Friday, December 12, 2014

Liberation and the English Language

The two lectures and accompanying discussions held in Goa recently under the aegis of the Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture Series provided much needed food for thought and discussion.  Organised to proffer Ambedkarite visions on issues that are of concern to the country, the lectures featured Dr. Varsha Ayyar from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bombay, and the acclaimed Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad.

Chandrabhan Prasad spoke on ‘Ambedkar’s India Project’ suggesting that Ambedkar had a definite vision for India, one that was not tied to any one dogma, but one that was committed to destroying the caste system and creating an Indian society that would be more respectful of all. A part of this project relied on the industrialisation and mechanisation of agriculture. Once people have access to machines, Prasad argued, all kind of jobs are open to people irrespective of caste. He provided the example of sanitation services in high-end hotels. Labelled more appealingly as “Housecleaning” and with provisions for gloves, uniforms and tools, these jobs that would normally be reserved for dalits had now seen the entry of dominant caste persons.
Prasad is perhaps more famous for his support of school education in English, going so far as to propose a temple for the goddess that is the English language, and the celebration of Macaulay’s birthday. Given that he did not touch directly on this more controversial topic, I ventured a question: In the context of Goa, where those who argue for English as a state-supported medium of instruction are berated as anti-national, denationalised and against Indian culture, what would your response be?

Prasad’s response was crystal clear. What is this Indian or vernacular culture that these anti-English educationists seek to promote? It is the very culture that oppresses Dalits and other marginalised communities in the country. This is a culture that embodies caste. If this culture will be destroyed in the process of education in English, then let it be destroyed.

Prasad’s logic recognises that language does not necessarily come alone, it is often accompanied by a culture. Prasad avers that the culture that comes along with English is largely an egalitarian culture and should be welcomed. This assertion is very true. Vernacular cultures in India are very often markers of caste location. Any person who speaks Konkani will know that to speak Konkani is to give away one’s caste. If one wants to speak the so-called ‘perfect Konkani’ one has to speak like a Saraswat brahmin. The problem is, given that Saraswat speech is the result of a complete immersion in a sub-culture, it is in fact difficult to speak this language. If one is able to master this caste dialect, then this is at the cost of giving up the Konkani of one’s home.  When one slips, the mask drops, and one is almost always embarrassed for it becomes obvious, one was performing the language rather than living it. In addition, there are numerous stories of households, both Hindu and Catholic where children correct both parents and grandparents, telling them, or worse laughing at them, saying “your Konkani is wrong.” Learning Konkani, is to also learn about caste, to be ashamed about one’s caste location, to try to imitate the dominant castes, and to fall short, as some applicants for government jobs have reported. The result is that the only group that is able to be proud of Konkani is that of the Saraswat Brahmins, because it is their Konkani alone that is held up as perfect.

A great part of the Goan population in fact understands this tricky situation vis-à-vis Konkani which is why they will speak it at home, but, if they are upwardly mobile, avoid it outside. They prefer to use English in public engagements outside those in the marketplace. Because, while English and its cultures may have class markings, they are both as yet largely free of markings of caste. It is for this reason that English is preferred by a large segment of our population.

The issue of culture also came up with Dr. Varsha Ayyar, the speaker who inaugurated the Ambedkar Memorial Lectures. Dalits do not celebrate their culture, she said. They seek to liberate themselves from the culture which traps them in a definite social location. But it is different with the bahujans and “their” culture. This fact was also observed by one of the participants in the discussions subsequent to the first lecture. A Dalit activist composed a question in the form of a Marathi poem, asking “In this country the Brahmin acknowledge that they are Brahmin, the Kshatriya that they are Kshatriya, even the Ati-Shudra that they are Ati-Shudra. In this country it is only the Shudra who refuse to acknowledge who they are. What do we do with the Shudra?”

What he meant was that rather than recognise that it is brahmanical culture that oppresses them and those below them, the Shudra embrace this culture that not only restricts their own mobility, but becomes the basis for the persecution of other marginalised groups in the country.

Listening to this poem and the discussion that ensued various pennies dropped in my head. To begin with, I realised with a start how the movement against English and in support of the Indian languages is led by those who see themselves as bahujan leaders in Goa. It also became clear why, so often, Hindu bahujan leaders who should reach out to their Catholic bahujan brethren often use Hindu nationalist imagery that pushes the Catholics away.

The problem is not only with the Hindu bahujan, however. The Catholic bahujan too fail to raise questions of caste, preferring to ignore the pink elephant in the room in the hope that it will go away. Rather than raise questions of caste and fracture the consensus that has caused so much misery in Goa since at least its integration into India, they grasp at straws. Therefore, rather than say that Devanagari currently operates as a tool of brahmanical domination in India, rather than say that state-supported Konkani is a tool of caste-based oppression they suggest that they are genetically unable to understand the script and dialect. In doing so, they aggravate the pro-Hindutva bahujan leaders, and also waltz straight into the arms of the upper-caste Catholic leaders who excel at playing second fiddle to the leaders among the Hindu upper-castes.

One strain of Dalit thought makes it very clear that if India is to emerge out of the morass of daily persecution that marks the lives of so many of the people in it, a good portion of Indian culture itself will have to be destroyed. There is no point being nostalgic about a poison that kills. English must be acclaimed because it is one way to check the caste logics that lurk so close to the surface of vernacular languages.

As a certain Jewish leader so many centuries ago once remarked, “Man was made for the Sabbath, not the Sabbath for man.” Thus, let Indians, and Goans, craft their own culture in new egalitarian forms, and not be enslaved to horrific forms of the past.

Viva Bhim!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 12 Dec 2014)

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