There was a sense of déjà vu as I followed the controversy about “imposition of Hindi” and its retraction by new Narendra Modi government over the last few days. Seven years ago, I had seen and suffered a similar controversy over “objectionable cartoons” in the NCERT textbooks in Political Science, of which I was one of the chief advisers, along with professor Suhas Palshikar.
The controversy exploded in May 2012 with a short, heated and ill-informed debate on the floor of Parliament regarding a cartoon in the class XI textbook that allegedly denigrated Dr Ambedkar. That was followed by an equally heated national media trial in which basic facts about the textbook were the biggest casualty. Faced with this political heat, the UPA government simply capitulated. Kapil Sibal, then HRD minister, offered an abject apology in Parliament and got pliant academics to get the NCERT to drop the “offending” cartoon. Professor Palshikar and I resigned in protest. Professor Palshikar was attacked in his office.
The pattern is eerily identical this time. The Modi government released the draft of the new National Policy on Education [DNPE] that had been submitted in December 2018.
Almost immediately, a controversy erupted about the BJP’s alleged attempt to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states. The allegation was politically very sensitive, as it emanated from Tamil Nadu. Now, conquering Tamil Nadu features high on the BJP’s future electoral roadmap. The big obstacle is, of course, the BJP’s image as a “Hindi-domination” party.
This was echoed in a pretty ill-informed debate, so far, in the media. Almost all the media reports and commentaries have focused on two paragraphs in the 484-page report and assumed that the DNPE has recommended something new. Comments on the dominance of English language in Para 4.5.4(on pages 81-83) have excited some editorials in the English media. And spelling out of the standard three-language formula in para 4.5.9 (on page 84) invited the charge of imposition of Hindi. If the commentators had read the entire section 4.5 of the DNEP on “Education in the local language/mother tongue; multilingualism and the power of language” and its chapter 22 on promotion of Indian languages, they would have seen that the charge of a grand design for imposition of Hindi is simply untrue. I am afraid, the temptation to wrong-foot the Modi government has led many opposition leaders to take an ill-advised, if not irresponsible position, on something that concerns a vital issue of national significance.
Let’s be fair to the report: The draft NPE nowhere takes the Hindi chauvinist position of Hindi being the “national language” of India, an expression that does not exist in the Indian Constitution. Nor does this document contain anything that shifts from the existing language policy of the country with respect to the status of Hindi. It simply repeats the three-language formula that has been, at least on paper, the standard official policy on language education since the first National Policy on Education in 1968 (para 4 (3)(b)).
The formula suggests that every child should learn three languages: one’s regional language, Hindi and English. If the child’s regional language happens to be Hindi, then she should learn another “Indian language”, preferably a south Indian language. This formula was reiterated by the National Policy on Education in 1986 (revised in 1992) and the National Curriculum Framework of 2005. The DNPE just reiterates the inherited consensus. If anything, the DNPE is more circumspect about underlining the role of Hindi than the original NPE.
The three-language formula was a prudent way to resolve the vexed issue of English and the various modern Indian languages, or bhashas, as U.R. Ananthamurthy would call all of these. It respected the primacy of the state/regional languages, while recognising the emerging utility of Hindi as a bridge among Indian languages and that of English as a bridge to the world outside India. Sadly, the formula was never practiced in its true spirit. The Hindi belt states found ways to circumvent it.
Instead of getting Hindi-speaking children to learn, say Tamil or Marathi or Bengali, they started using perfunctory teaching of Sanskrit (or, in a few cases Urdu) to meet the formality of the third language. So, in reality, the three-language formula meant that non-Hindi-speakers learnt Hindi while Hindi speakers learnt no other modern Indian language. This inequality has naturally caused heartburn.
Successive governments in Tamil Nadu have rejected this formula as a manifestation of linguistic inequality. The English-speaking elite has cleverly used this quarrel among bhashas to perpetuate the dominance of English language and the bizarre practice of English as a medium of instruction.
Far from a conspiracy to impose Hindi, the DNPE is actually a step forward in policy thinking on the issue of language and education. First, it recommends multilingualism as the foundation of education in a country like ours, thus moving away from a pointless debate about what should be the national language. It recognises children’s ability to learn several languages and the cognitive advantages of multilingual education. Second, like the previous policy documents, it reiterates the well-known pedagogic wisdom, supported by cognitive psychology, that the child’s “home language” or “mother tongue” must be her medium of instruction. This is in sharp contrast to the cognitive barbarity of the spread of English as a medium of instruction in a setting where, more often than not, the child, the parents, as well as the teachers, are innocent of this language. Third, it celebrates the strength of Indian languages as carriers of modern education and the country’s future. It makes a strong case for teaching of and knowledge creation in these languages. The government would do well to implement the detailed suggestions for helping the growth, preservation and vibrancy of Indian languages. Fourth, and conversely, it attests to the fact that the dominance of English language is due less to its intrinsic value and more because it is the language of the dominant elite. I call the prevailing situation a system of linguistic apartheid. The DNPE makes bold to say something that needed to be said: dominance of English needs to end.
Finally, it recommends greater attention to classical languages like Sanskrit and Tamil (Persian is also included in this category), so as to encourage appreciation of our cultural heritage. So, let us not judge this debate through the BJP/anti-BJP lens. It is after a long time that a national policy document has offered such a fresh and forward-looking perspective on language.
Yet, how did the Modi government react to the unfounded political criticism of this document? Just as Manmohan Singh’s UPA government did – bent backwards in the face of wild political allegations. The all-powerful Modi government too capitulated to unfounded political suspicions. First, the government hastily distanced itself by saying it is merely a draft. Fine. Then it clarified that it was not, in any case, going to impose Hindi on any state. Understandable. And then, lo and behold, it got K. Kasturirangan, the chairman of the DNPE Committee, to amend the draft itself without consulting the Committee that wrote the report.
Not the first time that short-term political expediency has trumped well considered suggestions on educational reform. As Raag Darbari , the iconic satire on Indian politics, had put half a century ago: “Vartamaan Shiksha paddhati gali me padi hui wah kutia hai, jise koi bhi laat maar sakta hai.” Our education system is that street dog anyone can kick.
The author is National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.