Revival of the Debate between Anglicists and Orientalists

From Macaulay to Modi

Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is creating a linguistic revolution in his country, which may be of great interest to Mauritians who are perpetually confronted by the challenges of a linguistically diverse society where language and identity issues strike a sensitive chord in us.

News reports have commented that Modi talks to foreign leaders in Hindi even though he is reasonably comfortable in English. It appears that the Indian PM’s decision to speak Hindi to international leaders is a dramatic affirmation of India’s cultural and linguistic heritage which is second to none. It emphasizes India’s potential soft power even as Indians wait for their economic power to catch up. It tells the world that India is not a subset of western universalism, where their languages have to be tailored to fit western stereotypes.

Not only that but recently India’s government focus on the revival of Sanskrit in the schools has provoked a fresh debate over the role language plays in the lives of the country’s religious and linguistic minorities. Sanskrit is a language which belongs to the Indo-Aryan group and is the root of many, but not all Indian languages. However, it is the fusion of Sanskrit and Indian culture that is stirring up a new controversy in a country where language politics has always been an emotive and sensitive issue.

When Britain, through the East India Company, edged its way into India over the eighteenth century, their first aim was to infiltrate the existing power structures rather than to overcome them. Indian structures, and the Indians, were manipulated to facilitate British India, and their education became a central issue. In nineteenth century India, Britain first faced the possibility of having to teach English to a body of people who were important to Britain and to continuing British rule in India, and whose literary and educational backgrounds were in languages other than English.

The first major issue was whether it was desirable to offer Indians a European style of education using English, or to support the traditional Indian styles and languages of learning. This has come to be known as the debate between the Anglicists and the Orientalists.

The Orientalists supported the continued use of the classical languages of Indian tradition (Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic), which were not spoken as native languages. The Anglicists gave support to English as the classical language.

Neither the Orientalists nor the Anglicists were concerned with the suppression of the local vernaculars (i.e. the languages that were spoken on an everyday basis and which also had a literary tradition); in both cases it was accepted that the first experience of education would be through the vernacular such as Hindi or Urdu or Tamil.

The British found in India a situation that was quite familiar to them from Britain. Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic corresponded to Latin and Greek in Britain, while the vernacular languages corresponded to English in Britain. It seemed natural for education to begin in the vernacular, and for later stages of the education of the ‘sons of the higher order’ (the male elite) to develop the classical languages.

It began to be suggested from 1814 that the English language and European knowledge could be used to some extent, and that European texts could be translated into the Indian classical languages. From here it was a small step to the promotion of English as a replacement for the classical languages which in turn led to the virtual disappearance of the use of Persian in India, and to the retreat of Sanskrit and Arabic to limited, mainly religious, spheres.

With the spread of English in the Empire, it also came to present a threat to the vernaculars. Mahatma Gandhi referred to the preeminence of English as a ‘canker’ which had made Indians forget and devalue their mother tongues.

Many of the Europeans who promoted English saw it as likely to improve the moral quality of Indians. In 1824, the Committee of Public Instruction gave Hindu college, a favourable report:

“A command of the English language and a familiarity with its literature and science have been acquired to an extent rarely equaled by any schools in Europe… The moral effect has been remarkable and an impatience of the instructions of Hinduism and a disregard for its ceremonies are openly avowed by young men of respectable birth and talents, and entertained by many more who outwardly conform to the practices of their countrymen.”

Indeed teachers and students of the Hindu college did offend Hindu orthodoxy by their exploration of beef eating, Christianity, and free-thinking.

The British saw Hinduism as idolatrous superstition. The weakening of Hinduism was seen as a sign of moral advancement, as, of course, was conversion to Christianity. The extent to which the teaching of English was linked to the promotion of Christianity is a recurring issue to this day, as is the wider issue of the exposure to ‘European’ or ‘Western’ values through texts in English.

Phillipson (1992) discusses how aid to Third World countries in the form of English language teaching (ELT) may still be seen as not only advancing scientific and technical education, but also as transmitting the cultural values of the donor countries (principally USA and UK). Different postcolonial countries evaluate the impact of ELT differently. For example, the language planning policy of modern day Mauritius incorporates, through the inclusion of the teaching of ancestral languages since the 70s, measures intended, by accident or design, to neutralize ‘Western values’ linked with the European languages, while at the same time English is described as necessary for access to science, technology and world trade.

Macaulay’s Minute is generally quoted as the definitive statement of the Anglicist movement. Thomas Macaulay, a British Whig historian and statesman who brought English education to India, as the president of the General Committee of Public Instruction, argued that the wealth of literature and science in English, and its global spread, meant that ‘of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our Native subjects’. He put forward a very strong version of the Anglicist position, that the native languages had ‘no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own (the British)’, and argued for English as a civilizing force. By the end of the 19th century, however, it was apparent that hopes of mass conversion to Christianity were entirely fallacious.

In post-independence India, the elite during the rule of Nehru, who himself had an excellent command of the English language, built its power base by controlling the national discourse around English. Just as Brahmins used their control of Sanskrit to exclude the masses and dominate the old power structure, the elite in India did the same by establishing a linguistic hierarchy where English, the language of the colonial empire, became the language of the middle and upper classes, while regional languages were situated at the bottom of the pile. The legacy of this elitist tradition is still with us, as in many of the postcolonial countries, including Mauritius, a high level of ability in English indicates or defines an elite.

Today, aspirational Indians want their children to go to a school where lessons are taught in English. Half a century after Indian Independence, English remains the language of higher education, national media, the upper judiciary and bureaucracy and corporate business. It so happens that the most vocal demands for English teaching now come from India’s most disadvantaged communities. Even some family maids in India are known to spend almost a third of their monthly salary to send children to English medium schools. The Bollywood film ‘English Vinglish’, with the famous Sridevi as the female protagonist, depicts so well the predicament of a woman who speaks only Hindi, and when she is called upon to fly to New York alone, she realizes that her lack of English skills is holding her back.

Narendra Modi seems to be reversing the tide. At one stroke he has made India Indian and placed it squarely in Asia, but without cutting off bridges to the West. This is in keeping with Modi’s diplomatic and geopolitical priorities. The 21st century is the Asian century, and it won’t happen if India does not reclaim what is good about itself in the Indian and Asian context. In the recent election campaign, where all his speeches were in Hindi even outside the heartland, the local voters did not see it as an effort to shove Hindi down their throats, as was the case during the damaging Hindi chauvinism of the mid-1960s which had inflamed the passions of those living in the South, especially Tamil Nadu. Instead, they saw it as an assertion of Modi’s Indianness.

This does not mean for us Mauritians that we must discard the learning of English. English definitely opens a window to opportunities, and to all the literature and knowledge the West has to offer. But, as Gandhi said, we should keep our windows fully open to ideas from everywhere, but we need not choose to be blown off our feet by any one of them. The lesson for us is that we have to be rooted in our own culture(s) in order to modernize it, and improve it. In linguistic terms, should we adopt a mother tongue plus English approach to language planning? The debate is open.

* Published in print edition on 23 August 2014

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