It is an irony that has taken all of 66 years to evolve. On October 19, 1952, the Gandhian Potti Sriramulu went on a hunger strike to demand a separate state for Telugu speakers. His fast was a reminder to the ruling Congress to fulfil its decades-old promise of establishing, as far as possible, homogeneous linguistic states in post-Independence India. Sriramulu died 58 days later, triggering an uproar that eventually led to the carving out of Andhra Pradesh from Madras in 1956.

In 2018, the Bahujan Left Front, an emerging political formation in Telangana, which was carved out of Andhra Pradesh as a separate state in 2014, has promised in its election manifesto to introduce “English-medium instruction in schools along with Telugu” from lower kindergarten to Class 12. Telangana will vote on December 7 to choose its new Assembly, the results will be out on December 11.

The wheel of linguistic politics has possibly come full circle. Indeed, the Bahujan Left Front’s manifesto is a reflection of the gradual change in priorities of the Telugu people from the time of Sriramulu. From the late 1990s, the rise of the Information Technology industry and the economic mobility it offered led to the atavistic Telugu pride of the 1950s segueing into a demand for English medium schools even before Telangana was born.

Recognising this changing reality, in 2008, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy identified 6,500 government schools for SUCCESS – short for the government’s Strengthening and Universalisation of Quality and Access to Secondary Schools programme. These schools offered both Telugu and English as the medium of instruction to students from Class 6, when classes were split into two sections.

Yet the children found the going extremely tough. Their vocabulary was insufficiently developed to switch over to English in Class 6 and, worse, English books were not made available. “There were also protests from teachers because they had been trained to teach in Telugu alone,” said N Narayana, convenor, Centre for Educational Research and Analysis, who provided inputs for the Bahujan Left Front’s manifesto. “They were neither willing nor suited for teaching in English.”

As Success schools stumbled, the rush towards private English-medium schools continued unabated. For instance, the enrolment in government schools of Yellareddypet Mandal, in Rajanna Siricilla district, which is in now in Telangana, dwindled so alarmingly between 2008 and 2010 that Manku Rajaiah, the mandal educational officer, organised village meetings to fathom the craze among parents for English-medium schools. “It was very clear that parents wanted English as the medium of instruction from the primary level itself,” Rajaiah said.

It was consequently decided to introduce English as the medium of instruction in those primary schools of Yellareddypet where the local community was willing to provide support. As many as 33 primary schools here adopted English as the medium of instruction. The rise in enrollment was instantaneous even though the certificate issued to students said they had been instructed in Telugu. This was because the primary schools did not have the autonomy to adopt English as the medium of instruction until 2014. “Our initiative’s impact was such that three out of the five success schools in our Mandal are now solely English medium,” said Rajaiah. “The other two have both Telugu and English as mediums of instruction.”

Yellareddypet’s initiative was an exception. Therefore it did not come as a surprise that in 2015, a year after Telangana became a separate state, The Hindu reported the closure of many Success schools in Karimnagar and Nalgonda districts. This meant that they reverted to being exclusively Telugu medium schools.

Today, an estimated 1,800 Success schools are functioning in Telangana, which has nearly 30,000 government schools.

Given Telangana’s evident passion for English, it is understandable why the Bahujan Left Front has reversed the dominant norm in India’s electoral politics – of parties competing with each other to accord primacy to the regional languages. “It is sheer hypocrisy,” said G Ramulu, the coordinator of the Bahujan Left Front, who played a key role in writing its manifesto. “Those in the political class who speak of promoting Telugu send their own children to English-medium schools.”

As Ramulu sees it, there is a rising quest among the lower castes and classes to send their children to English-medium schools. “Even the daily wage labourer wants English education for his children,” said Ramulu. “The only way the children of lower classes and castes can hope to compete with those of the ruling class is by studying in English.”

English and empowerment

English has become the rallying flag of the Bahujan Left Front because of the nature of its support base. A conglomeration of 28 minor political parties that is spearheaded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Bahujan Left Front is the political arm, so to speak, of the Telangana Mass and Social Organisations, popularly known as T-Mass, which has the scholar Kancha Ilaiah as its chairman.

Formed in July 2017, T-Mass has brought together 280 social organisations consisting of Ambedkarites or followers of Dr BR Ambedkar, Phuleites or votaries of Jyotirao Phule, and Marxists or those whose inspiration is Karl Marx. Anchored in the interests of Dalits, Other Backward Classes and religious minorities, T-Mass seeks to unite the Ambedkarites and communists, who have been engaged for decades in bruising debates whether caste or class is the principal faultline in India’s politics.

“Our idea is to create the Ambedkarite-communist development model as the new alternative for the country,” said Ilaiah. “It is because of the dominant Nehruvian Brahminical ideology that India is the only democratic country where there are parallel systems of education having two different mediums of instruction.”

There is the private sector, where the medium of instruction is overwhelmingly English. Regional languages are confined to the public sector. The dual system has enabled the middle class-upper castes to monopolise English, appropriate jobs commanding power, wealth and status, and establish their political dominance. Radical change cannot take place until the lower castes break this group’s monopoly over English, say Bahujan Left Front leaders.

Ilaiah said that even the wealthy agrarian Shudra community did not send their children to English-medium schools because these were not located near their homes. Nor did anyone try to inculcate in them the consciousness of studying in English. “In ancient India, Brahmins debarred others from studying Sanskrit,” said Ilaiah. “In the modern era, through the system of parallel mediums of instruction, they are saying the lower castes cannot learn English.”

Even though the Bahujan Left Front’s manifesto too provides for both English and Telugu mediums of instruction, its blueprint is a departure from the current system. It offers English as the medium of instruction from lower kindergarten, not from Class 6, and also promises it in every government school, not just where the dual system operates. “It is certainly better both for teachers and students to have English as the medium of instruction from lower kindergarten than to switch to it in Class 6,” said Narayana.

The Bahujan Left Front is the political arm of the Telangana Mass and Social Organisations, which has the scholar Kancha Ilaiah as its chairman.

A uniform system

Although the precise details are still to be worked out, Ilaiah said they ultimately plan to move to a uniform system where mathematics, social sciences and science will be taught in English. Telugu, as English is in Telugu-medium schools, will become just another language paper.

It is also about equalisation of education. T-Mass wants schools in both the public and private sectors to have one system, one syllabus, the same quality of teachers and infrastructure. Its leaders believe such a universal educational system is not only democratic, but will also empower lower castes and religious minorities to compete with the children of the upper castes. “Within 30 years of this system, it will be possible to abolish the system of reservation,” Ilaiah said.

Ramulu thinks the universalisation of English-medium schools will also improve governance. Since English is the lingua franca of senior officers, the lower castes and classes will be able to communicate their problems better to those who can resolve it. English is a power language, he said. It instills confidence in those who can speak the language with fluency.

“Many intelligent lower castes with political ambitions cannot rise beyond a point because their lack of knowledge of English becomes their stumbling block,” said Ramulu, who is a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader. “With English, they will rise and compete with the ruling classes on an equal footing.”

No one, not even its leaders, expects the Bahujan Left Front to storm to a stunning victory on December 11. But by placing education and English-medium schools on the election agenda, they hope to put on the centre stage the worldview of subaltern groups and empower them to change the world not crafted to their imagination.