Speaking at a Hindi Diwas function organised by the Union Home Ministry last week, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu called English an illness left behind by the British. His statement encapsulates what is wrong with language politics in India. Demonising English as Naidu did creates a discourse based on pride rather than practicality, which begets administrations more interested in chauvinistic tokenism than in addressing deep-seated inequities created by the dominance of English.

There is no question that Indians who speak and write English competently enjoy tremendous social and economic advantages over those who don’t. This is dreadfully unjust in a nation where less than 10% of the population speaks the language. And yet, abandoning English seems less sensible than ever considering its current global dominance, its unassailable position as the world’s favourite second language. A number of European Universities keen to attract students from across the globe have changed their medium of instruction to English from languages like German, Dutch and Swedish. The European Union is increasing its employment of English in the wake of the Brexit vote, for it has now gained an air of neutrality, being the official language only of two minor members states, Ireland and Malta. It would be insane to turn our backs on the significant benefits offered to the Indian economy by our large population of English speakers.

Dominance of English

The problem lies not in the utilisation of English but in its overwhelming dominance. Its hegemony needs to be balanced by educational and economic structures that support India’s regional languages. We must create far more opportunities for citizens to study in their mother tongues from primary school through graduation. If nations like Japan, Egypt, China, and Argentina can produce excellent doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals who speak little English, why can’t India? Of course, we need link languages to facilitate communication across state borders, but that can be taken care of by teaching English and Hindi as second or third languages. It is one thing to master basic communication in an unfamiliar language and quite another to have it as a medium of instruction for complex subjects.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of our brightest students finish school or junior college, proceed to excel in engineering or medical entrance exams written in a language in which they are fluent, only to fall behind in class after being thrust into higher educational institutions where everything is taught in an alien tongue. It is astounding to me that despite being a free nation for over 70 years, we have failed to build a Hindi-medium IIT, a Tamil IIM, a Bengali JNU, or a Marathi AIIMS. The major Indian languages are spoken by tens of millions of people, more than enough to justify the investment required to create a higher education infrastructure in those languages.

Yet, I am aware of no large-scale agitations in favour of creating such infrastructure. Protestors tend to want immediate benefits, such as those offered by reservations, tax cuts, and loan waivers. The lure of instant gratification allows political outfits to gain popularity within linguistic constituencies through token measures. Why attempt to modernise a language, and create institutions based on that modernisation, when renaming cities or commissioning statues delivers the same political reward more quickly?

English language tax regime

Consider the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax, one of the Modi government’s signature achievements. About eight million professionals and businesspersons have registered to pay the tax since its inception. GST has been most beneficial for large companies with a national profile, who now enjoy a single market and no longer have to cope with a plethora of regulations varying from one state to the next. At the other end of the scale, it has hurt small traders saddled with a new compliance burden that threatens their usually slender profit margins. Had this regime been serious about promoting Hindi and regional languages, surely it could have created a multi-lingual GST portal that allowed traders from across the country to file returns in their mother tongue? Building a Hindi option into the website, as is the case for Income Tax, is a trivial challenge in comparison with creating a higher education infrastructure in the language. But the trivial task was too much for this government, which forced its core constituency of small traders to employ expensive accountants trained in English.

The only-English GST portal must seem cruel to those who do not understand the language. YouTube offers tutorials in Hindi and other regional languages explaining the tax forms but there’s no good reason why those videos, or the so-called Suvidha Centres, should exist in the first place. How can a government get away with organising an annual Hindi Diwas when it doesn’t permit its citizens to file GST returns in the language? And what does it say about the nature of national, regional, and linguistic pride that this blatant hypocrisy has created no negative feedback?

To add a layer of irony to this sad tale, earlier this month an American company launched the most significant online initiative yet to reach India’s Hindi-speaking consumers. Amazon, the world’s second-largest retailer, introduced a Hindi language option to its mobile site and Android app, and will soon add a desktop version of the same. Amazon’s home-grown competitors like Flipkart and Snapdeal have English-only websites. However, the world’s largest retailer Walmart has recently bought a 77% stake in Flipkart, and the new owners might recognise the value of bilingualism or multilingualism. How funny it will be if firms headquartered in Seattle, Washington, and Little Rock, Arkansas, become the biggest promoters of regional Indian languages, while our government talks a lot and does very little about the issue.