The English Language and Denationalisation

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Does education in the English language threaten Indian culture and nationalism, or even the Indian nation itself, as some allege?

The most recent such allegation was by Uday Bhembre, at a public meeting of the RSS-backed Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch (BBSM). ‘English medium is a step of deculturisation, leading to the ultimate agenda of denationalisation,’ declared Bhembre, referring to the demand of FORCE, an organisation of parents of school-children, for government grants to English medium schools.
This however seems like hypocrisy. Why are Bhembre and the BBSM saying this only about FORCE, while ignoring all the private schools merrily functioning in English? Why haven’t they criticised the casteist language policy of the Goa government, which enforces Konkani medium only in government-aided schools, i.e. primarily for Bahujan students, both Catholic and Hindu? Everybody knows that learning in English leads to better jobs and opportunities.

The government’s position is thus blatantly pro-elite. If you are rich, you can go to private schools, study in English, and become richer. If you can’t afford private schools, you just stay poor by learning in bamon Konkani, i.e. the brahmanical and Devnagari-scripted Konkani of the Saraswats, so useless that it cannot sustain even one single newspaper. Why hasn’t the BBSM exposed this two-faced policy and demanded a complete ban of English-medium education across Goa? Or is their real grouse not about English at all, but about the need to prop up their bamon Konkani, for which the future of Bahujan students is to be sacrificed, especially Catholic students, since Hindus can at least escape via Marathi?

But modern education in the English language has come in for criticism even by persons not associated with the right-wing. Bhalchandra Nemade, Marathi writer and visiting professor at Goa University calls English a ‘killer language’ and a ‘slaughterhouse’ of students, and declares that education should only happen in the mother-tongue. But who decides one’s mother-tongue? Is ‘Puneri Marathi’ – the brahmanical official language of Maharashtra — the mother-tongue of Bahujan children even in Pune, leave aside the rest of Maharashtra?
One can ignore Nemade’s demagogy, but the nativism behind it rings a familiar bell. Noted Goan environmentalist, activist and lawyer, Norma Alvares, speaking last year at the launch of a book on António Francisco Fernandes, the late veteran of many people’s struggles in Goa, rued the fact that tribal people were giving up their traditions for modern ways, which, she said, really meant just consumerism and greed. One reason for this, according to her, was modern education, which made tribal people forget their ‘maibhas’ (mother-tongue) and turned them into city people who no longer understood how rice grew, how to pluck coconuts, and all the rest of their traditional knowledge.

This programme was attended by this writer, and also by a great many people from Goa’s aboriginal communities. Many of the older generation present, I discovered, had never been to school. It was curious to hear a highly educated person condemning modern education before such an audience, who revered António Fernandes for, among other things, fighting for the education of their children. Why warn people who hardly consume about the horror of consumerism? And why should it be the burden of tribal communities to pluck coconuts? Just because it was tradition? Isn’t there something odd here?

The answer comes from another public figure, who also sees English education as a threat to tradition, but likes it that way. Chandrabhan Prasad, Ambedkarite thinker and one of the speakers at the Dr B. R. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture Series in Goa last year, is a passionate believer in English as a tool of social emancipation in India. He also thinks it’s best to let Indian languages wither away. ‘Let all Indians speak in English by 2060. India will be a better nation.’
But wouldn’t this mean the loss of traditional knowledge systems and cultures, he was asked. Dalits, he answered, do have a lot of traditional knowledge – like the profound and exceptional knowledge of how to make detergent from donkey dung, or how to skin a dead animal with their bare hands. But ‘[w]e want to gift our talents to other castes. You require exceptional level of human patience if you have to collect human shit in your hands and not vomit. Dalits have been doing this for ages. Please take this knowledge immediately and give us an education at CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) instead!’

The English language, he says, is important not just because it leads to better jobs, income and future, but also because it does NOT belong to the Indian tradition. Being an outsider, English is not a conduit of caste. Most other Indian languages, thanks to their long and hoary traditions, are casteist.

What Prasad says is true of bamon Konkani too; it contains several castiest formulations, proverbs, jokes and abuse, many of which are old and traditional. This Konkani even flaunts two ‘you’s nowadays, like Puneri Marathi – one to show respect and the other to show disrespect. Who needs to hear this kind of discrimination? Deculturisation or even ‘denationalisation’ may be exactly what this nation needs.

(A version of this article was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 27 August, 2015)

Fala Farsi? Notes on Multi-Lingual Practices for Goa

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The indefinite hunger strike of Savio Lopes and members of Forum for Rights of Children to Education (FORCE) for government grants to English as Medium of Instruction (MoI) have exposed the shallow and undemocratic language politics – under the guise of ‘mother tongue’, ‘Goan identity’, ‘Konkani’, ‘Marathi’, etc – in Goa. While arguing for a robust multi-lingual outlook as well, we would like to open up the conversation to a host of other languages that Goans can profitably engage with.

Arguably, when one talks about expanding the access to languages other than Konkani, Marathi, and English, the obvious choice that immediately comes to mind is Portuguese. The importance of the Portuguese language for Goa cannot be understated. Briefly, since a lot of legal and historical/archival material is available in Portuguese, a good grasp on this language would help thousands of Goans to access their own history. Further, as matters relating to land and properties are recorded in Portuguese being conversant with the language will help many to access this information, thus preventing frauds through fudging. Though, familiarity with the Portuguese language may not instantly result in overcoming the balance of power between the have and have-nots, learning it has a potential of creating a more level playing field. This is because in Goa, Portuguese as a language – then and now – was the preserve of a few elites, which allowed them to hold onto power and privilege.

The condition of the access to the Portuguese language, historically, is not so different from that of the English language today. The large non-elite population of Goa (across religious lines) demands English as MoI as it seems to be the preserve of the few; the rich can afford the exorbitant fees of private institutions. Therefore ending this monopolistic and hegemonic hold that a few people have over languages can lead to the emancipation of the have-nots by giving them access to power, privilege, and least of all, respectable employment.

To further open up the conversation about languages that can help us understand Goan history, we would like to suggest that Persian or Farsi is also very important. The territories that came to be known as Goa from the fifteenth-century onwards were part of the Deccan Sultanate and can be said to live in its cultural, and political, shadow. In fact, before Portuguese intervention, Persian (as well as Arabic) terminology was much in use for legal, administrative, and taxation matters in the territory which became Goa and it continued to do so even during the subsequent Portuguese period. Moreover, Goa was in a constant interaction with the cultural and political hubs of the Deccan, such as Bijapur and Golconda.

Along with Persian, a case can also be made for acquiring skills in Arabic. Given the decades old migration of Goans in the Arab world, teaching Arabic in schools may also be useful. Further learning to read and write the Perso-Arabic script may also help many to access Konkani written in that script in pockets across the Konkan and Canara coasts!

Sign language, although not a spoken language might also be useful as it might help us interact with people with hearing handicap. This suggestion might seem out of context but it does help us to extend the idea that many people who understand sign languages consider those who don’t as handicapped, and why not. Of course there are cognitive benefits of learning a sign language for all children, but the larger concern is that the learning for, and communicating with, people with disabilities, is completely ignored in Goa.

The article thus far has made reference to a number of ways in which Goans can engage with multiple languages. To take this point forward, we would like to suggest that contrary to the rhetoric of groups like the Bharati Bhasha Suraksha Manch, identity is not tied to a singular language or ‘mother tongue’. To demonstrate this, we would like to make reference to the literary career of the Goan writer Laxmanrao Sardesai (1904-1986).

As Paul Melo e Castro writes in his essay ‘Of Prison Walls and Barroom Brawls…’ (2012), for most of his literary career Sardesai wrote in Marathi, with most of his stories being “anti-colonial, a bold stance when Salazarist propaganda depicted Goa as part and parcel of Portugal” (p. 128). Having started his literary career by the 1930s, despite being considered an eminent Marathi writer, Sardesai shifted to writing in Portuguese and Konkani from the 1960s. As Castro explains, Sardesai wanted to craft a different identity for Goa to oppose the merger with Maharashtra. As such “Sardesai’s turn to writing in Portuguese (and Konkani) after a lifetime of renown as a Marathi writer” (p. 130) was a demonstration of the unique singularity of Goan identity within the Indian nation.

Today, none would dare to suggest that there were any contradictions in Sardesai’s choices; neither would anybody argue that he was ‘denationalized’. What is important to note is that Sardesai could choose from a pool of languages, which he learned due to his privileged background. It is this privilege of choice that needs to be opened up to the Goan masses as well.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 19 August, 2015)

Charles Correa: The Nehruvian Architect

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Writing in The Guardian (19 June, 2015), architectural historian Joseph Rykwert hails Charles Correa as the “premier architect of India whose authentic modernity superseded stale colonial imports.”  Of the many tributes that have followed Correa’s passing away, Rykwert’s seems most problematic. Nonetheless, it allows us to reflect on the nature of Correa’s work.

But before I proceed to an analysis of Correa’s work and philosophy, we need to acknowledge the role of Nehru in appropriating modern architecture to represent post-independent identity of India. He achieved this in one swooping move by commissioning of the Modernist international architect, Le Corbusier, for the design of the new city of Chandigarh. The exposed-reinforced-concrete buildings of Chandigarh, built between 1951 and 1965, stood in complete contrast to the colonial architecture of pre-independent India. This was a dramatic change from the styles prior to independence. Consequently this modern style inspired many Indian architects that followed, and Correa was no exception.

17charles-correaCorrea’s post-colonial modernity is amply demonstrated in the design of New Delhi’s Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) building, completed in 1986. The building is situated on the outer road of the historic Connaught Circle. Most of the buildings here belong to the neo-classical style adopted during the late colonial period. However, the architectural aesthetics of the LIC building make no effort to blend with the existing context. Correa’s twelve storey creation is supposedly modern as it is fully adorned with a glass façade on its north face. But was Correa’s choice of the modern architectural style for the LIC building simply a personal preference, or was there a deliberate ideological rejection of the “stale colonial” history that Rykwert derisively mentions?

As historian and theorist Kenneth Frampton notes in the introduction to the book Charles Correa (1996), although, in the initial years of his career, Correa was influenced by Le Corbusier, he moved away from the French architect’s ideas of international modernism as he found “inspirational depth in the mythic and cosmological beliefs of the [Indian] past.”

This shift is unmistakably demonstrated in the project Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK), which was completed in 1992. Affirming the same in the above book Correa states that “the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, is a… contemporary construct based on an ancient perception of the non-Manifest World, as expressed in the vastu-purusha-mandalas – those sacred Vedic diagrams that have been of seminal importance to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain architecture over many centuries … [T]he program for the art centre is disaggregated into nine separate groupings, each corresponding to the myths of a particular planet: for instance the planet Guru (which symbolises learning) houses the library… The central square, as represented by ancient Vedic shastras, is a void.”  Although, like many of Correa’s works, the aesthetics of JKK is also aesthetically modern, subtle Brahmanical ideas can be gathered from his architectural philosophy, especially in the plan-form, as in his use of the concept of the mandala. In his book The City Shaped (1991), historian Spiro Kostof deciphers the use of the mandala for urban design as “a mystical symbol of the universe in the graphic form … with as many padas as there were to be residential quarters, and only within each pada, inhabited by members of a particular professional groups…” And it is here that the mandala as inspiration reveals its problems. When employed as a design element, the mandala is a means to divide the area on the lines of caste as understood by the reference to ‘particular professional groups’. If the mandala represents the discriminative varna-based ideology of caste-Hinduism why then did Correa choose it to feed his designs? Was it merely rhetorical or was it a measure of his philosophy?

Part of the answer lies in the way in which post-colonial India embraced architectural modernity to project itself to the world. Dedicating the Jawahar Kala to India’s first Prime Minister, Correa writes that in “[g]uiding the new nation in its first decades after Independence, Nehru also wanted to look backwards and forwards in one decisive gesture: rediscovering India’s past whilst simultaneously inventing a new future.”  Although Nehru had unleashed the modernist Le Corbusier on India as a catalyst to move away from colonial identity through the design of Chandigarh, I suspect that Correa’s interpretation of collating ‘ancient’ Vedic concepts with modern aesthetics would have pleased Nehru more. It was this ability to juxtapose ‘ancient Indian’ concepts with modernism that emblematises Correa as an ideal Nehruvian architect.

(First published on The Goan Everyday, dt: 16 August, 2015)

FORCE and Bahujan Aspirations

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FORCE, a collective of parents of schoolchildren in Goa who want the state government to formalise the grants to English medium primary schools through an act of legislature, seems to be the target of misguided criticism in Goa for past couple of weeks. In response to their protests for demanding grants, the Bharti Bhasha Suraksha Manch (BBSM) organised a rally in Panjim to “show the strength of majority to the minority”.  Given that the demands emanating from FORCE cuts across the lines of religion, caste and class, the vocabulary in which BBSM has been targeting the FORCE members has a disturbing   communal tone.

There are certain fundamental issues pertaining to the Medium of Instruction (MoI) agitation that we often take for granted but need to be critically examined, the foremost being the idea of mother tongue itself. In their book, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), French philosophers Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guttari argue that “there is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity”. Now let us examine this statement in the context of Goa. The official language of Goa, according to the Official Language Act passed in 1987, is Konkani written in Devanagari script which asserts that it is the “mother tongue” of Goans. The other languages that Goans use are Romi Konkani, Marathi, Portuguese, Dakkhani Urdu, and English. In fact, the use of Romi Konkani and Marathi in Goa exceeds that of Nagari Konkani by a substantial margin.This argument could be validated by the recent shutdown of the only Nagari Konkani newspaper Sunaparant, which according to many, was struggling to sell even 300 copies a day. So, when you have these languages being used in a remarkable abundance, one must question why Nagari Konkani is made the sole official language of the state. Nagari Konkani has a distinct feature of being the dialect spoken primarily by the Saraswats in Goa.  Thus the power takeover, as Deleuze & Guttari suggest, is that of this upper caste group which wants to assert their version of language as the official version, coercing the rest of the masses into believing that it’s a vehicle of Goan identity. Catholics in Goa do not use this Nagari version of Konkani, both in terms of writing and reading. Neither does the average Hindu bahujan who identifies more with Marathi because of their historic opposition to Nagari Konkani. This allows us to conclude that Nagari Konkani is more foreign to a large section of Goans than English, as far as usage is concerned.

BBSM seems to suggest that it is only Catholic parents that want their wards to learn English while Hindus are all for regional languages. This is not entirely true. There’s a sizeable population of Hindus (both Bahujans and elites) who want their wards to study not only in English medium schools, but in “Convent” schools specifically. Hence, giving it a communal angle is a desperate attempt by BBSM to gain political mileage. The desire to train one’s child in an English medium school is a post-globalisation aspiration of the rising middle class so that they can grab the opportunities offered by the neo-liberal economy. Its validity or futility could vary depending on one’s subjective opinion, but many see English as an egalitarian and neutral ground which would help them break away from their traditional class/caste backgrounds and claim space in the globalised world.

The Goan bahujan are not alone in this demand, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar himself referred to English as the milk of the lioness and said that only those who drink it will roar. Contemporary dalit thinker, Chandrabhan Prasad too, relentlessly argues that English is the key for emancipation for the marginalised communities. The demand for grants to English medium schools comes from the dalit bahujan section of Goan society, both Catholic and Hindu, and hence the state must pay heed to them. Traditionally denied education by the dominant brahminical socio-political setup, it was only with the arrival of western modernity via colonialism that these marginalised sections could gain an access to education.

The elites in Goa on the other hand have had cultural and economic capital to send their wards to privately-run English medium schools for decades now and some of them are BBSM sympathisers today. In light of this ironic situation, one needs to ask why only bahujans must carry the burden of culture and nativism, while the elites can be as “western” as they wish to and still be regarded as guardians of culture.

Also, a closer look at the BBSM politics will indicate that though the BBSM members are mobilised under the banner of safeguarding Bharati Bhasha, they are, in fact, desperate to ensure the hegemony of Nagari Konkani in Goa. During the official language movement, the Nagari camp used Romi Konkani supporters as footsoldiers but eventually cheated them by denying any recognition to Romi Konkani. Now they have turned to Marathiwadis for help on communal and nationalist grounds, as they perfectly know mobilising Hindu masses solely for the cause of Nagari Konkani is nearly impossible. During the official language movement, people who supported Marathi were asked to leave Goa and settle in Maharashtra. Now, people who are demanding English as MoI are being asked to settle in Portugal. Unpacking both the situations will tell us that, in either of the cases, interests of only one particular group are being safeguarded. Nagari Konkani is perennially on its deathbed and periodically requires bahujan blood to revive itself. Sometimes Hindu, sometimes Catholic!

Hence, any alliance with the Nagari camp would sound a death knell for Goan Bahujans. We have witnessed that during the official language movement it was the Catholic bahujan which suffered major amount of loss and marginalisation. In an ideal scenario, the brahminical coterie of Nagari Konkani should be kept at farthest distance possible as it is responsible for the systematic intellectual and cultural massacre of two generations of Goan Bahujans (both Catholics and Hindus). In a mission to impose Nagari Konkani over the next 50 years, Uday Bhembre, with a straight face will tell you that the further massacre of the subsequent generations of Bahujans will be a collateral damage.  It is this nefarious project that FORCE is poised to challenge. Unlike the way it is being portrayed, FORCE does not represent only Catholics. But what it definitely represents are the aspirations of Goan bahujan masses.

(A shorter version was first published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 16 August, 2015)

Whose Medium is it Anyway?

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It is only a mirage that the contours of the language debate in Goa are shifting. Though now assuming overtones of a religious divide in the medium of instruction controversy, at the heart of the agitation lie the faultlines of caste and class, which predate even the language agitation of the mid-’80s.

The mid-’80s agitation for Konkani as the sole official language of Goa, and the simultaneous demand from Marathiwadis for equal status with Konkani seemed like a tussle between Konkani-speaking and Marathi-speaking peoples. But the Konkaniwadis comprised those speaking English at home and those speaking Konkani at home, however not all those who spoke Konkani at home were Konkaniwadis. In fact many from the Hindu bahujan community swelled the ranks of the Marathiwadis, Marathi being a secondary means of communication, having had access to Marathi medium primary education post-1961. Hence Marathi was seen as capable of providing an access to a better life. Among the Marathiwadis were also some Brahminical people who wished to assert a kind of superiority as Marathi literateurs or religious, which they would lack in the face of Konkani writings that had people from all walks of life and social standing writing already then.

The agitation resulted in the Official Language Act, 1987 providing for Konkani in Devanagari script as the sole official language of Goa. Pertinently in 2003, the Marathi Rajyabhasha Andolan and the Romi Konkani Andolan together demanded amendment of the OLA to accord the same official status for Marathi and Romi Konkani. Clearly, there are different Konkanis and different Marathis, and the difference is one that should not be ignored at the altar of majoritarian and minoritising politics.

Incidentally, the OLA provided that the Government shall not discriminate against any educational or cultural institution, only on the ground of language, in granting aid. However, a Court decision in a case by a diocesan school teacher for parity in salary with Government school teachers, became the prop for the Government of Goa’s then medium of instruction policy that the State can provide aid to the school on condition that they switch the medium to a regional language. The 1990 decision resulted in most English medium primary schools shifting to Konkani medium to avail grants and pay their teachers equal salaries. Parents who wanted their children to have the competitive edge through English education could not afford the high fees of unaided English primary education, hinging on students’ finances. Also the Catholic elite parents whose children frequented these schools did not want them to be in the company of who they perceived as the hoi polloi.

What followed was a tussle seemingly between Englishwadis and Vernacularwadis, but actually then one between Goud Saraswat Brahmins leading the camp supporting the Government proposition and middle and lower class Catholic parents who perceived English as a passport to a better life (even as most spoke Konkani at home) trying to find their voice to oppose the proposition. The Saraswat and rich class Catholic power prevailed.

The author recalls her own mother who gave tuitions to Catholic, Hindu and tribal school children in Taleigao telling her that the words used in the text books were completely different from the words that all of the children who were Konkani-speaking used for the same thing. There was clearly a dynamic at play of maintaining a certain power by using big words or using words that their communities used (mostly Hindu upper caste). The textbooks were in an Antruzi Konkani that was a foreign language to them, in fact much more foreign than English, which was ironically more accessible.

The Archdiocesan Board of Education in a representation to the Government in 2011, obviously adverting to the employability of those who are churned out from regional language medium schools, argued that language proficiency in English in a globalised society is a great asset and it will afford a level playing field for the haves and have nots.

The ‘vernacularwadis’ are no monolith. One strand of opinion clearly maintains that medium in the mother tongue in the early schooling years is the best way for a child to develop. However, for some, even as they hold this opinion, this is meant to read as grants for Konkani or Marathi medium schools only as they are also embroiled in identity and protectionist discussions that are intended to ensure that Goans are privileged in employment. Hence vernacular as in Kannada medium schools for the sizeable Kannada population in Goa, and now Hindi/Kurukh medium schools for the sizeable Oriya/Bihari tribal population relocated here, would not be on their radar. With the RSS now in the forefront of the BBSM agitation through its chief and ideologue Subhash Velingkar, on the pretext of combatting some Church mobilisation behind FORCE, there is now the edge of a religious divide.

Thus we see how the politics of medium of communication and access to the wider world and a better life plays out. It has often little to do with the value of language sustenance, or multilingualism, or any emancipatory potential of a particular medium of instruction, in the best interests of the child. It is more about positioning that is propelled by economics and caste and about power assertion in discussions about medium. It will brook no lasting solution unless the power dynamics are addressed, by duly recognizing minorities and marginalized and minoritised communities.

(First published in O Heraldo: dt: 13 August, 2015)