Linguistic racism rules in India

SHEKAR SWAMY | Updated on February 13, 2014 Published on February 12, 2014

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Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, speaking at an event organised by the Etawah Hindi Sewa Trust some weeks ago, set the cat among the pigeons by saying that members of Parliament should be banned from addressing the House in English.

Arguing that “countries which use their mother tongue are more developed”, he underscored the need to promote Hindi. Clarifying that he was not anti-English, Mulayam added: “In India people take pride and consider themselves superior if they use English.”

Responding to this, one English paper wrote that the “call for a ban on English completes the march to the past in UP”. Citing the move as “retrograde”, another daily wrote that “many states have suffered because of an aversion towards English — West Bengal is a case in point. India’s IT/ITES revolution owes a great deal of its success to the language.”

Natural reaction

It does seem like a natural reaction among those fluent in English to denounce what Mulayam said and throw away the message because of the messenger.

But one look around the world would make one concede that major countries such as China, Japan, Germany and South Korea have achieved tremendous success with their own language as the base, with English in use only for international business. The argument that proficiency in the English language is a pre-requisite for success is a lot of nonsense, and simply fails in the face of global experience. In India, one has to admit that those who are well-versed in English somehow view themselves as superior to those who are not.

This is nothing but a form of racism that is accepted and even tacitly promoted by those proficient in English.

This has fractured society, with hundreds of millions who are well-versed in their own respective languages feeling left out, bewildered and even quietly angry. In this regard, India stands apart as perhaps the largest nation that has accepted the denial of its linguistic roots and created such a deep linguistic cleft.

The social, economic and cultural cost of such linguistic racism is enormous and could well be a major reason for the country’s development being held back in many respects.

Racism takes different forms, for example majority Whites vs minority Coloureds. Another form is where the minority looks down on the majority — those proficient in English versus the rest in India.

What language do Indians prefer when given unrestricted choice? Indians make this choice every day in their selection of newspapers and television channels they consume. This information on readership and viewership on the basis of language is summarised in the table.

The picture in numbers

On an all-India basis, for every nine readers of Indian languages there is one English reader of newspapers. It varies by State as follows: 23 non-English to 1 English reader in UP, 5 to 1 in Maharashtra, 6 to 1 in West Bengal, 8 to 1 in Tamilnadu and so on. The closest ratio is in Delhi where it is 1:1.

When it comes to television viewership, the numbers are more in favour of Indian languages. At the all-India level, the ratio of non-English to English viewers is a whopping 14:1, in UP and Maharashtra it is 13:1, in West Bengal 9:1, Tamilnadu 6:1 and so on. In Delhi the ratio is 19:1 in favour of non-English (predominantly Hindi).

Languages other than English are preferred even in the top eight metros, as well as among the higher socio-economic classification A, the top 11 per cent of urban households. In the top eight cities, the readership ratio of non-English to English is 2:1, ranging from 1:1 in Delhi and expanding to 7.5:1 in Pune and 11:1 in Ahmedabad.

Television viewership is overwhelmingly in favour of non-English vs English — 12:1 for the eightmetros taken together, and ranging from a low of 7:1 in Chennai to a virtually negligible viewership of English in Ahmedabad. (This data is taken from Television Audience Measurement.)

The ratio of readership in the SEC A group at the all-India level is 2.2 in favour of non-English to every 1 English reader. Readership ranges from 4.7 to 1 in UP, 1.3 to 1 in Maharashtra, 1.9 to 1 in West Bengal and 2 to 1 in Tamilnadu. For TV viewership in this group, the non-English to English ratio is 10:1 at the all-India level; the lowest ratio among the big states is in West Bengal and Tamilnadu at 4:1.

A clear minority

The case is clear to treat English as just another language among India’s many, without special status. While we need not ban English as suggested by Mulayam, forums such as Parliament should be conducted in the Indian languages that the people clearly prefer.

Masses of Indians are paying an enormous price by being left out due to linguistic racism. This deserves serious study and debate.

(The second part of this article will appear next week)

The writer is Group CEO, RK Swamy Hansa, and Visiting Faculty, Northwestern University. The views are personal.

Published on February 12, 2014
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