Recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, the issue of language has created a huge political and media controversy. For too long Indian languages have been off the agenda for political parties and slowly, insidiously, the dominance of English was spreading. As the idea of welfare state also gets replaced by a market economy, English has been made to appear to be a language of both aspiration and power. The Indian languages have faded from attention and there is little material available about them in respect to the state of knowledge production, education, information technology, official usage, legal requirement etc in the public domain. There are any number of innovative and bold writers in Indian languages but the media seems fascinated only with English writers and writing emanating from India. The English media, especially in the metros, almost wilfully ignores the happenings in the Indian languages, practising what a social scientist aptly called a “linguistic apartheid”.
When I joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1965 (Madhya Pradesh cadre), there was very little English used by the administration. Hindi being the main language of the state, it was in letter and spirit also the official language. I had done my MA in English Literature from St Stephen’s College but till my BA had studied in the Hindi medium. I served in MP for nearly 27 years, specialising in education and culture. At no point did I feel that a civil servant not knowing English was at a great disadvantage. Even ICS officers did their official work in Hindi and adapted themselves comfortably, as did the numerous other civil servants from other linguistic regions of the country. In those days, most civil servants came from the humanities background though there were some bright ones with technical education like medical or engineering. Every time things got translated into Hindi from English, the language would be unidiomatic, incomprehensible and needlessly cumbersome but what was written and thought originally in Hindi was perfectly comprehensible. Hindi was also the language in which the state legislature conducted its business. I do not recall any MLA even speaking English in the Vidhan Sabha. This must have been true in almost all the states except perhaps those which had cosmopolitan cities dominated by the English-speaking elite. Knowing English helps but it is not an essential requirement for good and efficient governance in a pluralistic democracy. Indian languages are a powerful tool for administering India, both for understanding and communication and also as a humane form of governance. The Indian civilisational enterprise is among the few that is rooted in and sustained by the plurality of languages, religious beliefs, cuisines for millennia. The so-called global modernity should not be allowed to undermine this unique plurality.
The problem that the UPSC paper has highlighted is not about English but about the prejudice in certain top bureaucratic quarters against Indian languages. They have an arrogant and unsubstantiated belief that knowledge, precision and exactitude are impossible in the Indian languages. They seem to believe that analytical skills, the knack of problem-solving etc is only possible in English. They have no idea that a lot of significant material is being produced in the spheres of social services, history etc in many Indian languages. Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi have a rich repertoire in this regard. Inept, incomprehensible translation isn’t the issue here, the problem lies in the belief that such questions and testing skills can neither be thought of nor articulated originally in any non-English Indian language.
Administration and governance in a democratic polity has elements of management but it cannot be reduced to just that. The pressures on civil servants are of a much varied nature and their skills at responding to, anticipating and empathising need a framework that cares for others, delivers on time and appears just and firm. Only a small percentage of civil servants make it to the Centre. The rest spend their entire career in the states. It is a strange irony that politics, media and a lot of marketing etc take place predominantly in the Indian languages but administration is expected to be possible only in English!
Languages are an inexhaustible storehouse of our cultural memories, indigenous knowledge, imagination and local resonances. If all these are unnecessary for administration, it needs no arguing that administration would then be feudal, dictatorial and deeply undemocratic. Languages do not survive or subsist on state patronage; they are born in and sustained by communities. Similarly, the state is a creation of society and must care for its valuable assets and surely language, even a small tribal language, is an important asset.
(Ashok Vajpeyi is a renowned Hindi poet and critic.)
Apparently hailing from a Hindi-speaking region and with Hindi as his mother tongue, it is but natural that Ashok Vajpeyi's knowledge of Hindi was a boon to him during his stint in Madhya Pradesh (Lost in Articulation). This is not so elsewhere in India where languages other than Hindi are the norm and where Hindi may not even be understood. The issue does not have to be about language but about providing a level playing field, which English provides to people from non-Hindi-speaking regions. To term upsc as an Upper Class Public Service Commission is a misnomer. Given the percentage of reservations/affirmative action programmes, many deserving ‘upper class’ aspirants are not even in the race.
Language should not be a barrier for those aspiring to serve the country better than the current set of looters.
However, for the newly formed bigotted Modi sarkar, 'language' only means 'hindi'. And this is just one of the problems. The otherbeing the inability of the aspirants to grasp the nuances of a commonly used language - in itself a failure academically.
The Civil Services exams are held only in English and Hindi. Is this not discriminatory against Indians who have studied in other Indian languages? If the vast majority of Indians are willing to learn English, if only to be able to crack the Civil Service exams, why cannot the Hidni belt be expected to learn some English?
English has proved its utility. So should our other languages. Without being overly judgmental, there are strong parochial currents flowing through our land, most recently in Telengana. We should assess carefully which are the forces we wish to strengthen, which to gradually phase out.
Ashok Vajpayee >> The administration’s language must be local, English dehumanises it
If Administration's Language should be local, where do the Linguistic Minorities (in every local-ity) go when they need the help of administration?
Multilingualism is the necessity of India and no one can do away with it. People see Modi Sarkar as being Hindi Biased but Today's BJP is a far cry from the Jan sangh of 1970s and 1980s, in that the key leadership has a large presence of non native Hindi speakers (modi and shah are gujjus, dont forget that).
Let us accept English and Hindi and the principal languages all needed to run this nation and yes local language must be asserted but at same time bring laws to treat Linguistic minorities in every local-ity as a special category that needs extra help. A Tamil Speaking upper caste Hindu in Mumbai needs special assistance of the government since he is more disadvantaged than a Hindi Speaking Muslim in Mumbai.
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