RTE Act is destructive and communal

India needs a decentralised education model that does not impose city standards on schools in villages and tribal areas.

[India needs a decentralised education model that does not impose city standards on schools in villages and tribal areas.]


“India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that, in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people, and therefore they could not possibly overtake the thing.”
Mahatma Gandhi at Chatham House, London, October 20, 1931, quoted in “The Beautiful Tree” by Dharampal.

The RTE act of 2009 continues where the British left off. Dharmpal painstakingly showed, based on British archival records that he copied long hand over decades in London, that India had a flourishing education system that catered to all castes.  He documented, from early British records, that there were areas in India with near hundred percent literacy before the British uprooted the tree of indigenous education.  To move again towards hundred percent literacy, scrapping the RTE  act must be a priority on the government’s legislative agenda.

The strategies that the British used are dutifully carried over in the RTE act.  Schools are being de-recognized by the (still) colonial state.  This is being based not on the quality of learning but by the quantity of “paraphernalia.” The act lists out a criteria for buildings, fences and a playground in an eerie echo of the British approach to India, completely disconnected from how rural India works. This has led to a closure of existing rural schools, increased the cost of education and, with the recent Supreme Court judgment exempting specified religions identified as “minorities” from its draconian provisions, further communalized the Indian state.  An act that closes schools in the cause of universal education can only be considered an act of monumental stupidity.

With all the fuss about fences and teacher counts, the RTE act has little emphasis on either pedagogy or learning outcomes. It not only doesn’t specify what a student is expected to learn after eight years of education but goes on to say that no standardized board exam will be given to measure if they have learnt anything at all. Further no student will be held back in a class, which means that class room standards would decline. A disruptive student cannot even be expelled, nor can a student be punished in case it leads to “mental harassment”. It looks like the framers of the RTE act envisioned the classroom as a free-for-all fenced zoo after which the students can be released into the wild, no better off, when they turn fourteen.

There are plenty of existing models for universal schooling that the act could have drawn on. The US has ahighly decentralized model where public (government) schools flourish and are directly funded by local taxpayers and local managed in school districts.  Rather than decentralizing education structurally and taking on the executive responsibility to provide education, the act tacks on another disease of the Sonia Raj,  un-elected centralized “Advisory Councils” with little or no accountability to the people.

While the executive disowns the responsibility for providing quality public education it impinges on private schools, firstly by requiring them to not have entrance examinations, and secondly by creating coercive quotas for a quarter of the school population and thirdly by limiting their compensation for such students.  Given the fact that students cannot be held back in a class even if they don’t learn anything or expelled from a school if they have no desire to learn, the RTE act will over time result in a drastic lowering of school standards and education.  It doesn’t fix public education, and then turns private education to the same low standards as public education in India.

If the aim is to use private schools for public education, the lack of admission tests would make sense if all the children were allotted based on local area and the criteria was applicable to all schools. With the May 2014Supreme Court judgment these coercive measures are only for those schools that have the misfortune of being labeled as “Hindu.”  The Indian constitution is communal in that it discriminates between people based on their religion. It creates a religious apartheid state where, as in this case, those labeled as “religious majority” can be subjected to coercive legislation while those labeled as a “religious minority” have a right not to be. In this land of diversity singling specific religious groupings for the privilege to run schools without interference is communally divisive. Interfering with admission criteria of some private schools will allow other to forge ahead. It privileges the already privileged—Catholic schools that had a leg up based on a colonial system, can continue to be run as a Christian-favoring meritocracy while Hindu-run schools struggle to compete under the new framework.

This religious minortyism is unique to India and would be illegal in the US and most Western countries and absurd in Islamic ones.  It keeps “minorities” in the control of religious authorities and identified primarily with religious identities.  It also creates a state-favored impetus to conversion out of the majority traditions by allowing “minority” schools, that discriminate on the basis of religion, to be run without state coercion while the “majority” is not allowed to do so. In the US, for instance, it would also be illegal for a Catholic College like St. Stephen’s to receive state funding while explicitly discriminating against Hindus and others in its admission criteria with a 50% Christian quota.

Finally, the RTE allows no room for non-traditional learning or alternate schools. India has a long tradition of children learning in skill-based jatis and kulas and from their parents. Even the highly regulated US system has provisions for home schooling. Forcing children into one size fits all education is destructive to traditional skills. It will also make it difficult to run Ekal Vidyalayas, single teacher, low cost schools that have helped serve distant communities with little infrastructure. The RTE acts requires at least two teachers and contains cultural absurdities like mandatory walls and fences, force-fitting a city-based security paradigm into village or tribal areas where it makes little sense.

Ideally the state should invest in a decentralized, locally governed and funded public education system, based on existing successful models in the world. Schools on public lands grants must be run by and for the public. Private schools should be allowed to charge whatever fees they want, but should not receive subsidized land.. It is the economy of scarcity caused by over-regulation that creates “capitation fees” (which the RTE makes illegal, fixing symptoms rather than the cause), just as the regulated industrial economy created black market “premiums” for simple things like scooters and phone lines.  The politicians, many of who have used their clout for land allotments to run private schools, have a vested interest in this education economy of scarcity. The RTE doesn’t fix it, it makes it worse.

If we truly cannot create a public delivery model, we would need to move a non-discriminatory voucher model, valid for any private school in the local area. To make it valid only for Hindu schools cannot be justified. Education regulation should focus on outcomes where children at certain age must show proficiency at an appropriate level in math and language skills in their mother tongue in any school or learning system that they are part of. The focus must shift from paraphernalia to learning outcomes as a primary measure. A school repeatedly failing in learning outcomes can be shut down rather than de-licensing it because it has too few rooms.  A good teacher can teach children sitting under a tree; and many rooms wont ensure the children have learnt anything.

The challenge for India is to prepare a workforce for modernity, at the same time preparing a modernity that works for India rather than being destructive to its strengths. The RTE fails on both these counts. By focusing on fences and buildings rather than learning outcomes it will leave a generation un-prepared. At the same time, it is completely disconnected from the realities of India, whether it be traditional vocational learning, jati-based knowledge systems or alternate school experiments. Finally, with the recent Supreme Court judgment applying the destructive provisions of this act only to Hindu schools, it is stuck in the politics of 1947 rather than preparing to move away from religion-based categories and discriminative laws. Continuing on this path is a recipe for disaster. The RTE act must be scrapped as a legislative priority.

This article was original published at NitiCentral.com

The English Class System

Is English medium education helping in India’s economic progress or does it hold India back? Also see bhashaneeti.org for a new language policy for India.


VOL.XVII. No. 1, January 2007
Original PDF of the article:The English Class System

  1. English-medium education and economic good

The language policy debate in India has centered on two issues—of a common national language or link language and of the language formula to be adopted in primary and secondary education. The debate about the common national language has often split between those that advocate Hindi and those that support English as this common language. The Hindi advocates base their plea on cultural and nationalistic reasons while the English supporters base their stance on pragmatism – arguing for the economic necessity and global inevitability of English use.

Two aspects of English adoption and usage have, however, not received sufficient academic attention. While mounds of printed material have been produced on caste hierarchy in India; the English language class hierarchy, commonly encountered in everyday urban India, has hardly merited academic attention. The relative scarcity of studies of the sociology of the English-based Class System in India—social stratification based on knowledge of English and spoken English “accents”—with corresponding social differentiation and discrimination—is striking.

Secondly, while English medium education has been vaguely related to economic good there is little scientific research that actually establishes the causality of English medium education and economic good. For instance, does the spread of English-medium education in India help or hinder GDP growth? While there are numerous studies that attempt to relate literacy rates and universal primary education with economic good, there are scarcely any that specifically look at the medium of instruction and its relationship to other economic data.

This article makes some preliminary observations on these two aspects of English-education in India with the hope that it may be a catalyst for more rigorous appraisals of these questions.

1.1 The economics of language

When English becomes the official language of a country, does it help or hinder economic progress? To study how economics impacts language, we compared countries by GNP and official language – and came up with some surprising results.

Let us take a look at the top and bottom countries in the world by GNP per capita and examine its correlation with official language. In using per capita measures countries with a very small population may lead to less meaningful results, so we filtered out countries with populations less than 5 million. Then, we sorted the results by per capita GNP and looked at the top 20 and the bottom 20 countries.

1.1.1 Twenty Richest

Table 1 Richest countries by GNP per capita*



GNP per capita ($)

Mass Language(s)

Official Language(s)

1 Switzerland


German/French/Italian German/French/Italian
2 Denmark


Danish Danish
3 Japan


Japanese Japanese
4 United States


English English
5 Sweden


Swedish Swedish
6 Germany


German German
7 Austria


German German
8 Netherlands, The


Dutch Dutch
9 Finland


Finnish Finnish
10 Belgium


Dutch/French Dutch/French
11 France


French French
12 United Kingdom


English English
13 Australia


English English
14 Italy


Italian Italian
15 Canada


English/French English/French
16 Israel


Hebrew Hebrew
17 Spain


Spanish Spanish
18 Greece


Greek Greek
19 Portugal


Portugese Portugese
20 South Korea


Korean Korean
*Population greater than 5 million only1 Raw Data Source: Encarta Encyclopedia

The mass language(s) in this table is the identified first language of the most numerous groupings of people. There is a wide variety of languages found in this list, dominated by European languages. More pertinently, in none of the top 20 richest countries is the language of official business (and the primary medium of education at all levels) different than the native language used by the general population. In cases like Switzerland, which has multiple common languages, the medium of primary education follows the dominant linguistic group on a per-canton level with multiple official languages reflecting the major linguistic groups, without an inherent class structure privileging a colonial language. Also, in all of the countries above, the highest level of education is available in the mass languages. The pursuit of higher studies proceeds perfectly well in a large number of non-English native languages, since only 4 out of the top 20 countries of the world ranked by GNP per capita have English-based systems. The top 20 are also not restricted to European languages alone – Japan and Korea have done perfectly well economically by using their native languages as the medium of education, including in the sciences, over choosing a non-mass language such as English. Switzerland and Israel are both multi-lingual countries, but different significantly from India in that they do not suffer from a similar class system and perceived superiority of a foreign language, spoken only by a minority of people. The case of Israel’s choice of language is particularly illuminating and we shall look at it in greater detail further on.

1.1.2 The twenty poorest

Let us look now at the other table, the 20 poorest countries in the world.

Table 2 Poorest countries by GNP per capita*



GNP per capita ($)

Mass Language(s)

Official Language(s)

1 Congo (DRC)


Lingala, Kingwana French
2 Ethiopia


Amharic Amharic
3 Burundi


Kirundi, Swahili French, Kirundi
4 Sierra Leone


Mende, Temne, Krio English
5 Malawi


Chichewa English/Chichewa
6 Niger


Hausa, Djerma French
7 Chad


Sara, Arabic French/Arabic
8 Mozambique


Emakhuwa, Xichangana Portugese
9 Nepal


Nepali Nepali
10 Mali


Bambara French
11 Burkina Faso


Sudanic languages French
12 Rwanda


Kinyarwanda Kinyarwanda/French/English
13 Madagascar


Malagasy French/Malagasy
14 Cambodia


Khmer Khmer/French
15 Tanzania


Swahili English/Swahili
16 Nigeria


Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo English
17 Angola


Bantu Portugese
18 Laos


Lao Lao/French/English
19 Togo


Ewe, Mina, Kabiye, Dagomba French
20 Uganda


Ganda, Luganda English
*Population greater than 5 million only2 Raw Data Source: Encarta Encyclopedia, World Factbook

We find many of the same European languages in this table as in the table of the richest countries. The difference, of course, is obvious. In over half of these twenty countries the common languages used by the people are not even recognized as official languages. Even when they are officially recognized, such as Chichewa is in Malawi, official business and higher education is often conducted in the colonial language. For instance, The University of Malawi, is the foremost university in Malawi among the total of just four major universities in the country. On its website it lists the requirements for the University Entrance examination that is “used to examine the students’ aptitude for university work.”3 The first criterion it lists is “Language skills”, explaining that this is used to “measure students’ aptitude in English Language Skills.” Apparently university aptitude can only be demonstrated by knowledge of English—those fluent in Chichewa, the “official” language of the country and that of the common people, need not apply. The University of Malawi website does not even mention Chichewa anywhere in its contents.

By contrast, Technion, in Israel is one of the foremost technical institutes in the world. Its website clearly states4:

“The lingua franca of the country is Hebrew and this is also the language of instruction at the Technion. … Visiting Students accepted for Winter or Spring teaching semester programs should attend the Technion’s intensive five week Hebrew language course (‘Ulpan’) before they begin their studies.” (emphasis in original)

Technion is a world-class institute of technology, yet it strongly promotes Hebrew medium education. Israel is one of the top twenty countries in per capita GNP and a leading technology state. Yet the poorest countries have internalized this fallacious notion that English, and English alone, is the path to development.

The vast majority of the list of the poorest countries in this table has a class system similar to the one in India, where the language and culture of the colonial masters is considered superior to the native languages. Much of higher education, business, government and judiciary are transacted in this colonial language, often different from the languages spoken inside the home by the majority of people. The elite attend “colonial-medium” schools and use those terms and concepts to understand their own experience and those of the “natives” that they look down upon.

Note that there are 6 countries in this list of poorest 20 countries which have their official language—and that of higher education—as English, while this was the case only in 4 among the richest.

1.2 What does this data say?

We are not suggesting that all these countries are poor simply because of this language class-separation. Correlation does not establish causality. To look at the direct causality we may not need to look far — 19 out of these 20 poorest countries were colonies of exploitation by European powers, the 20th being a protectorate. That is undoubtedly one of the important casual factors.

Nonetheless in this study of colonization, studying the slavery of language, with its resultant class-separation and long-term economic and social consequences, is clearly an important issue. This language-based class separation hurts the people in multiple ways: (1) It privileges a foreign culture over the native culture, thus eroding self-esteem and a basic belief in people. (2) It disconnects the intellectual and policy discourse of the country, often carried out in the colonial language using a colonial worldview, from broad participation by the people. (3) It imposes the cost of re-education of an entire population into a different language for the purpose of higher studies, thus creating a glass ceiling for progress for those educated in the native languages, and it hold up the colonized elite classes as the standards for the rest to aspire to.

What is more remarkable, however, is the paucity of analysis on this subject. There is a sense of inevitability among the elite regarding the adoption of English. Even India’s recent economic growth and the success of its software industry have often been linked to the adoption of English.

1.3 Is business and professional success linked to English?

English-medium education is often touted as one of India’s competitive advantages and a reason for its recent economic progress. These pronouncements parade as obvious truths, so obvious that no study need be done to establish their basis in fact.

Is global business success linked to the knowledge of English? Hardly. If the economic tables presented earlier do not raise serious doubt on this account, let us examine a few specific examples.

The major East Asian economies—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—are all non-English speaking. Business schools, just like other higher education in these countries, are conducted in Japanese, Korean and Chinese, not in English. Yet these countries have produced global multi-nationals in everything from automobiles to consumer electronics—Honda, Toyota, Sony, Samsung and numerous others. Of the top 1000 companies in Asia 792 are from these 3 countries (India has 20) with combined sales of nearly 4.5 trillion dollars (India’s combined total is not even 2% of these).

A child from a village in Japan, South Korea or Taiwan can aspire to be a doctor, an engineer or a business leader without having a debilitating forced language medium shift for higher education. This allows the talents of the entire nation to be harnessed, unlike in countries with a high degree of language-class separation. In a recent study of village schools in India, we found a school in the village of Khandodra in Haryana where nearly 33% of the children in the school scored above the 90th percentile on the intelligence test that we administered. The children were all studying in Hindi medium. The principal of that school described the debilitating effects of the transition to English based higher education on these talented kids. He spoke about the issues of language – “Hamara grameen kshetra hai – agar higher education se touch hai tab hi baccha safal ho payega. Jab vo 8th class pass karta hai, 10th tak jata hai, usme English ki aisi ek heen bhavana aa jati hai, ki upar jata hai—competition mein bhi English medium hai.” (Ours is a rural area; to succeed these children need to be in touch with higher education. However when the child passes 8th class, goes into 10th, he experiences a feeling of inferiority in dealing with English; to go higher the competition is in English).

Similarly, the idea that India’s software success is due to the knowledge of English bears examining. If it were true, then English-speaking countries must display this advantage consistently. In particular, countries like Kenya, with comparable histories to India of colonization, an English-based colonial class system and a large English work force, must also be disproportionately successful in software. This turns out to not be the case. Furthermore, this theory also fails to explain why Israel, which follows largely Hebrew and Arabic-medium schooling, is a notable software success.

People in Israel migrated from all parts of the world in the twentieth century. These people spoke many different languages, yet Israel chose Hebrew, not English as their official language, reviving for modern times what had been declare a “dead” or classical language. This would be the equivalent of India choosing Sanskrit as its official and link language, instead of the colonial choice of English.

For all its heralded software India’s software exports totaled $6.5 billion (2001 figures). Israel, a country with a population less than a hundredth of India (in fact, less than half of New Delhi’s population) had software exports of over $2.5 billion in the same period. It is worth noting that Technion, one of the world’s premier engineering institutions is Hebrew medium. When I visited the Microsoft campus in Haifa, Israel I was surprised to find that they used Hebrew-based keyboards and used Hebrew as the language of communication within the Microsoft office.

As a software manager for Microsoft, I often flew in and interviewed candidates from across the world in an unending quest for talent. Some of the people I sought out were flown in from Russia—and they were certainly not hired for the knowledge of English. In many cases, their knowledge of English was so rudimentary that I arranged for a Russian speaker to interview them. They turned out to be some of the best software engineers I hired.

With India’s fixation on English-based higher education, it is able to leverage the talent of a far smaller percentage of its population. Thus India acts like a country with a talent pool which is less than a tenth of its population. The bright children from the village of Khandodra in Haryana, invariably hit against the glass ceiling of English in their quest for technical and professional education in India. This is not because of some kind of professional inevitability of English use, but a direct result of official state policy.

The Common Admission Tests for entrance to the Indian Institutes of Management is not only in English medium but English language verbal ability and reading comprehension form a significant proportion of the test. English is mandatory to be a lawyer or judge in the state High Courts or the Supreme Court in India. To become a doctor or an engineer, the best state-funded institutions remain exclusively English medium. English remains a mandatory qualifying subject for the Civil Service Examinations that selects India’s bureaucrats.

Thus the English Class System exists not only in the social domain but as state policy. The message is clear and consistent. Indian languages are “lower”, English is “higher”. You can practice in lower courts in Indian languages, but high courts require English. You can become an ordinary soldier or jawan in the army by giving the test in an Indian language. To become an officer, the test is in English.

The colonial mindset and discourse transforms officially sanctioned discrimination and the class hierarchy of language into narratives of the global “inevitability” and the natural superiority of English. To argue otherwise would be to argue for backwardness over progress; for trenchant nationalism (or regionalism) over obvious economic good. Yet this economic good is far from obvious. Imposing a mandatory language shift for higher education for the vast majority of Indians has significant economic costs—it fails to develop the talent of vast numbers of Indians for the new economy and becomes a severe axis of discrimination and continued impoverishment. English, then, can be more accurately identified as the language of India’s backwardness rather than as its progress.

1.4 Conclusion

English adoption has often been decried for its cultural costs in the extermination of native languages. However its use has often been justified on pragmatic economic grounds. Quite apart from the cultural devastation in the wide-spread adoption of a foreign language, the economic basis of the argument for English education needs to be examined with greater skepticism.

The advocacy of English often relies on arguments of the “inevitability” of its adoption for development and progress. Part II of this essay examines the relationship of these arguments of inevitability to the hierarchical English Class System prevalent in Indian society as well as its historical origins.

2. English in India: the colonial mind

“In schools and universities our Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities that make up Kenya – we associated with negative qualities of backwardness, under-development, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment”. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.

The Indian intellectual elites and bureaucracy, often schooled in English-medium schools and colleges, are taken by the “obvious inevitability” of English-medium professional and higher education. The facts enumerated in the previous sections are not hard to find. Yet, the very idea that someone would become a competent doctor, engineer or business professional studying in Hindi or Tamil medium just as they can in Japanese, Hebrew or even Turkish seems somewhat inconceivable in contemporary Indian discourse.

This notion of the superiority of English also holds sway in Indian social interactions where the “accent” of spoken English has become a key marker in the social hierarchy. “Convent-school” English accent is the highest in this totem pole, followed by “less-refined” private or government school English, down to those that are uncomfortable in the English idiom—and are easily condemned as uncivilized or illiterate. College graduates without “convent-school” English that I interviewed complained of this bias in the job market; even though they may be quite competent in performing the required job. Not surprisingly then, there is a spiraling demand for English and “convent” education. As we discussed in Part I, at least some of this demand is unnaturally created—with explicit bias in state policy in favor of English language higher education.

To be clear the issue is not about learning English or even speaking it well. The problem arises when medium of education itself is switched from the common mass-languages to English; when spoken English accents become a marker of class hierarchy; and where pervasive bias exists in professional and higher education as well as in the job market against the mass languages. While the Japanese may queue up to learn English as a second or third language for the sake of business or travel or to feed their fascination with America, English speaking does not become a social class marker in interaction within Japanese society; nor do they turn English learning into a whole-scale shift of higher and professional education into English medium.

2.1 The “Masks of Conquest”

Historically, India had very well developed systems of education and written and oral literatures in Indian languages. In pre and early British times, according to data painstakingly collected from colonial sources by Dharampal in his book, “The Beautiful Tree”, primary, secondary and higher education were widely prevalent in India. Based on a detailed examination of early British records available for Madras, for instance, Dharampal(1995: 20) concludes that “School attendance especially in the districts of the Madras Presidency, even in the decayed state of the period 1822-25, was proportionately far higher than the numbers in all varieties of schools in England in 1800. The conditions in which teaching took place in the Indian schools were less dingy and more natural; and, it was observed, the teachers in the Indian schools were generally more dedicated and sober than in the English versions.” Colleges used regional languages as well as Sanskrit and Persian; higher education included studies in subjects such as Medical Sciences, Astronomy and Law.

How then did we come to acquire a picture of our educational backwardness and the backwardness and unsuitability of Indian languages for higher and professional education? Gauri Vishawanathan of Columbia University, in her book “Masks of Conquest”, has done a study of the establishment of English language and literature in India. The establishment of the English-speaking elite in India took a 3-pronged approach:

  1. The destruction and/or denigration of native education
  2. The requirement of English for becoming part of the governing elite
  3. The establishment of English only, i.e. English medium schools, along with the cessation of teaching English as a language in native-language schools.

The languages and literature of a nation is a major carrier of its culture. In turning a nation away from their languages and literature, the colonial encounter bred ignorance and contempt of the native experience, while placing the idea of the “perfect” Englishman, carried through the English literature, on the native pedestal. This created a class of native “brown sahibs” more comfortable with the English idiom and values than with their own and the establishment of a literary and cultural elite that identified with the English and looked down upon the non-English speaking “natives” as Englishmen would.

“Charles Trevelyan, brother-in-law of Macaulay and one-time president of the General Council of Public Instruction, proudly exclaimed that the educated Indians “speak purer English than we speak ourselves, for they take it from the purest models, they speak the language of the Spectator, such English as is never spoken in England.” If Calcutta citizens spoke the language of the Spectator, it was by no means accidental, for editors of Calcutta journals and newspapers deliberately wrote in an Addisonian style under names like “Candidus,” “Verax’ “Oneiropolos,” and “Flaccus’ and on subjects having not the remotest bearing on Indian life, such as the fashions of the day in England, and on imagination, etiquette and morality.”(Viswanathan, 1998:115)

The same slavishness, in different form and degrees is to be observed amongst the “convent-educated” classes and English-language writers in India today. When many English-language writers present the Indian experience, it is often presented like exotic anthropology, looking down from above on native customs, completing the slavery of the mind.

The aim of English education was manifold – one was to secure a “buffer zone” of trained bureaucrats who could be controlled and who would rule over the masses, and further more to use education as a means of establishing intellectual hegemony over this class by a mix of denigrating and exoticizing the native culture – more importantly, to have this elite class identify with the values of the conquerors rather than the conquered.

The extent to which this mission succeeded in the formation of the present-day elite makes for a fascinating study. Some “Orientalists” protested against the extinction of native state literatures, and the explicit creation of a language-based caste-hierarchy, based on state policy:

“By annihilating native literature, by sweeping away from all sources of pride and pleasure in their own mental efforts, by rendering a whole people dependent upon a remote and unknown country for all their ideas and for the very words in which to clothe them, we should degrade their character, depress their energies and render them incapable of aspiring to any intellectual distinction.” 5

Nonetheless, the Orientalists, despite their professed study of Indian literature were equally complicit in establishing British hegemony. According to Vishwanathan(1998:167), “… a curriculum may incorporate systems of learning of a sub-ordinate population and still be an instrument of hegemonic activity… both the Anglicist and the Orientalist factions were equally complicit in the project of domination, British Indian education having been conceived in India as part and parcel of the act of securing and consolidating power.”

Note that British administrators forbade the teaching of English as a language outside of English-medium schools. By the 1835 English Education act, the teaching of English was taken out of native language schools – because learning English as a language, while retaining the native medium of education would allows the natives to understand the British on their own (native) terms. This is because a native brought up thinking in their own language and merely learning English as a foreign language, would be able to objectively study the British, outside of the colonial framework presented to them as objective and neutral. Thus the change of medium, and the establishment in the native mind of an English based class structure,
was a necessary part of the colonizing mission.

2.2 The role of the contemporary Indian University System

The establishment by the British of colleges and universities, organized on the lines of the London University, for training an intellectual class in the colonizer’s worldview was very much part of the colonizing mission. Macaulay’s successor, Charles Cameron who campaigned vigorously for a centralized university system, “went so far as to call for the total exclusion of the classical languages of India—Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian—on the grounds that they were inextricably bound with system of ‘pagan theology’.”(Viswanathan, 1998:113)

Even when studies of classical Indian languages and texts were carried out under “Oriental studies” this was part of maintaining a hegemony of power and control. While the Orientalist Horace Wilson argued for the preservation of native languages, he recommended co-opting the maulvis and the pundits as teachers and translators of Western tests. Viswanathan(1998:113) suggests, “Wilson refined the ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of destruction from within, to urge that the traditional men of learning of India also be co-opted as ‘additional instruments in our power’.” Even while accepting Wilson’s arguments up to a point, “under no circumstances was the Bentinck administration or any other administration following his willingness to support Oriental learning if it meant the perpetuation of Oriental languages and literature as the source of intellectual values, morals and religion.”

Along with the destruction of native literatures, “an increasing number of British administrators … discovered a wholly unexpected ally in English literature to maintain control of their subjects under the guise of a liberal education.” (Viswanathan, 1998: 85)

The success of the systematic efforts of the British administrators in creating an elite English class in these universities who trace their intellectual roots solely in the Western civilization can easily be observed today. Having internalized the negative stereotypes about their own roots, their only psychological defense remains to distance themselves from these roots as much as possible by attacking them as their conquerors taught. When the colonized identify with the mental worldview of the colonizer, the slavery of their mind is complete. This attitude of the mind, above everything else, is what we speak of in talking about the “colonized.” This experience is not limited to India, of course—so let us take a trip to Africa for additional perspective.

2.3 Ngũgĩ waThiong’o: Decolonizing the Mind

World history that is taught in Indian schools usually limits itself to European or American histories. To shed light on the contemporary Indian experience, it may be far more useful for us to study the histories of Africa and South America and their experiences with colonization, than to study the history of Europe. African intellectual Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o decided to break out of the colonial mold in Kenya.

Thiong’o is a popular Kenyan writer, who started off writing in English, but realized the impact of what he called the “culture bomb” and decided to switch to writing exclusively in his native language Gikuyu. “Decolonizing the Mind” is one of the last books he wrote in English, in which he describes the “culture bomb”:

“The biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed … is the culture bomb. The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other people’s languages than their own.”(Thiongo, 1986)

Thiong’o (1986:7) describes the “acceptance of ‘the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature'” – a logic that immures an entire class of people from reading nothing other than the colonial literature, and writing in none other than the colonial language. Even when the “native’ culture is included, it is done with the aim of presenting to the conquerors for approval or for shock as exotic museum pieces, in much of the genre that goes by Indian writing in English. Thus native culture is used for the pleasure of the colonial master, either as a symbol of contempt or as an exotic amusement that will not deeply challenge the master’s worldview. As Thiong’o emphasizes, writing in English enriches the language and literature of the English world, not of the native languages. This literature thus continues to steal from the native culture to enrich the masters’, symptomatic of what Thiongo’ calls “demands that the dependent sing hymns of praise with the constant refrain: ‘Theft is holy’.”

Thiong’o (1986: 28) describes his schooling in English-medium schools and universities in Kenya, where the mother tongues of the children were literally beaten out of them – children would be punished for speaking anything other than Englis:.

“In schools and universities or Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities that make up Kenya – we associated with negative qualities of backwardness, under-development, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment.”

Thiong’o speaks of the relationship between culture and language. Language serves two roles—as a means of communication and as a carrier of culture. While English can serve as a means of communication, it is not the primary carrier of native culture. This is something that was keenly realized by the British administrators in India as well when they noted, for instance, that English education was “replete with Christian references” just as the vocabulary of Indian languages was imbued with their basis in Indian philosophical and religious thought. Edward Thornton, British parliamentarian went as far as to say – “As soon as [the Indians] become first-rate European scholars, they must cease to be Hindoos.”6 While Indian culture is still struggling with this bold assertion, the efficacy of this cultural denigration and destruction is evident in academic, journalistic and fictional India writing in English.

No surprise, since, as Thiong’o (pg 15) continues, language is an image-forming agent in the mind of the child. “Language as culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self and other selves; between me and my nature.” While language is universal, the particularity of a language and the sounds and symbols it chooses, reflects the particularity of a cultural experience. “Thus a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history.”

A colonial child is forced to live the dichotomy between their outer and inner worlds – the language spoken at school and at home, the language of spoken expression and the language of external writing, till the child slowly and surely starts to think and perceive his world through the eyes of the colonizer. As Thiong’o (pg 17) states “For a colonial child, the harmony existing between the three aspects of language as communication was irrevocably broken. This resulted in the disassociation of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation. The alienation became reinforced in the teaching of history, geography, music, where … Europe was always at the center of the universe.”

Thiong’o (pg 28) suggests that the ultimate impact of using a foreign medium as the primary medium for study is a deep colonial alienation on a personal and societal level.

“Colonial alienation takes two interlinked forms; an active (or passive) distancing of oneself from the reality around; and an active (or passive) identification with that which is most external to one’s environment. It starts with a deliberate disassociation of the language of conceptualization, of thinking, of formal education, of mental development, form the language of daily interaction in the home and in the community. It is like separating the mind from the body so that they are occupying two unrelated linguistic spheres in the same person. On a larger social scale it is like producing a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies.”

It is perhaps due to this dissociation that multitudes of bureaucrats and academics can write volumes about “social problems” in India; but those social problems remain forever incorrigible. In practice the academics are completely dissociated from the society in their study. When they do study the society, they do this under colonial categories from a colonial viewpoint, disconnected from an authentic personal experience. These studies are often used to craft government policies, administered by bureaucrats in a colonial setup, and by misguided activists and NGO’s, leading to persistent despair about the “problems of Indian society and its backwardness”, where the problems may well lie in the gaze—the way the society is viewed and problematized and the particular mindset that crafts the solutions to these problems.

Thiong’o (pg 28) succinctly captures the current attitudes of the colonized elite class with regards to colonial institutions and languages, summarizing that “it is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues.” This indeed is the case in India, where everything of value is automatically attributed to the “civilizing force” of the European conquerors, just as economic success is to English; while all the problems are decried and caricaturized as resulting from the indigenous culture—forever the source of shameful backwardness.

India still lacks a Thiong’o—a popular writer in English who switched to doing his entire writing in his native tongue. At a recent event in Seattle for the release of his new book “Wizard of the Crow”, Thiong’o mentioned that the best three words in his book was the inscription in the beginning “translated from Gikuyu.”

2.4 De-colonizing the Indian mind

Even though this essay is about the impact of English education, we do not intend to imply that English-language elite education is the sole reason for the class divide or the only source of the class divide. Nor will we automatically connect with our cultural roots simply by switching the language and translating the educational material currently written in English into Indian languages.

There is a critical distinction between the learning of English as a language for external communication to using English as a primary language in elite schools and higher education. While learning English as a language subject can today be an empowering tool and needs to be encouraged, when it is turned into the primary medium of elite education its destructive effects in the creation of a disconnected elite class far outweigh any putative benefits.

This state of affairs has been brought about as a result of conscious state policy, and thus conscious state policy is required to remedy this. Colonization is perpetuated through the state-supported institutions that are the legacy of British rule and it is these institutions that will need to be changed to remedy its effects. While it is not in the scope of his essay to examine a comprehensive new language policy, we explore here some ideas for discussion.

Recent models of switching state institutions and the medium of education out of English, such as the example of Malaysia can be a useful study. Changes must begin as a “pull”—where access is increased for Indian languages, rather than as a “push” where people are forced to learn Indian languages while access, into higher and professional education and jobs, continues to be denied to them.

In the pull model a comprehensive study can be done of examinations, such as that for selections of officers into the Indian armed forces and IIM entrance examinations that perpetuate the English bias. Similarly, Malaysia implemented a wholesale change of its court system away from English. In India the High Courts remain English-based, rendering those with fluency in Indian languages unable to practice in them. The compulsory qualifying English paper in the Civil Services examination can be dropped—to the extent English proficiency is a job requirement it can be part of the post-qualification training for civil servants (similarly for army officers).

Management, engineering, medical and other professional education needs to be made available at the highest level in Indian languages. The barrier to entry to professional and higher education is a major reason why demand for English education at the primary and secondary level is growing. Unless the problem in higher education is fixed—again a situation largely perpetuated by the state—forcing Indian languages at the primary level is going to do little good.

A further step would a requirement for converting all English-medium schools into, at the very least, dual-medium schools, through changes at the central board level in CBSE and ICSE. In particular, there is very little reason that social sciences need to be studied in English. This will allow writing proficiency to develop in Indian languages that will increase demand for written materials in native languages.

Many of these steps may be seen as “going backwards” by the elite Indians. As this essay has argued, this backwardness is in the mind. The issue, instead, is of going forward by creating broad-based access to the modern economy from all sections of society and through all languages and unleashing the creative potential of many rather than the few. While incessant attention has been paid to the issue of caste-based access in India; relatively little has been paid to linguistic access that may, in fact, be the bigger determiner of social and economic class in India today and a bigger barrier to broad-based societal access and prosperity. The obsession with caste as the problem to access is itself a result of the colonial gaze—the same gaze that fails to study the problems of the English-based class system and of linguistic barriers and prejudice. Participating in the modern global economy does not require English-medium education. Rather the requirements of English-medium, imposed by state policies and private prejudices, create a barrier to participation in this economy for the vast majority of Indians.

The study of humanities and social sciences in Indian languages, particularly in higher education, also needs to be systematically privileged. The departments of humanities and social sciences in colleges and universities in India are the refuse of colonial policies, and have had little, if any, measurable positive contribution to Indian society, other than in producing new generations of disconnected neo-colonized who exhibit contempt and disdain for indigenous culture and traditions. As a result there is very little net value being created in these studies in Indian universities. The state should examine current funding to these institutions and knock down a few ivory towers. In particular, Indian language and Indian classics study requirements need to be made part of any advanced degrees in social sciences. State funding for higher education in social sciences needs to be examined for its efficacy and positive impact on real-world social issues. At the same time, scholarships should be made available to those who choose to pursue these studies, and write their dissertation in Indian languages and that draw from Indic roots.

Distinguishing a language learnt as a communication tool from a foreign language that usurps the role of a primary medium, a suitable language policy should support the teaching of English as a 2nd language while eroding its influence as a primary language.. In particular, jobs for teaching English as a 2nd and 3rd language should be created in rural communities. This would provide employment to the multitudes of English-language teachers, while serving to break down the debilitating institutional elite class-structure that has been created by privileging the knowledge of English in India.


  1. Raw language, GNP and population data from Microsoft Encarta®, 2002.
  2. Raw language, GNP and population data from Microsoft Encarta®, 2002.
  3. http://www.unima.mw/n-requirements.html#uee
  4. http://www.technion.ac.il/technion/studies/exchange/hebrew.html
  5. From Horace Wilson, “Education of the natives of India,” Asiatic Journal (1836). Quoted from Viswanathan (1998:41).
  6. Edward Thornton, Parliamentary papers, 1852-53. Quoted from Viswanathan (1998:23)


Dharampal. 1995. The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, Other India Press

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. 1986. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.

Viswanathan, Gauri. 1998. Masks of Conquest, Oxford University Press

Opportunities Beyond English

To liberate Indians from self-imposed colonial shackles.

A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at a college in Gurgaon in Haryana, India, when a young student raised her hand. Urvashi was visibly nervous; I could see that it took a lot of courage for her to speak up in Hindi. “Where can I take computer classes in Hindi-medium?” she asked. I had no proper answer, but I had come across similar questions in rural settings, though not in the heart of the neo-urban metropolis of Gurgaon. On the one hand, we credit India’s success in software to our knowledge of English, on the other we fret about India’s relatively low level of Internet penetration relative to China. Looking beyond English in India provides opportunities to social and business entrepreneurs alike. But first we must take off our English tinted glasses.

A recent Supreme Court judgment on the Right to Education Act suggested that we are falling behind China since “children in China are learning English”. This is a fallacy—the Chinese may be learning English but they are not switching their medium to English—all higher education takes place in Chinese. The obsession with English-medium education, particularly for technical and higher studies, is keeping millions of Indian children behind. The top business and professional schools in India remain English-based—their entrance exams are not only in English but specifically test English-language skills. A child in China, or for that matter, Japan or South Korea, does not have to deal with debilitating switch in medium to go to engineering, medical or business school. Yet, this has not prevented these countries from creating some of the largest multinationals in the world—all on the basis of higher education in local languages of higher education in local languages. As demand for education in the rural and semi- urban markets picks up, it is worth remembering that only four of the richest 20 economies in the world, by highest per-capita income, are English-based. Universal education, not English-medium, is what gives China the advantage over India. Over 300 million people use the Internet in China—in Mandarin.

It is also a fallacy that our software success is built on knowledge of English. Israel’s population is half of Delhi’s, yet its software exports rival our own. It is true that many people in Israel do know English, though not many know it well. When I was a manager for Microsoft visiting my team in Haifa, I was surprised to find that the medium of communication—written and oral—within the Microsoft Israel office was Hebrew. In this office of a major multinational, internal communications were all in Hebrew, as is Technion, Israel’s top engineering college. A culture that values knowledge—similar to that in India—not the medium of education, has driven Israel to create some of the most innovative software companies in the world.

“it is worth remembering that only
four of the richest 20 economies
in the world, by highest per capita
income, are english-based.”

However, every mismatched supply-demand situation creates an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Here are some obvious ones. The first is there is a market for technical education in Indian languages that is under-served. Some weeks ago someone from Tamil Nadu sent me a proposal for creating technical education institutes. “Make sure you offer Tamil-medium,” I suggested. While initially these classes may need to have lower fees, over time there is a much larger base of students to tap. It is up to us to respond to that opportunity once we start looking beyond English.

The second opportunity is in hiring. When I was working at Microsoft, Redmond, we flew software engineers from as far away as Russia for interviews. Some of these people did not speak a word of English—I interviewed them through interpreters and they were some of the best hires I made.

Yet, in India, we may overlook talent if we insist on conducting interviews for technical candidates only in English, rather than the language they would be most comfortable speaking. The goal—to evaluate them based on their technical proficiency, rather than their knowledge of English.

The third opportunity is to spread back office operations from the large cities to smaller towns and semi-rural settings, affording lower cost and access to a broader talent base. Again, flexibility and openness about language use will allow this opportunity to be tapped. If specific language skills are required, these can be imparted as part of on-the-job. Why restrict ourselves to the English opportunity alone? BPO and call centres from France to Japan beckon. The opportunity to get a complete education in our mother tongues, combined with the ability to learn any language as a skill as needed, will bring greater, more-broad based economic opportunities and liberate us from self-imposed colonial shackles of English. This will help to propel us towards a developed economy—and lift all entrepreneur boats—in which every Urvashi can participate.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

Should education be compulsory?

The proposed Education Bill 2003, up for debate in parliament, seeks to make primary education “free and compulsory.” This enabling legislation, which will give effect to last year’s decision to make education a fundamental right, is a noble goal, but its implications for contemporary Indian conditions must be understood alongside this intention.

The first question is “Who are we compelling”? The law is aimed both at state authorities to provide universal education, and also at parents and guardians to “cause the child to attend an approved school.”

But what kind of parent withholds his or her child from school, and why? These parents are unlikely to be those that have written this bill or are reading this article. More likely such a parent will belong to the rural or urban poor. Why do some of these parents not send their child to school? According to the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) survey (Oxford University Press, 1999) parents in even the most backward states want their children to be educated. In rural Uttar Pradesh 92% of the parents considered it important for their girl children to be educated, the ratio rising to 100% when asked about boys. In Bihar, the figures were 88 and 99% for girls and boys respectively.

If that’s the case, what prevents parents from sending their children to school and achieving nearly universal education today? As PROBE states, “for one thing, motivation for education need not be the same as motivation for schooling: parents may be convinced of the value of education, and yet feel that the schooling system fails to provide much education”. Further, the report notes that “even if parents are keen to send their children to school, they may be unable to do so for various reasons: lack of facilities, high costs of schooling, need for the child at home, and so on.”

The report provides the example of students in rural Madhya Pradesh: Nandu is 10, and has been to school for four years. He can make out individual letters but cannot pronounce a single word. His elder sister, who dropped out after class 3, cannot read either. Nor can his friend Chena Lal who is in class 5. Chena Lal has confirmed what Nandu’s uncle knew already: sending Nandu to school has been a waste of precious time and money. The Education Bill recognizes some of these problems, but its goal remains compulsory school attendance, rather than any measure of expected learning.

Parents face other constraints to sending their children to school too. Despite schooling being “free” parents incur additional costs, such as for textbooks, clothes or travel. Often, they may need older children for domestic chores such as looking after younger siblings while they are themselves at work, or for helping in farm work. In our large population, even a small percentage of such parents could number in the millions.

Creating a compulsory system, without addressing primary factors such as teaching standards and parental constraints will create another law that is directed at the people rather than for them. This could in turn lead to harassment from authorities, with the under-privileged sections bearing the maximum brunt. It would create further scenarios for corruption and extortion such as for falsifying school attendance records.

A further question relates to apprenticeships, where some children might learn a traditional family occupation as the source of their future livelihood, rather than attend a non-functioning school. Should the state force a child to attend a formal school, when s/he may instead be obtaining skills for gainful employment in a different way? This question is especially vital to rural students, who even after schooling often encounter a debilitating language shift for higher education and often find the urban employment system relegating them to chaprasi-hood in the organized sector. Again, the central question is: who should decide – the parents and children, or the State?

Alternative schooling is also applicable to some parents and children who are not poor. Even in affluent countries, some parents prefer not to send their children to regular schools for a variety of reasons – religious, social or family related – and prefer instead to “home-school” them. Later these students may be qualified to enter the mainstream education system by taking some standardized proficiency tests. Compulsory schooling may thus become an infringement on civil liberties, restricting parental choice over their child’s upbringing and education and replacing it by the edict of a State dictating education through its system of recognized schools.

These factors must be considered before a proposal for compulsory schooling is passed into law. It may be better instead to put into place a system that creates universal opportunity rather than universal coercion. This includes raising the quality of state-run schools, working flexibly with parental constraints, including long-range career planning for joining the workforce and having clear metrics and accountability for learning, rather than simply school attendance.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.