The BJP has come under attack from the English press and English-speaking celebrities across the world. Each time, those in power and their minions have countered the criticism by accusing the West of racial bias. WhatsApp networks have worked overtime to provide nuggets of information that establish the duplicity and hypocrisy of the US-led western liberal democratic world. ‘English’ has become a metaphor for the self-serving actions of these countries. Even in the case of the present Ukraine crisis, the extreme right has found an opportunity to accuse Western countries of double standards. There has been a near refusal to call out Vladimir Putin’s actions as unpardonable.
Within India, too, this disdain towards the English media has been widely propagated. There is an unusual nuance here. The TV serial-style presentations in some English news channels feel very Indian. On the other hand, mellow and formalised presentations in other English channels are seen as non-Indian. These associations between cultivated equanimity in speech and ‘western-ness’ and over the top, overemotional reporting and ‘Indian-ness’ are intriguing.
Amit Shah’s rejection of English must be seen in this larger context of how English is being seen as a representation of power. In fact, he is not speaking to Kannadigas, Bengalis or Malayalis; he is addressing his Hindi belt vote bank. Unfortunately, to many in these regions, Tamil is as alien as English, but there is a distinct hierarchical difference. Many look down upon non-Hindi languages as unnecessary, sectarian, regional, lesser, or outright crass, but English is feared. The language is a powerful tormentor! So, the rejection of English is the erasure of linguistic oppression, and its substitution with Hindi the establishment of its superiority over every other language spoken in this land. It a win-win situation for Amit Shah. Hence, he does not care what politicians from the South have to say on this subject.
Another association that Amit Shah is also tapping into is religious. Just as Urdu and Hindustani are being attacked as Islamic and hence non-Indian, this strike at English is also a push back against Christianity. Despite the fact that Indian Christianity is multi-lingual, it is seen as an English religion, supported aggressively by western Christian institutions. Hate for English also rides on an anti-Christian sentiment. There is a historical connection between English education and missionaries that makes this an easy target. But the uncomfortable truth (for the BJP) is the fact that when Hindu Brahminism denied Dalits education for centuries, these Christian schools gave them access to education. English became a pathway to economic and social freedom. Denying English its place in our cultural ethos is also a denial of the existence of casteism.
Unlike in the past, this very clever juxtaposition of Hindi and English changes the nature of the argument. If someone questions Amit Shah, he will be accused of being subservient to the White man. After all, Shah has said we should replace ‘English with Hindi!’ This anti-Englishness is also a rejection of its elite-ness. We have to concede that the elitism that English perpetuates and the condescension that those speaking the ‘Queen’s English’ exude is unacceptable. Hence, if we want to challenge Amit Shah, there must be a change in the way we present English. The snootiness simply has to go!
Though we gave English an official status in its role as a bridge between states and between state governments and the Union government, we did not allow it social common-ness and treat it as just another language of this land. English in India is not ‘Indian English’ in the singular. Much like Indian cultures, we have so many dialects of Indian English. These need to be embraced. Laughing at those who say ‘is-school’ or ‘straight-u’ must stop. English has become a tool for othering and is at play in the division created between those educated in private schools and those in public schools. Ironically, the same English that helped many come out of social segregation is today an unspoken marker of the caste separation that the public-private schooling model perpetuates.
This language tug of war is not new but the current English twist attempts to alter the direction of the conversation. Shah hopes that this re-positioning of the discourse will allow Hindi to wiggle its way into our systems. To resist it, it is not enough if we only celebrate the hundreds of languages spoken in this land. English must also become one among them.
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