It came as a shock to hear Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh equate English speaking with “trying to be like an Englishman”! Singh was addressing the convocation of students graduating from a private institute at Noida on the outskirts of the national capital. He went on to elaborate that “English bolne se gyan nahin hota”, meaning that English speaking does not add to knowledge! “Don't be just an Englishman, be an Indian first” he said.
The minister said he was not asking them to speak in Hindi, but in any Indian language that is their mother tongue. He chided youngsters who said “hi” and “bye” to their parents, and asked them to wish them “properly”. Maybe, by that he meant “Say Ram Ram”? He urged them to touch their parents' feet and seek their blessings. And to ensure he was not misunderstood, Singh clarified that he did not want anyone to hate English!
Ironically, he went on to talk about Digital India, for it was an institute of Information Technology. Does the leader know that digitalisation is global and whether we like it or not, English—in its UK, USA, Australian or Indie avatar—along with numerals, is at the heart of it?
Singh, by the way, was a mass leader in Uttar Pradesh around the time he was chief minister there. And no leader of any Indian state, let alone of the Hindi heartland, can miss the desperate craving of people to speak in English, and using it, climb the social and economic ladder. People in small towns and villages prefer to starve, but pay the fees and send their children to a private school instead of sending them to a government school. The reason is private schools advertise the fact that English is the medium of instruction and government schools are at the whims and fancy of ministers of the time! Millions of people attend English speaking classes with hope, dreams and aspiration.
Will speaking in English, or attempting to do that, make people forget their mother tongue? I think not, having heard many brilliant speakers of the language count numbers in their mother tongue when they have to do a quick calculation. Or enjoy a joke, a comment or a story in their mother tongue. Hindi, Malayalam, Bangla or Tamil, or any other language... they are not so weak that they cannot hold their own in front of English.
Tagore's Gitanjali won the Nobel after it was translated into English. Most kids who speaks English can recite “Where the mind is without fear and the head held high...”. But can a bright student from the most literate state of Kerala say that in Bangla? English has united India, possibly more than the Indian Railways.
What is India's biggest strength compared to China? It does not require a scholar of Indo-China studies to say English—the knowledge of the language and the skill to speak it fluently.
English language skills do not just add to our strength, visa vis, the economic power that China is. Our fluency in the Queen's language is also the reason why the huge Indian diaspora is a success story, whether in the UK, the US, Australia or anywhere else.
Soon after the Modi government assumed office, they tried limiting the press notes/tweets of the Press Information Bureau to Hindi. They had to roll back in no time.
Here is hoping Rajnath Singh rolls back his views, and speaks up for more English. And in English.