In every affluent home in India, English has become the first language. Most rich kids find it easier to learn a foreign language - French, German or Spanish - than Hindi, Tamil or Bengali. These children do have a smattering of the vernacular, which they use to communicate with the household help, and sometimes when they are speaking to their grandparents. In India's top schools, it is cool to not know Hindi, even for kids whose parents grew up in hardcore Hindi-speaking homes.
This is not new. The superior status accorded to English has continued since the days of the Raj. Even after the British left, English remained the language of command. Globalisation has made this even stronger as English is also the global language of business, especially Finance. India's extreme income inequality adds to this mix. The rich have built their own bubbles to recreate the way people live in first world cities. English lends itself elegantly to such a lifestyle.
The New Education Policy 2020 (NEP) aims to disrupt this edifice of power. Not to make it more equitable but to transfer authority to a new, rising social class. To understand this, we need to unpack India's elite first. It consists of two distinct sections who came together in an uneasy marriage in the 1990s. The first were the English-speaking old elite, close to the Nehruvian state, who occupied positions in authority across institutions. They promoted literature, cinema, high-art, classical music and dance, and generally saw themselves as benefactors of the masses.
The second were the mercantile classes, large landowners and vernacular intelligentsia, who were mostly marginalized during the first 40 years of Congress rule. Many of them, especially in North India, continued to preserve old rituals and practices within their homes. Most spoke in their mother tongue - usually Hindi, Punjabi or Gujarati. Liberalisation and globalisation brought them centre-stage. They had generations of experience in finance and entrepreneurship and the old elite needed an alliance with these rich-but-marginalised groups to sustain their control over the state.
In the past 15 years, the balance of power has gradually shifted to this new elite. They occupy most of the top managerial jobs in the private sector. They make up the majority in corporate boardrooms. They are the founders of unicorns and successful startups. They manage banks and big funds. They have even begun to replace the old elite as 'experts' in TV studios.
Yet, they lack one crucial currency of power - proper English. It is not difficult to distinguish between old and new power in a party from the way certain words are pronounced. If the old elite were Anglophiles and would never pronounce route as rout, members of the new elite roll their Rs in an American fashion, and at times, say Mid-aas instead of Midas. This creates a palpable, tactile hierarchy of breeding, which allows the old elite to assert their power despite having less money and losing access to the state.
The NEP intends to break the back of this linguistic pecking order. On the face of it, the policy decision to make all junior school instruction in local/home language is a pro-people decision. It levels the playing field, where rich kids have a heavy advantage, by making learning more accessible for less fortunate children. In reality, this is just a smokescreen. Given that the Modi government has shown no inclination to spend more on education, all the pious pronouncements of universal free education need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
In effect, the NEP wants to establish Hindi as the dominant language of power by replacing English as the primary medium of instruction. You could argue that the policy doesn't impose Hindi, but privileges local languages. This is nothing new. Most states have a large number of schools that provide elementary education in their local language. Yet, even the poor send their children to private English-medium 'convents', because they know English is the ladder to upward mobility.
Hindi has already become India's default language for official communication. The Modi government, and the bureaucracy that surrounds it, deals with the citizenry almost exclusively in Hindi. The PM always addresses the nation in Hindi. Bollywood movies and Hindi soaps provide the blueprint for many regional film industries. Even the highly-developed film industries of the southern states get national recognition when their hit films are remade in Hindi. It will be natural, then, that non-English-medium instruction and the three-language-formula, will gradually strengthen Hindi's position as the language of power and authority.
The rich will find a way past this. Even if state governments like Delhi and Haryana implement Hindi-medium across-the-board, the affluent will try and move their children to international schools, such as the British and American schools in Delhi. At worst, they will ship their kids abroad. Yet, the very possibility of having to learn and speak in Hindi will have an impact on internal rankings within the elite. Many who carried a chip on their shoulder for not speaking idiomatic English, will assert their 'Indianness' in social situations. It will be a linguistic flexing of muscles to establish who holds the reins of power in the Modi Raj.
This is not a short-term project. The New Education Policy intends to rewrite the entire process of education in India. That is why it proclaims that "the rich heritage of ancient Indian Knowledge" is the "guiding light" of the policy. That is why it privileges Sanskrit by dedicating an entire paragraph to it, while "other classical languages" are mentioned in passing. This is the beginning of the process of dismantling the Nehruvian vision of education - modern, secular, rational and overwhelmingly Euro-centric in its conception.
This is probably the last nail in the old elite's coffin. They have largely been evicted from Lutyens Delhi in any case. The NEP is one part of a massive project of creating a new Central Vista elite.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
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