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.)