in schools, they wanted … I don’t really care when public sector industries are privatized. When you privatize your idea of education itself, whatever tenuous social contract was there, you are rejecting it. When private schools enter the scene in every village – in my village with 5000 people, there are 3-4 private schools – I don’t know what happened, the government school was very vibrant a couple of decades ago, I don’t know what’s happened to it now. 


What happens to it gradually, in the first decade of the new millennium, 10,000 or more schools were closed down in Karnataka in the space of 2-3 years, and in Andhra and Telangana they are being closed. Most of the new schools that are coming up are basically private schools, the government schools are being closed down in thousands and lakhs. This growth to 1.5 million schools from 1 million schools 20 years ago, this 5 lakh growth is basically private schools and growth in students is also private schools. There is a huge dropout rate of people from government schools because it is being projected that private education, which means English education, is superior. They are dropping out because they see, what is the point of government education? Because, when you project these caste markers, one above the other, English over the so-called regional language. 


When you agree with that it means that you have to go for private education over government education. There are a lot of these students who are dropping out of government schools and their parents are unable to send them to private schools. These new kind of illiterates or dropouts are not being mapped out or measured across India. People don’t trust government schools anymore because these people have succeeded in propagating the idea that government schools are bekaar, in a way that it imparts impure education. 


This has a spinoff effect. People feel that, why send our kids to government schools when the education provided there itself is useless? The whole of science, maths, social sciences, sports, and everything else, including languages, is condensed into one mantra, that is English. So, why don’t we spend one year teaching everyone English and Closing down all schools, private or public?


When you have friends like this, why do you need enemies? I have folders and folders of data on what is the current state of representation of SC/ST/OBCs in every state institution, whether it is government, judiciary, bureaucracy, at higher or lower levels. All this is already at a very abysmal level. Their presence in banks and PSUs is basically 90% at the Grade 4 level. In railways and mining etc. because only Bahujans can work there, their percentage would be more. 


Look at this COVID situation, and what will be done to state transport drivers, conductors and other workers. All state transport, they are not going to generate any revenue, what will happen to these lakhs of drivers, conductors and workers? 


In a situation where government schools could have provided succor to parents who can’t afford all this Sanskritised education, in the name of fancy education. You know, you have to learn English and you have to go to JNU. JNU and other universities, the rug under their feet is also being removed, and I am thankful for that. There are nearly 800 universities in India now, out of which, over the last 10 years, nearly half have become private universities. Growth in universities is basically growth in private universities. Apart from whatever few IITs that they added, which are disgustingly not needed. And central universities in various states, which are carriers of the Indian disease. So you have no space in higher education, private and deemed universities don’t guarantee you any reservations. And only 30% of people pass out, and out of all Bahujans less than 10% of those who go to school actually go to graduation and beyond. Less than 10%. For the brahmins especially, it will not be less than 70-80%. Don’t believe in NSSO stats, you can look at census figures from 1901, 1911 whatever.


So what we have is this ideological projection that English is somehow going to save the Bahujan. And it has become so racialized, this discourse, that it creeps into every field. Kancha Ilaiah lost whatever he was trying to say 20 years ago, after ‘Why I am not a Hindu’. Only thing he has to say is, he measures everyone on the basis of whether they are going for English education or not. 


English education is not the question. The question is whether there will be an equal education. And some time in the future, probably, 10 years or 20 years, there should be equal education. Will there be equal education? That goal is being pushed back by the Bhaujans themselves and the intellectuals among them, the class Babasaheb depended so much upon. 


The question of practicability and all that doesn’t arise. What is being discussed is not English. English is just another subject, and even if you use it as a medium of education, it shouldn’t be the primary subject of debate. We are being led into this wrong debate. When you talk of common schools or equal education, and then you talk about what medium and whatever the experts across the world say that … neither CBP or Kancha Ilaiah is an experts in the field of education, nor  in psychology, neither has done any degree in education. So they can’t really be an opposing point of view when people say that primary education should be primarily taught in the kid’s local language or primary language. 


Of course, they would be views on … when you talk about regional languages, they will talk about Gondi and Adivasi languages and all. But when you talk of English, you should not talk about those languages, should be talked about? That we are some way suppressing them and all that. It is true that one language in linguistic regions, is an outcome of lots of minor repressions of other languages, cultures, and caste languages. Telugu was itself 20-30 dialects, and there are dialects of Telugus in Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, everywhere, which are not considered. All these had been suppressed to project one language, which is what local elites do as they advance their idea of nationalism, and which goes along with the idea of modernity and also industrial expansion. Good or bad, it has happened. 


Now that we look into the future, we have to have a more broader view of what needs to be taught to the people. Not just particular kids of some section, one category, one caste, some one tribe etc. It should be universally applied across classes and castes. Even a libertarian like Milton Friedman agreed with the view that schooling is important and it should be public because it provides the basic, common wherewithal for citizenship. They are the places you are taught, trained to be citizens, subjects. Yes, that is disciplining but in India where there is not even school education, please let’s not talk about Foucault and his ideas, how schools discipline people into some kind of subject. In India for the majority of the Bahujan school itself is still just a mere possibility because of the constitution Babasaheb had introduced. Otherwise, as we can see during the British period, it was an impossibility.


This potential is being curbed, and we have to go back to the drawing board and not project these individualist ideas. CBP and Kancha Ilaiah both want State protection for their ideas. The State should promote English education or English medium education or this unequal mode of education. Including UP, all states have brought in English as the major mode of education in schools across India. Think of it, Yogi Adityanath is a herald of modernity and of English education in India. So what nonsense are we talking about when we say someone is opposing. Nobody is opposing! The ruling classes are very happy that the numbers of Bahujans studying in school will go down much more, the number of Bahujan teachers will go down much more. The only section among the Bahujans who get regular salaries, the teachers, and they are paid very well and they have decent lifestyles. They have been promoting lots of Bahujan awareness about rights and all apart from their own interests. And their interests coincide with the upper castes in this way. I don’t see any need to mince our words.


Thank you. Jai Bhim.



This talk was transcribed by Sundeep Pattem