English is now an Indian language

At a recent dinner at a friend’s house in South Delhi, her teenage son said to me, “Why should I be fluent in Hindi? I don’t want to learn Hindi. It is the language of his birthplace and his parents: perhaps the only language his grandparents are comfortable in to this day. What a difference a few generations can make.

Not so long ago, educated Indians took great pride in the country’s heritage of multilingualism: in children who spoke Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Oriya as well as English, and scholars who were proficient in Persian and Urdu, Sanskrit and Pali, German, French, Russian and more. Great thinkers have emphasized the richness and diversity of this heritage. Indians had to learn English and other foreign languages ​​to use in their work, travel and interactions with the rest of the world. At the same time, they must preserve and nurture their native languages, the language of love, poetry and storytelling with which they grew up in their homes and local communities.

Now the sons and daughters of the upper and upper middle classes of India seem to have lost all pride in this heritage. Remarkably, and perhaps without much awareness on their part, they increasingly became like the British rulers of colonial India. Today’s Indian elites speak English endlessly – in shops and elevators, offices and homes, in person and online. They only use Indian languages ​​for functional conversations with servants and tradespeople. And parents sometimes scold their children for speaking “vernacular” – even at home, at their own dining table.

I want to be clear. English has an undeniably important place in India today. Leading intellectuals and commentators have noted that English is now an Indian language. Indian writers contributed to remarkable new works in the field of English literature and took it in new directions. Yet the English in common use among the middle and upper classes of India is hardly a sign of new literary encounters or sensibility. It’s a sadly scaled-down version of the language, in the jargon of business and self-help individualism and SMS slang. What he signals is a decline in pride in bilingualism (not to say multilingualism) – in fact, a decline in pride in heritage and linguistic / cultural skills, more generally.

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The reinstatement of such an “English” language indicates the return of many other things that the British rule had sought to impose in its promotion of colonial interests and practices in India. Who or what is responsible for this?

I would like to highlight two interconnected factors. The first is an erosion of self-respect in the nation, with its rich and diverse history. The disappearance of an anti-colonial, inclusive and forward-looking nationalism, seeking well-being and justice for all; and the rise, in its place, of a narrow, exclusivist and backward-looking chauvinism – in which English (the language of “development” and “capitalism”) becomes the only language worth knowing or learning. A second factor reinforces this narrowness. It is the global ascendancy of neoliberal, market-driven, consumerist capitalism today – in which literature, art, philosophy, the environment, intellectual work, compassion for others, the concern for the poor and the oppressed, the old and the sick, none of these counts in the gross calculation of monetary profits and losses.

The result is paradoxical and painful. On the one hand, the sky is torn with slogans about the greatness of Indian civilization, Hindu traditions and the tolerance of Hinduism: “Garv ham se Hindu kaho / Hindustani hain; “” Hindustan mein hi saari duniya ke dharma ek saath reh sakte hain; »« Hinduon ki hi vajah se Bharat ek dharm-nirpeksh desh hai. “On the other hand, we are witnessing the disappearance of a commitment to long-standing nationalist goals of freedom, equality, religious tolerance, economic and political opportunity, work, self-respect and dignity. for all Indian citizens, regardless of caste, race, religion, language, gender or place of birth. And, with that, the decline of serious interest in the preservation and development of Indian languages , and the literary and cultural heritages of Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, Oriya and so on.

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What a difference there is between the simple slogan of Lal Bahadur Shastri, “Jai jawan, jai kisan”, moreover, “Garibi hatao” of Indira Gandhi and “Howdy Houston” of the Modi government. Not to mention the “5 T’S: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology” or “3 D’s: Democracy, Demography and Demand” of the latter, whose last two words only make sense in terms of a new aggressive culture. consumerism. capitalism.

The Indian ruling class seems to believe that every country in the world must become another United States of America. In reality, he is chasing a pale shadow, or imitation, of what is considered “America.” The surface show, emptied of its most energizing and creative spirit. What the regime is promoting as a result (in India, and increasingly in America) are half-fulfilled dreams – or nightmares – of highways and airways, automobiles and airplanes, imposing multi-story structures, gated communities and smart cities, military and aeronautical demonstrations. and space adventures.

Is this the only way open to the world today, the way of crony capitalism? A market-driven profiteering order built on speculation, tax breaks for the super-rich, manipulation of statistics, and the financial tricks of those in the know. Autocratic capitalism and “democracy” made for the national and international 1%, increasingly by the 1% which controls the political and economic resources of so many countries around the world, including the media, bureaucracy and government. judicial system, and the bodies responsible for the holding of free and fair elections.

More and more ordinary Indian citizens have seen through this subterfuge. Poor Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims struggling for their livelihood and home, opportunity, access to resources and equal rights, brave lower and middle class women, and idealistic youth of all classes, protesting everywhere India Against Government Policies and Actions. Their understanding is captured in the holding of the national flag, reading the preamble to the Constitution, the call to defend the spirit of anti-colonial nationalism, which the ruling classes are so reluctant to defend.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 10, 2020 under the title “Deux nationalismes”. The author is Emeritus Professor of Arts and Sciences and Director of the Interdisciplinary Workshop on Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, Emory University

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