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The Reality of English's Role in India

The New York Times August 25, 2014

NEW DELHI — Please mark the answer that best represents the truth (as this is not to ascertain your ideology, but your aptitude for a job with great perks).

English is a foreign language.

A) True. It came from outside India.

B) False. The former prime minister Manmohan Singh and the former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani also came from elsewhere, but they are Indian now. A language belongs where it lives.

C) True. English is foreign because it is not the mother tongue of the vast majority of Indians.

D) False. English is in fact India’s only national language, far more influential than even Hindi.

E) All of the above.

This question has yet to appear in any objective-type exam, but it has long bothered Indian society and is at the heart of a protest by hundreds of young Indians who are objecting to, among other things, the intrusion of English in one of India’s most prestigious tests — the civil services examination. To be precise, they are protesting one of the two screening tests that hundreds of thousands take every year to qualify for the “main” exams. Only a few hundred survive, to be inducted into a system that may eventually take them to the top levels of bureaucracy.

Candidates have the option of taking the screening tests in English or Hindi, but even the Hindi version has passages in English to test their comprehension of that language. Hundreds of candidates who have taken the tests and failed, or aspire to take the tests, have hit the streets of the capital protesting the English passages, which they say put those who are not proficient in English at a disadvantage. They have thrown stones and burned buses. They have also, oddly, held up protest signs in English.

Any battle against English in India is at once a battle of the poor against the rich, the village against the city, tradition against modernity and the regional elite against a more cosmopolitan elite. On Monday, the government tried to placate the mobs by announcing that the English passages would be scrapped, but as the protesters have other demands, they have not ended their agitation.

The general opinion among bureaucrats is that the protesters are a disgrace. Srivatsa Krishna, a civil servant, wrote in The Times of India that the government should study the video footage of the protesters, “identify the specific culprits and ban them for life” from taking the exams. He found it ridiculous that the exam’s candidates would protest a requirement to possess “English skills of 10th-class levels.”

In almost every state in India, the guardians of culture have tried to restrain the growth of English, but its power has only grown because of its promise of material and social benefits. Most of the cultural guardians themselves send their children to English-language schools. The medium of instruction for higher education in India is almost entirely English.

A politician, Yogendra Yadav, lamented in The Indian Express that “the entire system of higher education that controls white-collar jobs” is loaded against students who did not attend English-language schools. But then, that is the reality of the nation. The dominance of English dims the prospects of students who are too poor to attend an English-language school. But the government, for various reasons, including cultural prejudice, has not done enough to take English to its poorest. Most of its free or cheap schools do not have English as the medium of instruction.

In South India, there have been no protests against the English passages. Historically, that region has protested against the supremacy of Hindi. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his first public speech in the south after assuming office, he spoke in English.

English is indisputably Indian now, and the most useful language in India. But it is not the most beloved, nor the medium of abuse during road rage. That special place Indians will always grant only to their mother tongues.

So the correct answer is “E.”

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