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Politics of English education – Oppressed have always been put on the back foot

Politics of English education – Oppressed have always been put on the back foot


Nilesh Gourkhede

Nilesh The NEP 2020 puts forth a new vision for Indian education which promises to transform Indian education landscape for the 21st century. With regards to the medium of instructions, the policy provisions that,

“wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language.”

It once again triggers a 200 years old debate regarding the language in which Indian children need to be educated. By tracing historiography of development and dissemination of English education in India, the paper argues that Indian dominant castes/Savarnas enjoyed the fruits of English language as a dominant international language ever since it was introduced by colonial masters in the 19th century and the historical oppressed are being deprived of it. Despite universalising English education through introducing it in the government schooling system which is left only for the poor, the NEP 2020 privileges English for the elites – especially Savarnas who shifted to private English medium schools allowing them to monopolise abundant opportunities that are associated with English education.

There is wide criticism and acceptance of the provisions of NEP 2020 among different sections of the population, this particular provision is unfair with the historically oppressed and marginalised because the policy provisions mother tongue/regional language education whereas they aspire education for their children in English medium. While provisioning mother tongue education the policy reasons that children learn better in mother tongue.But linguistic research shows that childhood is the best stage to acquire any language and children are capable of learning multiple languages if provided with the right inputs and exposure. But if you consider the former, why is it only applicable to the marginalised? Why is it not obligatory to the elite, wealthy, Brahmins and Savarnas? They have been educating their children in English since its inception in India at the beginning of the 19th century. Wide range of stratification of schools that exist in India one strata has been exclusively in English for them. Is English mother tongue of the children studying in these schools? No, it is not. Then how they, their parents, grandparents (presumably great-grandparents), learnt English. One thing is clear, they learnt out of the necessity. If you want to get good education and employment opportunities you have to get educated in English. The necessity which compelled them to learn English, NEP fails to see the same for the historically oppressed and marginalised when it talks about 21st century education and skills.Recently, the Hon’ble Education Minister of India clarified that Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs) which provide education to central government employee’s children will not be converted into vernaculars. Why is this so? Because government officials know the importance of English and they don’t want their children to study vernacular languages.

Ever since the colonisation of Indian sub-continent by British Imperialists in the 18th century who brought English with them, there has always been a tussle of Medium of Instruction in Indian schools. It was characterised by Indianess/ groundedness of Indian classical languages and richness of English in terms of literature and opportunities available in it. The initial efforts to disseminate English comes from missionaries who wanted to propagate Christianity. Since 1813, missionaries became active in India to educate Indians and convert them into a new language (English), a new culture (Western) and new religion (Christianity). Moreover, East India Company and the Government not only gave them free entry but also encouraged them to open schools. Between 1815 and 1840 numbers of missionary schools were established in different parts of India.

After so much incentive efforts by Christian missionaries a great demand for English and English education, especially in Bengal was created. The eminent social reformer, Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) demanded western knowledge in English. He viewed English was needed to modernise Indian minds, nourish the growth of Indian thought and widen the vision. Even, the committee of Public Instruction was under pressure to introduce English as a medium of instruction. During Governor Warren Hastings’s tenure Culcutta Madrassa (1781) and Benares Sanskrit College (1791) was established to impart oriental learning in classical Indian languages. In 1824, these colleges along with Delhi College, Agra College and other institutions imparting oriental education started classes in English. After the demand for English education the government also changed its strategy to allocate funds to support English education. During 1780-95, a number of English newspapers were started, which encouraged Indians to read and write in English. Indian dominant castes students then rushed to English classes.

Before Macaulay’s Minute came into effect there was a huge debate among the members of the General Committee of Public Instruction in relation to language of medium of instruction. It can be classified between two groups Anglicists and Orientalists. Orientalist’s were the supporters of Indian system of knowledge, Indian languages and literature. On the other, Anglicists wanted European knowledge of science, philosophy and English education. Both the groups agreed that medium of instruction for Indians must be vernaculars. But in Macaulay’s view, at this point in time, Indian vernaculars were poor and rude in literature; so the question arose from which language the vernaculars were to be enriched and improved. In Anglicists’ view, those were to be enriched by English and in Orientalist’s view to be in classical Indian languages. The committee failed to decide a language of instruction.

By 1835s, when the Britishers rooted their feet in India and became rulers, they wanted English to play the role of interpreter between them and the one whom they govern. Then came Lord Macauley who laid the foundation of English education with his minute of 1835 and ended the debate between Anglicists and Orientalists. In the minute he stated:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern- a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

During the same time,employment opportunities in British India government were opened for English educated Indians. Beneficiaries of this move were dominant castes Indian because historically oppressed communities had near no representation in the education sphere.

Woods Dispatch of 1854 criticised the English for the elite language policy of the company and the government and provisioned the combination of English and Indian languages in order to spread proper education in India. The dispatch first explained the need of English as a medium of instruction but it also emphasised the translation of European work in Indian vernacular languages for the masses. It could not bring much change as its recommendations were not implemented for the next seven decades. Another significant contribution of Wood’s Dispatch was in higher education. Three universities were established in three major provinces of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta in 1857. In these universities English was a medium of instruction as well as subject of study right from the beginning.

Subsequent commissions and committees that the government formed could not decide the language of education for Indians because of the dilemma that English was embraced by the learnt communities and they started demanding it, against the indigenousness of the language of education. The demand for English was mainly because university entrance exams were conducted in English, and many high schools were imparting education in it. Hence,Hunter Commission in 1882 did not recommend any specific suggestion for medium of instruction rather it was left to market forces to decide.Indian University Commission of 1902 observed that at college level, students found to be unable to cope with English lectures. The Commission recommended that English education at school level needs to be improved and suggested that English should not be introduced from the beginning of school education rather it should be introduced at later stages of education. But did not recommend education in vernaculars. Similarly, the resolution of 1913 did not suggest any recommendation in relation to medium of instruction. The question on introducing Indian vernaculars as a medium of instruction was raised in the Imperial Legislative Council in 1915. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya suggested that a committee needs to be constituted to study the problem in detail. But because of funds the proposal was rejected saying that there are not suitable textbooks available in vernacular,  there are no technical terms in the subjects like mathematics and science, there are no qualified teachers for teaching technical subjects in vernaculars, there is no demand for vernaculars and Indian would missed exposure to English.

It was the same with the Delhi conference of 1917 which was  called to discuss the issue of making vernaculars as a medium of instruction at high school level. Majority of representatives recommended introducing English early and gradually made it a medium of instruction at the high school level. The conference of Directors of Public Instruction made no attempt to indigenise education in vernacular languages.

Ironically, the National movement in the 1930s which used English as a language of transaction establishing it as a link language of India demanded vernaculars to educate Indian children. The University Education Commission (1949), in its report recommended that Indian languages should be medium of instruction at higher education level as well. Moreover, Indian Education Commission was established in 1964 under the chairmanship of Dr. D.S. Kothari; known as Kothari commission, also gave similar suggestions. The states, however, did not implement the policy. There were courses available in both languages (regional as well as English) up to undergraduate level in arts and sciences. But the professional courses like engineering and medicine continued to be in English at all levels. This optionality of mediums created problems for students in spite of becoming facility for them. It classified Indian society between two groups. Wealthy and middle class people were (are even now) able to afford English education they send their children into English medium schools. These students grabbed higher education and employment opportunities. On the other hand, students studying regional languages were not able to cope in higher education and lost high income jobs.

Nambissan (2010) argues that the upper tier of middle classes in India (read Savarnas) have actively participated in the education system from the position of social and economic dominance that has allowed them to shape the system and define what ‘good education’ is, as well as desirable cultural resources for success. She stated that the key route to upper middle class status in India has been the exclusive English medium private education, which followed the tradition of British public schools. These are among the schools the upper middle class elite Indians have always sent their children to. This tradition, she argues, has set the trend and played down the standards of ‘good’ in education. Hence English is not just a language in India it is a tool to transit one’s class and status. It has become a language of social and cultural capital, power and elitism. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar the liberator of the historically oppressed first envisioned English education for them. He himself could come out of caste oppression prevalent in Indian society and lead the liberation movement giving it constitutional validity because of western education in English. Dalit-Bahujan intellectual Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd who vehemently advocates English education has kick-started a movement demanding English medium for the oppressed in government schools. Recently, the state of Andhra Pradesh has taken the first step in this direction and decided to convert all Telugu medium government schools into English medium. While the NEP 2020 overlooks the leaders and philosophy of the oppressed and marginalised, it imposes the normative and dominant notions of the ‘good’ on them.

After the independence in 1947 vernaculars were imposed on the historically oppressed and marginalised in the name of ‘Swadeshi Education’ with mere introduction to English as a subject without any substantive investment to improve learning standards in the government system. As a result, because of dysfunctional government schools and vernacular education lower income groups imitating elites/Savarnas shifted to low-fee private schools offering instructions in English to transit class and status. At present there are a number of such schools which the NEP 2020 have not even acknowledged.  

If there is a strong scientific base for mother tongue education and teaching of English goes against the science then why are there English medium private schools for the elites/ Savarnas? Why are the premier institutes of higher learning imparting instructions in English? Why have they not been converted into vernaculars? These questions need to be answered in the NEP 2020 before provisioning vernaculars as a medium of instruction in the policy.  


Krishnaswamy, N. & Krishnaswamy, L.(2006). The Study of English in India. New Delhi: Foundation Books Pvt. Ltd. p. 11-90.

Naik, J.P. & Nururllah, S., (1943). The History of English in India. p. 161-65.

Nambissan, G. (2010). The Indian middle classes and educational advantaged. In Apple, W., Ball, J. & Gandin L. A. (Eds) The Routledge International Handbook of Sociology of Education. New York (NY): Routledge.


Nilesh Gourkhede is a PhD Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. His research interest includes Education of the Disadvantaged, Teachers Education and Issues of Public and Private in Education.