October 30, 2006

The Language of Poltics

A couple of political brawls are currently raging in India, about how and who should acquire knowledge.

The most recent one is a move by the Karnataka State Government that threatens to shut down hundreds of schools, unless they replaced Engish with Kannada as the medium of instruction. For those who are globally and geographically disadvantaged, Karnataka is a province in India with it capital in Bangalore, better known as the "Silicon Valley of India". Majority of the residents of Karnataka speak Kannada and little of any other language — with the exception of C++, perhaps. Just kidding! The Karnataka controversy follows another recent one surrounding the denial of admission into a prestigious public school in New Delhi, allegedly on the grounds of the candidate's poor English speaking abilities. I believe that these events represent an attempt inject yet another divisive issue into sectarian conflicts, the staple food of rogues and scoundrels, also known as politicians.

After religion and caste, language is a highly emotional issues in many parts of the world. In the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu in India, scores of people died in the violent protests that ensued in the 60's, after the federal government's attempt to declare Hindi as the sole official language. The birth of Bangladesh is often touted as a case in which language was supposed to have trumped religion as the dividing issue. The current conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil speaking Sri Lankans, has its roots in the preferences and privileges accorded to the former by the Governmeent of Sri Lanka. Closer to home, the rapidly increasing Hispanic population in the US is creating tensions between the English and Spanish speaking populaces.

If you digged deeper, the underlying stakes are usually economic and political. Land, jobs, riparian rights, business profits, and political ambitions are window dressed in culture, heritage, and identity. I guess, that makes it more it more palatable to, and help whip up hysteria amongst, the masses, cutting across the various special interest groups.

Let me conclude with the disclosure that the first language that I learnt to make my demands known to the world around me was Tamil. It also happened to be my medium of instruction from K-12. I am reasonably well read in Tamil literature, and I enjoy watching good Tamil movies and listening to good Tamil songs. I try to talk in Tamil, but only if I knew that the listeners understood the language. I don't insist on their responding in Tamil, though. There was this acquaintance of mine from Andhra Pradesh — let's call him Rao, Sr. — who spoke Telugu. He worked and lived with his family in Pittsburgh, USA. He had an eight year old son — Rao, Jr. — to whom he insisted on speaking in Telugu always. Occassionally, Rao, Jr. would respond in English. Everytime that happened, his father would wallop him with a belt. Rao, Jr. grew up hating Telugu, and everything else that went with that label. He ended up marrying a Chinese woman, and never spoke Telugu again.

Language is primarily a communication mechanism. To take pride in its other glories, perceived or real, is an indivdual's prerogative. To impose it on others, however, is merely the politcians' ruse to divide and rule. Nothing more, nothing less.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


The Karnataka government has now decided to make Kannada compulsory for all CBSE and ICSE students in the state. Starting next year, they will no longer have the option to study English as an alternative. Karntaka's move follows that of the Maharashtra Government to make Marathi compulsory in all CBSE and ICSE schools in the state.

First, it was competitive appeasement of castes, then it was the religious minorities' turn, and now, the dystopians have started to woo the linguistic majorities. That's unity in diversity, folks!

1 comment :
  1. Hi,

    I'm not sure if you know of the reason behind urging, nay, mandating these set of schools to impart education in Kannada medium.

    All these schools had obtained licenses to teach kids in Kannada. Kannada medium schools are subsidised, though am not sure by how much. Laidback as governments come (or go), the faux pas was discovered only some five years after the schools continued to violate the terms of the license they had agreed to abide by. After repeated warnings produced no results, the government was forced to offer an option: derecognition, if they continued the violation.

    There are a plethora of English medium schools in Bengaluru (Bangalore's neXt name :) that haven't, by any means, been affected, as they have always, and continue to impart education in the medium they have obtained licenses for.

    Dive a little below the surface that channels like CNN-IBN make us look at believe, and you see that its not really pandering to some linguistic jingoism, but a legal dictum that says, 'if you need to impart in English, you are welcome, but obtain the license for it'.

    Coming to the Kannada in CBSE/ICSE following in the footsteps of the Maharashtra government: This is hardly surprising - Marathi speakers in Mumbai are dwindling, and so are Kannada speakers in Bengaluru. I'm not in the know on the situation in Maharashtra - in Karnataka though, the idea is to have CBSE/ICSE introduce Kannada as a III language. I've studied Kannada in the III language, and I know the syllabus. The text book during my time was 75 pages, and started with the alphabet, and simple sentences and little stories with question and answers - all these from standard VIII. My parents migrated to Bengaluru during my VIII, and I had no problems picking up the little Kannada at that time. The alphabet sure looks different from Devanagari, but it's still read and pronounced the same.

    There's no Kannada in classes XI and XII, and absolutely nil thereafter.

    In fact those little sentences have helped me, the migrant, bargain with autodrivers, bus conductors, and the vegetable vendors :)


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