Thursday, April 14, 2011

Marginalisation of the non-English

Have you noticed how the non-English speaking population is getting marginalized in our country?

Slowly but surely, English has come to dominate our thinking. It is the de facto language of the policy makers, the administration, the businesses, the judiciary and the like. Our internet is predominantly English. Even mass market products, meant for the Aam Aadmi are named in English. Sample this: Our motorcycle brands - Splendor, Passion, Pulsar, Discover and so on. Our detergent brands - Wheel, Surf Excel, Sunlight, Rin and so on. Biscuit brands – Tiger, Sunfeast, Mariegold, Fifty – Fifty, Nice, Krack Jack and so on. Have you noticed that every single cricket team in the IPL carries an English name - Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Delhi Daredevils, Chennai Super Kings, Kings XI Punjab, Deccan Chargers and so on.

These are all ‘mass market’ products, targeted at both the Urban and the Rural, non-English speaking audience. But every one of them has an English name. All because the managers who produce and market these products speak and think in English. When Ravi Shastri interviews Dhoni on television, they speak in English. Have you ever thought what the die hard cricket fan in Muzaffarpur or Shimoga, who does not understand Shastri’s polished English, must be thinking at that point of time? Movie stars, who make their careers in Hindi movies, give interviews in English. Even their award shows are conducted in English. Indeed, the trend now is that even the names of Hindi movies are in English, some of the dialogues are in English, and even songs are peppered with English lyrics. Gone are the days when Amitabh Bachchan’s chaste Hindi made as much impression with the audience as his powerful voice, or exceptional acting. Today's hero likes to 'show off' in English.

What does the non-English population (and that’s a large one – approximately 90% of India’s population or 100 crore Indians DO NOT know English) think of this trend?

You might have noticed that I have stated all of the above in a matter of fact way. I have not commented on whether this is good or bad. After all, the purpose of language is to communicate. If the whole country speaks a single language, it would actually be a good thing. Whichever that language be.

In fact, after Independence, when the new Constitution of India came into effect, Hindi was supposed to replace English. According to Article 343(1) of the Constitution of India, “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi written in Devanagari script”. English was the official language of the Administration during the British Raj, and as per the Constitution, it was supposed to be replaced with Hindi after a ‘transition’ period of 15 years i.e. with effect from 26th January 1965.  However, as this deadline came near, the fear of having to learn an ‘alien’ language and of being dominated by Hindi-speaking people led to severe opposition to this transition from non-Hindi speaking states, particularly Dravidian states such as Tamil Nadu. The Government then enacted the Official Languages Act, 1963, that provided for continued use of English for official purposes even after 1965.

In addition, under Article 345, individual States can legislate their own “official” languages. There are 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which are designated as “official languages” (English is not one of them).

When I was a child, this multiplicity of languages was taught to me as an example of India’s cultural diversity. It symbolized the vastness of India’s geographical diversity, and thousands of years of rich history. The implication was that, it was a strength, a strong point, an advantage we Indians had over other, smaller nations who had more homogeneity in language and culture. I believed in it.

But later, as I grew up, I had second thoughts. I found it to be a problem rather than an advantage. I traveled far and wide, across the country, and many a times, not knowing the ‘local’ language turned out to be a handicap. Was I not a ‘local’ in my own country? If only the whole country spoke a single language, it would be so much better! Mobility would be easier. There would be no fights over language (one issue less for the people to fight on!).

I therefore do not particularly regret this ‘Anglicization’ of the nation. The paradox that we do not mind learning English, a foreign language, but mind learning Hindi, remains. But at least, the move towards Anglicization, whenever it consummates, will unite the nation. Till the transition is complete of course, a large section of the people will get the ‘left out’ feeling. They will cheer Dhoni, but not understand a word of how he just described his victory. They will watch Shah Rukh Khan, but not know what the lyric of their favorite song means. 

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