In Assam, the state cabinet’s decision to introduce English as a medium of instruction to teach science and mathematics from Class 3 in all government schools has led to heated debate.

The debate has grown politically charged as linguistic identity has been the driving factor of a strong subnationalism in the state.

On September 21, nine opposition parties voiced their protest against the “anti-education” policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. The statement united diverse parties, from the Congress and the Left to regional outfits such as the Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Asom Raijor Dal. The latter have built their politics on protecting Assamese ethnic and linguistic identity.

The same day, more than 20 cultural and civil society groups – including the Asam Sahitya Sabha, the apex literary body in the state, and the influential All Assam Students Union as well as the All Bodo Sahitya Sabha and the All Bodo Students Union – issued a joint statement saying that they would launch an agitation against them.

Earlier, on September 19, the state assembly was disrupted and opposition leaders walked out after a discussion on the subject. A week before that, the assembly was briefly suspended the day it gathered for the start of the autumn session because the speaker would not allow a discussion on the subject.

The contentious decision had been taken in July. The cabinet had also decided that textbooks for mathematics and science would be printed in English in time for the academic year beginning in July 2023. The decision applied to all government and provincialised schools that normally used Assamese or regional languages as a medium of instruction. Provincialised schools are those institutions for which the government bears financial liability for salaries and other payments.

The cabinet also decided to introduce a dual medium of instruction from Class 8 to 12 in all such schools. This would give school authorities the option of introducing English as a medium of instruction alongside the existing regional languages.

The opposition has objected to the new measures on the grounds that schools did not have the infrastructure to start teaching in English and that they go against the National Education Policy. Passed in 2020, the policy recommends that “wherever possible”, a student’s mother tongue or the local language should be the medium of instruction till Class 5 at least, if not Class 8.

“Studies from across the world and scholars have said that only if you learn subjects in your own language will concepts be clear,” Asam Sahitya Sabha president and former director general of police Kuladhar Saikia told “We have protested the move to change the medium [of instruction] and will continue to do it.”

Earlier, however, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had lashed out at Saikia, pointing out that both their sons had studied in English-medium schools. “We should not play with poor people’s lives,” Sarma had said, referring to the fact that students from less privileged families had no option but to go to government schools.

Language movements

The opposition to the government’s plan shows the wounds that gave rise to language movements in the past are still fresh.

After years of mobilisations, the Assam government passed an act in 1960 recognising Assamese as the state’s official language. This gave rise to a movement in the predominantly Bengali-speaking Barak Valley, which protested against the new law. After nine protesters were killed in 1961, the government withdrew the law.

The matter did not end there. In 1972, the All Assam Students’ Union launched a movement demanding that Assamese be made the medium of instruction across colleges in the state. The same students’ union would lead the Assam Movement that started at the end of the decade, demanding the ejection of “foreigners”, mostly Bengali-speakers in the state. It would eventually give rise to an armed movement for a sovereign Assamese state.

The current moment has revived old grievances.

“There were Assamese language movements and Assamese should be the language of higher education,” said All Assam Students’ Union advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya. “We had a medium [of instruction] movement in 1972. People have sacrificed their life in the language movement. There were also movements and martyrs for Bodo as a language and medium of instruction. The government should respect the sacrifices of martyrs.”

According to him, the government had “taken a wrong and unscientific decision” as the mother tongue was the most effective means of learning. “They should withdraw it immediately,” Bhattacharya said.

‘Burdening the poor’

Others argue that the burden of preserving language and culture should not be placed on children who go to government or provincialised schools and are usually poorer than those who can access private English-medium schools.

“Regional bodies have alleged that introducing English as a medium of instruction for science and math will harm Axomiya culture,” said educationist and rights activist Prasun Goswami. “Why should marginalised children not study science and math in English and bear the baggage of preserving ‘Axomiya Culture’? Elite private schools teaching children from privileged backgrounds are continuing with English as a medium of instruction.”

He also pointed out that government schools in Assam only offered nine mediums of instruction but the state has more than 200 languages.

“Even now all children are not studying in their mother tongue,” he argued. “Strong foundational skills using the mother tongue and a robust support system for teachers will help in the smooth transition of the medium of instruction to English.”

‘Unscientific’ teaching methods

Several educationists, however, have criticised the government’s decision. According to Indranee Dutta, who was a member of the governing body of the state’s Board of Secondary Education, the government decision was unscientific.

“ASER [Annual Status of Education Report] has already proved Assam’s students’ abysmally low performance in mathematics and language,” she said. “A language is not just a medium of communication, it is a medium of thinking, reflection, creativity and invention. If a child cannot think and ask questions in her/his own language it will retard learning. A child’s cognitive space is extremely complex, we must not play with it.”

She added that science and mathematics were not just subjects to be passed – they were vital knowledge for operating in the world. “Maths is knowledge of numbers for everyday use for logical analysis and reasoning,” Dutta said. “Science is an intellectual and practical activity to understand the natural and social world through observation and experimentation”

Narayan Sharma, co-founder of Assam Jatiya Bidyalay – a school established to foster education in Assamese – was also critical.

“In addition to gaining knowledge of your own culture and history, learning in the mother tongue allows you to contribute to the enrichment of the literature of your own native tongue,” he said. “If mother languages are withdrawn from educational institutions then students will be deprived of actual education and lose interest in their own culture and literature.”

Sharma pointed out that many languages had already become extinct. “If it continues like this, we all are concerned that our Assamese, Bodo and other vernacular languages may also go extinct, “ he said.