Language is one of the basic media to facilitate the expression of the mind. Yet, when a distinct form of it is spoken by a select group of people who are high up in the social hierarchy, it can become a tool to maintain cultural superiority. In the Indian context, it would be the Savarnas or the twice born who exercise this power which consolidates their position as gatekeepers of the language and which invariably leads to further the exclusion of Dalits.
I would attempt to illustrate this disturbing and real phenomenon by relating three anecdotes from my personal experience with various people at different times and places. Incidents that have jolted me to think about the practice of language in India, particularly English, by a select few, and how this turns into one of the tools of exclusion of Dalits in the larger academic and philosophical discourse.
Anecdote one: We and they
While I was studying ‘English Literature’ in the second year of my Bachelors’ course, out of curiosity and with a desire to share the new texts I was reading, I would often discuss them with my Professor, a very senior and scholarly reader in her subject. She was a Brahmin. My reference to her caste identity has nothing to do with our discussions then, but in retrospect everything seems to be intertwined, if I am to interpret the undertones of her inclination towards English speaking/writing territory that is hegemonized by Savarnas in India and her silence on Dalit literature in English and its relevance to me. In the same college, I had become acquainted with a Dalit professor. He was a short story writer and an art critic as well. A very respectable figure in Dalit Literature in Maharashtra, he once explained to me the connection between writing in mother tongue and Dalit Literature. ‘The understanding of the text can be best acquired through one’s own mother tongue’ he would say.
According to him, writing in the mother tongue permits the spontaneous, creative expression of thought processes. His vivid explanation stemmed from his curiosity about my writing in English, instead of Marathi, which is my mother tongue. So one fine day, I raised this topic with my Brahmin professor with the naïve objective of discussing Dalit Literature in English, the importance of local languages, and also my Dalit Professor’s preference for the mother tongue over English when it comes to literary writings. Her sudden and sharp response to his ideas was “They cannot get along with English, that’s why they don’t like English speaking or literature”. In her emphasis on they were imbued several implications which I did not mark then. But now every word returns to me, words which determined the subtleties of linguistic hegemony, dialectic violence and how this has inferiorised Dalits in the English territory of education in India; how this has furthered discrimination against them in English centric academics by denying their capacity to think creatively. Through the implicit propagation of English as the language of creativity and English speakers as thinking, smart and efficient folks, a further marginality has been imposed.
Anecdote two: The morality of the superior
A year ago, I moved to Mumbai and chose the discipline of social sciences for my Masters. Though rather reserved in having conversations with people, I gradually became familiar with my fellow students. As days passed I even befriended (at an intellectual level) a few classmates. But from the very first encounters after classes commenced, one thing that struck me was the dialect and pace with which most of them practiced (performed) English. In my conversations with one such classmate who belonged to a privileged background (though from the minority strata), a graduate from an elite women’s institution in Delhi, I found a helpful friend to repair my pronounciation of English words and correct my grammatical mistakes too.
Eventually, however, this seemed to transform into her moral task. At first, I found nothing odd about it. But when it switched to a mode of the subtle practice of expressing linguistic superiority, I began to perceive a sense of alienation and a waning of confidence in our intellectual conversations. Her inadvertent or perhaps even intentional superiority was most likely derived from the socio-cultural values she had deeply internalized from her background in the exclusively English speaking circle of elitist and esoteric institutions. ‘Is it wrong to pronounce English words differently, especially when you are not convent educated?’ I would ask myself then. Later on, I realised that the subconscious will of maintaining linguistic hegemony, to deoxidise Dalits in their intellectual pursuit, so as to create a socially exclusive class of privileged ones, is widespread around us. This ultimately leads to the exclusion of Dalits from gaining a philosophically contesting position in the same language- English.
Anecdote three: The right way to speak
This was my latest encounter with linguistic hegemony/superiority. Once while returning from rural field work and conversing casually with a group of friends, I tried to imitate their urbanized English accents. A Brahmin friend, who sporadically carries an imported version of English, fabricated in one of the urbanised colleges of Delhi, reacted quickly “Oh! Don’t speak that accent in Your English, you can’t do it”. Her articulation of ‘Your English’ gave me fresh insights into the rigidity of her Brahminical cultural past and present and its hegemonic essence which was clearly and brutally reflected in her authoritative statement. This was quite unlike her egalitarian expressions and viewpoints which she seemed to hold in our previous discussions on my caste and politics of caste and literature. This made me think about Brahmins/upper castes and their relationship to English and how this almost always leads to Dalits/Adivasis facing discrimination in their intellectual aspirations in the highly competitive circle of academics.
Linguistic dictatorship and abstract violence
These three experiences are similar in the context of English and one’s own social positioning and conditioning. Gramsci observed that “culture” in the context of language “at its various levels, unifies in a series of strata, to the extent that they come into contact with each other, a greater or lesser number of individuals who understand each other’s mode of expression in differing degree, etc”. In Indian society, this works in reverse. ‘The mode of expression’, the practice of English is almost privatised by a few privileged ones, to keep it confined within their reach. This can further be observed in the context of a decline in the quality of education at the rural level, and the simultaneous attempt at English education being made highly expensive, also privatised, in urban territories of India.
This creates a structure of linguistic hegemony with the educational-relationship embedded in it. The same structure that, in the Indian context, also positions Savarnas as the reference point for journeying into the world of English. By that I mean the exercise of undergoing continued and uninterrupted domination by the Savarnas/Brahmins as the instructors or teachers or writers and also fellow students that one is compelled to emulate, often due to lack of any alternatives from our own locations. Also the language of the curriculum and the everyday language of Dalits at the higher academic level are different from each other. For Savarnas, English as the language of the curriculum is often also the language of their social surroundings, including their educational background in convents etc. This certainly creates a deep linguistic chasm between Dalits and Savarnas/Brahmins. Ultimately it fulfils the process of sanskritisation (though Brahminisation would be a more accurate and comprehensive term to describe it) of verbal dialectics. To understand that in the context of my first anecdote, it can be observed that how this hegemony of language (in Gramsciam terms: the educational relationship) led a Brahmin/Savarna professor to ascribe to herself the position of the only authentic reference point for English and at a virtual level, to exclude those who could not practice or had just started practising this language. Here, language (English) itself does not play any active part. It is only a passive tool and becomes discriminating when it is used by Savarnas with esoteric objectives.
The cultural and political essence which is attached to English in India, especially in relation to the international world of thoughts and philosophy, is the fundamental reason behind this forceful discrimination. The competitive spirit to dominate this political and cultural essence of India on global platforms impels the Savarnas/ Brahmans to make English an almost esoteric medium which would present them as the inevitable and obvious mediators and philosophical beings to exercise the sole fundamental rights to write books, articles etc. thereby maintaining their solid presence in the literary field of English. The recent controversy over the lengthy introduction by a Brahmin writer to Dr. Ambedkar’s seminal book ‘Annihilation of Caste’ is a fitting example to explain this. Arundhati Roy, who wrote the introduction of the book, seems to have no active engagement with the movement towards the annihilation of caste. The book, written by Dr. Ambedkar, possesses philosophical merit and carries the potential to address and enlighten global readers on the horrendous issue of caste in India. Miss Roy seems to automatically earn philosophical royalty on the theory of caste through her introduction. All this while possessing only theoretical perception, however flawed, about caste, totally lacking in empiricism.
When the British left India, English remained a language majorly confined to upper caste/class bureaucrats, academicians and litterateurs. Much of the syllabus based English in Indian academia is subjected to the ‘upper caste interpretation’ of history and their experiential world. As the years passed, English-speaking became a phenomena restricted to the urban world, and in that too, a phenomenon practiced by Brahmins/ Savarnas. It also reached out to a few who belonged to other religious sects but were economically privileged enough to attend elite institutions. This can be observed in the second anecdote. For people like me who have been taught in a vernacular medium, getting into a premier institution, facing entrance exams, interviews and discussions in English, isn’t an easy task. I had to learn every single English word many times over, in order to get me this far. It is then quite obvious for me to feel uneasy as well as humiliated when I encounter such occasions in which I have been deduced to be inferior to learn what upper caste/class agents of English could. Prof. Gopal Guru has summed this up rather succinctly: “The creation of language becomes another effective weapon to restrict the entry of Dalits into academics circles which are based on a particular syntax, mostly Anglo-American. Some of the more nasty guards of these circles would point out the grammatical mistakes of the Dalits publicly, not just for crushing intellectual confidence of the Dalits through humiliation but also for hiding behind the language game”.
The third case was an example to destroy the morale of Dalit students who have been learning English while carrying the baggage of their vernacular background as they pursue academics in English. Here, urbanised/Savarna dialects seem to hold the polemical right to prohibit the entry of Dalit students into any philosophical discourse by denying their capacities and mocking their accent/manner of practicing English as unauthentic learning.
All this can be seen in the sphere of linguistic dominance which is constituted and exercised in English by Brahmins/Savarnas in their everyday lives. In this sphere operates a certain jargon, and expressions which have transformed into elements of exclusion of Dalits. English, through Savarna/Brahmin guards, often asserts its authenticity through the rules practiced by them. In this process of being subject to such diktats, though not explicitly, Dalit students often get dragged into an inferior position in the discursive sphere. And the violent consequence of all this often is the killing of the moral stamina of Dalit students who seek to achieve philosophical wealth in academics.
My name is Yogesh Maitreya. I am from Nagpur. I am doing my M.A in Criminology and Justice (2013-15) from TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai).
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.