While taking a walk in the sprawling Tsinghua University complex in the spring of 2013, a woman in her early 30s smiled at my Chinese host and me. This icebreaker on that March afternoon, when Xi Jinping had just assumed the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, led us to a small conversation. The young woman was an Indophile and had even received an offer to teach Mandarin in India but her visa was held up for over eight months.

During our brief conversation she spoke of her desire to visit Bodh Gaya and the temple towns of Tamil Nadu. I am inclined to believe that the real losers in the security fear-induced visa problem are Indian students and the government, which inadvertently pushes away a potential cultural and goodwill ambassador.

Flash forward to India in 2020, where anti-China sentiment has reached fever pitch over clashes in Ladakh between the Indian and Chinese armies that led to 20 deaths of Indian military personnel. In a country where some people are prone to get carried away with nationalistic fervour and smash Chinese-made televisions and electronic devices that they bought with their own hard-earned money, its hardly surprising that voices in the government are calling for restrictions on Chinese-language studies in India.

India’s New Education Policy 2020 has effectively downgraded the Chinese language. A draft version of the policy that was released a year ago put Chinese along with German, Spanish and Japanese as languages that would be offered to students as electives.

The final version of the document states, “In addition to high quality offerings in Indian languages and English, foreign languages, such as Korean, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, will also be offered at the secondary level….”

Of course, the Indian Education Ministry later issued a clarification: “The policy neither prescribes nor prohibits study of any foreign language which will be as per the choice of students.” It is not difficult to read between the lines.

Agreements being reviewed

Media reports in India have also indicated that intelligence agencies are concerned about the activity of China’s state-funded Confucius Institutes in India. According to The Hindutstan Times, the government plans to review 54 Memoranda of Understanding between Indian institutions and their Chinese counterparts. This includes the Confucius Institute at the University of Mumbai. This is a great throwback to the 1970s when intelligence agents kept an eye on students who took up the Chinese Embassy in Delhi’s offer of free Mandarin lessons.

Reacting to reports that India would conduct a review of the activities of the Confucius Institutes in the country, the Chinese Embassy in Delhi said it hoped India could “treat Confucius Institutes and China-India higher education cooperation in an objective and fair manner, avoid politicising normal cooperation and maintain healthy and stable development of China-India people-to-people and cultural exchanges”.

A demonstration in Ahmedabad on June 18 against the backdrop of rising border tensions. Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters

It’s hard to deny that both in the pre- and post-Covid-19 world, China is a huge global economic player. A large number of people interested in learning Mandarin are looking at tapping into the business opportunities offered by an economy that is six times larger than India’s. But not everyone who learns Chinese is necessarily looking at doing business with China. A well-known published Indian poet on Twitter learns the language just to be able to watch Chinese television programmes, much in the same way Chinese fans of the film Dangal have expressed interest in Hindi.

Learning a completely different language with a writing system that is nothing like anything we have in India would bring about a number of cognitive benefits such as increasing memory power, sharpening the mind and even buffering the brain against aging. In other words, learning a different and unfamiliar language helps with the brain development of children and keeps aging adult brains function better.

Learning the Chinese language also opens several doors to the diverse amalgam of cultures that is China. Leaving out politics, there’s so much that people from Asian’s great civilisations can learn from each other. And no, learning Chinese is not going to make an Indian (young or old) pro-Chinese Communist Party.

The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report in 2017 revealed that more than 200,000 school-going children in the Unted States had enrolled in Chinese-language courses. This is not being flagged a security risk in a country that views China with a great deal of suspicion. On the contrary, Chinese-language skills are seen as an asset there.

As someone who is struggling with online Chinese lessons in India, I would love to see more certified centres in our cities that conduct lessons in Chinese the way the Goethe Institute and Alliance Française do so. There is only so much that online programmes, software and apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone can do for a learner.

If our security establishment is really paranoid about Chinese-language institutes, they may just as well covertly enrol their agents for courses. Even if they find out that there is no sinister plot to harm India’s national security through the Confucius Institute, the country would have spies well versed in Chinese.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @AjayKamalakaran.