The Dominance of Angreziyat in Our Education

Dependent Yet Estranged: My Growing Discomfort with English

This article will look strange coming from someone who earns her living teaching English literature, does most of her writing in English, edits Manushi in English, and could not keep alive its Hindi edition for more than nine years.

Closing Hindi Manushi was a source of great grief for me. Its publication had to be suspended because we could neither mobilise enough subscriptions for it nor get good writing to fill up its pages. As long as it survived, the Hindi Manushi lived off the English edition. Most of the articles were translated from the English edition; its printing and related costs were also subsidised from the funds mobilised by the English edition. Had we kept it going longer, it would have killed the English edition as well.

However, this set back with the Hindi edition cannot simply be attributed to Manushi's failure. The last 15 years have seen the progressive collapse and closure of almost all serious magazines in Hindi -- Dinman, Dharmyug, Saptahik Hindustan, Sarika, Ravivar and so on. Even a half serious magazine like Vama could not be kept alive by the Hindi world. Many small magazines in Hindi were started, but died prematurely. Today, apart from Hans which is indeed an important and serious literary forum for the Hindi readers, the market is dominated by magazines that cater to the needs of housewives or supply gossip about film stars or semi-pornographic sensation mongering types of glossies.

We too could have kept Hindi Manushi going if we had opened our doors to grants from the government or international aid agencies. However, I am convinced that the long-term consequences of taking that route are more harmful, even though in the short run it seems to pay off. Hindi and other regional languages will become vehicles for serious thinking, learning, analysis, higher education and planning only if English is put in its proper place, as a language of communication and understanding developments in different countries of the world, a language for accessing the latest in science and technology. The Chinese, Japanese, Thais, the Koreans and the Germans all use English in that way without becoming slaves of it as we have become.

I came to understand the full implications of the great harm being done by the dominating position of English in India as I went through the process of acquiring proficiency in it. For all my English-based education, I find myself a linguistic cripple. Even today, despite years of working in it, writing or even speaking in English does not come easily to me. I make all kinds of silly mistakes and find myself groping for words, unable to fully express my ideas and thoughts in English. I rarely make such mistakes when I write or speak in Hindi or Punjabi. English has not become the language of my dreams, my prayers or even humour. I find it really hard to crack a joke in English. At the same time it has seriously impaired my ability to write in Hindi or my mother tongue, Punjabi because most of the information giving material on important issues as well as literary writings from other languages are available only in English. Hindi and regional languages starve for want of such material.

As someone educated in English-medium public schools, I too grew up thinking that the English language opened many new windows to the world, and took for granted a whole range of new opportunities it provided to those of us who acquired some skill in using it. Yet, I was not prepared to downgrade learning Hindi as well as my mother tongue, Punjabi in the way our school system encouraged us to do. For instance, we were given black marks every time any of us was caught speaking in Hindi. I got golden stars for everything else, but persevered in earning occasional black stars for relapsing into Hindi while conversing with friends. This was still the way convent and other elite schools operated, even when the days of Irish nuns were over and we were being taught by South Indian “sisters”. This discouragement was institutionalized in other ways too. As a school affiliated to the Indian School Certificate system modeled after the British Senior Cambridge exam system, we were offered a choice of “lower” or “higher” Hindi on reaching class IX. The lower Hindi course was the obvious choice of all my classmates because it was absurdly easy -- as though designed to give a smattering of knowledge of Hindi to a foreign tourist. Therefore, it was easy to score high in it for those who had a working knowledge of Hindi. I insisted on opting for higher Hindi even though my school refused to provide me a teacher for the relatively far more difficult course. From class IX to XII, I studied Hindi on my own, and scored very well despite lack of any guidance.

Even before this option of “lower” Hindi was offered to us, I was among the very few in my class -- perhaps the only one -- who chose to read serious Hindi literature for pleasure while most of my classmates swooned over Mills and Boon romances or “school girl” comics. That made one feel somewhat isolated, but I did not think much of it nor aggravated myself over the issue. Till then I saw studying or reading Hindi a matter of personal choice and did not interpret its downgrading as a serious political issue. In fact, I enjoyed reading English literature as well, and opted for the English Honours course when I joined Miranda House as a B.A student. It was then that I was first jolted into recognising the many harmful effects of the dominance of the English language in our society. Our school had a somewhat homogenous population. Virtually every child came from middle or upper middle-class families, and somewhat similar cultural backgrounds. Therefore, intermixing was easy and smooth.

In Miranda House, I experienced for the first time the bringing together of a relatively heterogeneous group of people with enormous differences in their family's income and educational levels, cultural background and social status. We had students from extremely affluent, westernised, high status families brought to study under the same roof with daughters of bus conductors, small shopkeepers, clerks, scooter drivers, low level government employees, and even wealthy merchants. The divide was not merely economic, but also cultural. The symbol of that divide was the English language. It was not enough that you be able to speak and write in English -- the accent in which you spoke, the slang you used, the kind of school you learnt your English in mattered much more than being a diligent student, just as the neighborhood you lived in and the social status of your family mattered much more than how you performed in class. The contempt of the English-speaking elite for the Hindi speaking “behenjis” of Miranda House and their near total refusal to have any interaction with the latter was far more deadly than the inequities of the traditional caste system. These new Brahmins were more arrogant and far less useful for our society. They behaved as though India was a little island off the coast of England. Too many of them were outraged when, as President of the Miranda House Union, I began to address all general body meetings in Hindi and conduct most of the Union business in Hindi.

The manner in which English literature was taught and the attitudes sought to be inculcated through it left me thoroughly disgruntled. But since our university system is not flexible enough to allow switching courses mid-way I had to stay stuck. After my B.A, I tried changing to history, but my application was not entertained because I had not studied History up to then. It was only after getting my Master's degree in English that I could secure admission in M.A. History. But in well-functioning universities, even Indian History is taught only in English. Our ancient India expert, an internationally famous historian, was proficient in neither Sanskrit nor any other Indian languages -- modern or ancient.

My job as a teacher of English literature in a Delhi University college has only deepened my conviction that the domination of English is causing enormous damage to the people of our country. It is systematically undermining their self-confidence. For example, most of my students have very poor skills in the English language; most of them cannot function efficiently in it, leave alone use it as a vehicle of creative thinking. At the same time, they have almost stopped reading anything even vaguely worthwhile in their respective mother tongues because acquiring skills in those languages brings no reward. None of my English honours students this year was even aware of the Tulsi, Balmiki or any other literary versions of the Ramayana though they had seen Ramanand Sagar's TV Ramayan. Their knowledge of English literature is confined to reading and mugging up guide books. Not one of them has seen or used a standard literary text. They could not follow those texts without help, even if they tried. If six poems of Donne or Shelley are prescribed in their course, they will never read a seventh even from the guide book.

Thus the system has effectively destroyed their intellectual curiosity and undermined their own linguistic and cultural identity. They know only khichri Hinglish. Lack of deep roots in any language has impaired their ability to handle ideas, nuanced thoughts, or even emotional, cultural complexities. Consequently, the thing is put in neat watertight categories of moral vs. immoral, good vs. bad. They have forgotten how to ask serious intellectual questions and, therefore, are not likely to find answers

Please visit the author’s site Article first published in

Editor – At eSamskriti we believe that the work of Indian artisans, shilpkars and others will survive provided they make enough money from it. With this belief we seek to promote their work by clicking pictures during travels. We present a few links below.

1. Decolonising the Indian Mind
2. Bastar Craft
3. Woollens Munsyari
4. Sarees of Maheshwar
5. Dhurries of Jodhpur
6. Woolens of Kumaon
7. Irla Sarees, Karnataka
8. Block printing Sanganer Rajasthan
9. Sarees of Kashi
10. Belur Temples
11. Havelis of Jaisalmer
12. Education in the vision of Swami Vivekananda
13. Vedic Education
14. The Humanities and the Social Sciences in Indian Universities
15. Indigenous Education in India in the 18th century

Receive Site Updates