Last week, the Tamil Nadu school education commissioner released a press note reiterating the state’s stand on the two-language policy. “Tamil, which is the mother tongue, and the global-link language English, have been in vogue (in the state) as per the two-language formula.” This came after reports speculating that Tamil Nadu might consider the three-language policy being mooted by the Centre. So far, Tamil Nadu has remained the most vocal critic of the three-language formula.
The debate over “Hindi Imposition” through education started with the Kothari Commission Report on education and national development in 1966. For both Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu—the ruling DMK and its rival AIADMK opposing “Hindi” have been one of the most important issues.
The controversy recently resurfaced after the draft New Education Policy was released for public consultation on 31 May 2019. The Centre then revised it and clarified that there is no compulsion of language in NEP 2020.
Following the release of NEP on 29 July 2020, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin had described it as an attempt to “impose Hindi and Sanskrit”. Karnataka too registered a formal protest, with Congress leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah calling the draft a brutal assault on the states.
Meanwhile, Hindi-speaking states also failed to offer students the option of studying other Indian languages. In states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, often the third-language option provided is Sanskrit. NEP 2020 reinstated the value of Sanskrit by offering it as an option in the three-language formula. “Sanskrit will thus be offered at all levels of school and higher education, as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula.”
“I am from UP and studied in a private school following the UP state board curriculum. Except for central schools, we rarely get any other Indian language to learn, be it in private or state-government schools. There aren’t many instructors for Kannada, Malayalam or Marathi,” so eventually “we are left with Sanskrit as the third language option,” said Brijesh Kumar, MA student at Delhi University.
There’s some support for the NEP among the liberal commentariat. Prominent among them is Yogendra Yadav, who called it “a step forward”. In various articles and videos on social media, he has said, “…nowhere does the draft NEP take a Hindi-chauvinist position, while it simply repeats the three-language formula”. Nevertheless, he also pointed out how Hindi-belt states avoided teaching other Indian languages.
Another debate that NEP has engendered is around “the medium of instruction”. “The policy says, until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, it will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language/regional language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. This will be followed by both public and private schools.”
Many students and teachers have pointed out that learning two additional languages after Grade 3, over and above the mother tongue, puts an additional burden on students. Also, the focus on mother tongue would keep many students from marginalised backgrounds in disadvantaged positions against their peers, who can afford to study in English-medium schools.
Abhishek Kumar, a Delhi-based teacher and former student of St Stephen’s College, said the English language has emancipatory potential. “After learning English, I can now be better placed in society, because English-speaking is valued in India," said Kumar, who is a Dalit.
Kumar pointed out that, since he comes from a Hindi-medium background, he had to struggle a lot. “Learning in the mother tongue is fine, but English is a necessity. I had to struggle a lot with my language skills to become confident in life.”
Indian parents don’t prefer that their kids study in vernacular schools. Though enrolment in private schools declined from 32.5 per cent in 2018 to 28.8 per cent in 2020 between ages 6-14 years, a majority in urban areas chose private schools due to the “English medium” tag. “English is a necessity, and only English medium schools can teach it better. Schools that instruct in local languages are often poorly maintained,” says Akriti Verma, a mother of a 5-year-old boy.
Others argue that the medium of instruction must be the mother tongue, as it helps children grasp concepts better. Sonam Wangchuk, the founder of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, who himself was educated in his mother tongue till the age of nine, wrote on Twitter” “I have no problem with English as a language of communication. But the medium of instruction for children is the key to grasp concepts in understanding the world, key even to learning other languages... like English.”
This idea in NEP is echoed by other eminent personalities like economist Arvind Panagariya, who learned English later in life, and supports the idea of teaching in the mother tongue because it helps students grasp concepts better.
Teaching in the mother tongue itself is not a new idea. Article 350A clearly says that a state ought to facilitate learning in the mother tongue. “It shall be the endeavour of every state and local authority within a state to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups.” The Right to Education, 2009, also echoed that mother tongue should be preferred as “medium of instruction”.
However, there is a paucity of teachers who know tribal or local languages. Members of some of the tribes have themselves forgotten their own languages, for instance, the vulnerable tribe Sahariya. Another big challenge that puts minority languages in a disadvantaged position is that in order to qualify as a mother tongue, a language needs to be spoken by more than 10,000 people. Otherwise, it is classified as a minority language.
A senior government official, on condition of anonymity, said, “The problem is with implementation. States are reluctant to recognise minority languages, and have almost zero human resources to make these languages as “medium of Instruction”. Take for example the Ghumantu tribes. They have their own language and dialects. But the State can’t provide them with education in their language. Despite all this, the move is a good move, as at least it attempts to promote mother tongues.”