Modi’s government NEP out of touch, Indian voters want English education
OOne aspect of the Modi government’s National Education Policy (NEP) has caused some consternation and debate. It is the prescription that children should be taught in their native language, regional language or home language (whatever that means) up to grade 5, and preferably up to grade 8.
Critics say it is Hindi-ization’s RSS program. Advocates say children understand much better in their mother tongue. In any case, they argue that this is only a recommendation and not a constraint.
But it is the first national education policy implemented by a Hindu nationalist right-wing government with a full majority. Coercion would not have been possible in the current constitutional system of things. Education is a concomitant subject. But then, a majority of Indian states, especially some of the larger states, are also governed by the same party, the BJP.
Overall, the drift is clear. Obligation or not, the signal is to pivot to national languages instead of English. The NEP three-language formula also indicates three languages, provided two are Indian. The implication is that English is foreign. We would have thought that silly definitions like this are used by more stupid Americans, who want their foreign students to take the test of English as a Foreign Language, the famous TOEFL. It doesn’t matter that they usually can’t even spell correctly.
English is now an international language, often with separate versions in different countries. In India we have variations from north to south, east to west, from King’s English to Singh’s English.
If the Modi government’s signal in favor of Hindi or the native language is clear enough, chances are that most state governments will align. Their own schools will not dare to challenge him. They could also order something like that for recognized private schools.
People will once again find a way to cut corners: no one, not even the strongest state, can fight market forces. And if consumers want something as bad as Indian parents want an English medium for their kids, they’ll get it. You could also bring back the mystique of the minority institution, the proverbial convent, now so synonymous with teaching in English in most of India that you can find “convents” all over the country, named after many non-Christian saints such as Kabir, Tukaram, even Ravidas.
If you think the Modi government is doing it for political gain, it doesn’t pass a fact check. Because over the decades our politicians have known what works and what doesn’t. They know their constituents want English media. So they could say one thing in public but actually do the opposite.
IApart from deological compulsions, if there is one thing that our politicians, especially those with an ear to the ground, or, as we say in the idiom of the heart,dharti se judey huye‘, understand, it is the reality that their constituents want three things from their children’s education: English, English, English.
Over the past 25 years, I have learned about politics at the field level by traveling through states during elections and compiling a series called “Writings on the Wall”. It’s a metaphor for looking around with your eyes, ears, and nose (of the reporter) open, to figure out what people want. Then you see what the political competitors are offering them. The one who aligns with what the ‘Janata“Want according to the writings on the wall, wins. If you understand correctly, you cannot read an election wrongly. Unless, of course, you even read the walls with your own predilections or what, again, in the heart of the country would be called poor. This should also establish my credentials as a native Hindi speaker.
It is on the walls that we first read this message of growing aspiration. Especially during the two elections in Bihar (the first was undecided) of 2005. Lalu was in power with his backward caste-Muslim voting bank and no one gave Nitish Kumar a chance to kick him out.
Lalu’s idea of social justice was always caste equity, empowerment to fight upper castes. His favorite idiom was: Phir se samay aa gaya hai, apni laathi ko tel pilao (now is the time to season your sticks with oil). This one, experts said, still had such momentum that Nitish didn’t stand a chance. Especially with its “namby pamby” counter: “The time when you could be empowered by seasoning your lathis with oil is over. Now you empower yourself by filling your pens with ink. “
The ‘gyanis‘could have laughed at him. But Nitish had the last laugh. He defeated Lalu and has been Chief Minister ever since. Nitish won and continues to win because he read the pulse of his people. There was a new wave of aspirations and the fuel of education was needed. But then you may ask me, what does this have to do with the medium of instruction?
Which makes us jump to another ‘Writings on the Wall’ tutorial (for me), in the West Bengal countryside, 2011. As for Nitish against Lalu in Bihar in 2005, now Mamata Banerjee was the David defying the Goliath in the left front, entrenched for 34 years.
WWe met Mamata Banerjee on the country road at a place called Barjora near Durgapur, with her Jamshedpur-lite steel plant in the desperately poor region of West Bengal. She walked from side to side and came back to the stage, holding the mic and at one point started what sounded like a nursery rhyme. It got the crowds excited.
It went something like ‘Aw-e ajgar aashche tere‘, and the crowd responded with a full-throated song:’Aa- aamti khaabo father“. Loosely translated, this means that A, or the Bangla equivalent, is for Ajgar (python), which comes after you, ‘aa’ is for aam (mango), which you pluck from the tree and eat. But what was this excitement? Why did he drive this crowd, thousands of the poorest Indians, to delirium?
She reminded them that for decades, the Left Front had condemned their generations to an education in Bengali while their own children went to English-speaking schools and sang “twinkle, twinkle little star …”. The result, she said, was that while your children begged for peon jobs, the comrades’ children would go to England and become lawyers.
We know what happened in this election. Mamata is still in power; the left is the least of his worries, in fact.
Here are two leaders ear to the ground. We swept away a promising election of knowledge and education. The other said it would be in English. Their constituents did not come from any entrenched social elite. These guys don’t even come out to vote. Find out the voting percentages at Malabar Hill in Mumbai.
And since we live by the rule of the three examples, I will give you one more and then rest my case. Especially since our three examples would all come from different parties and ideologies. Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh placed the order in 2017 to transform 5,000 (yes, 5,000) public primary schools into English language, so that his state could have at least one in each block. Is Yogi an elite? Obsessed with English? Westernized? A brown sahib?
He is, on the other hand, a priest dressed in saffron. But he is dharti se juda hua. He knows what his constituents want. It is the wall in which this NEP will come up against if the ideology pushes this government to push too strongly this idea of medium in mother tongue.
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