Exclusion of ‘English’: Casteism and Classism at the Heart of NEP

It is an undeniable truth that English is a social currency which plays a major role in upward mobility. Although the language made its way into our lives during colonial rule, it has now acquired a status of all that is “modern” and “socially acceptable”.

In this context, the New Education Policy, 2020, states that the medium of instruction till Class 5 will be the mother tongue, regional or local language. To put it into perspective, this would mean that a child growing up in Chennai would be studying everything in Tamil.

However, if his/her/their parents get transferred to Delhi, or any other northern state, he/she/they wouldn’t have the knowledge of the language used as a medium in that particular region.

The exclusion of English as a medium of instruction does more harm than good. This is not to say that vernacular languages are in any way inferior. In fact, they should be taught from the primary level itself, however changing the medium of instruction itself shows a lack of sensitivity towards the marginalised sections of the society.

If implemented, this policy would hardly affect the upper caste and upper middle-class families since they anyway speak to their children in English. For them, learning the regional language is merely an indulgence. It is the backward castes and classes who will pay the price of this supposed “decolonisation” process, which is nothing less than tokenism.

English may be a painful reminder of our tragic history but now it is also a symbolic social equaliser to a certain extent. It is for this very reason, Mayawati, the Dalit leader and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, made English compulsory in primary education during her tenure.

Also read: A Former Teach for India Fellow on the ‘Overambitious’ New Education Policy

Many saw this decision as a move that followed the ideas of B.R. Ambedkar, who said that English was “the milk of a lioness” or a means of social liberation. It has also been attested by Vinay Kumar, another JNU professor, who says that that the knowledge of English is vital to participate in the process of modernity. Known Dalit journalist and author Chandrabhan Prasad even celebrates the birthday of the man credited with introducing English education in India, Lord Macaulay.

Eminent scholar Partha Chatterjee had put forth a concept of what he called the “political society”. This was a collective term for those groups of people who barely had any resources of their own, were part of the informal sector, more often than not were at the mercy of the state and were in constant negotiations with the government for benefits. This included street vendors, hawkers, sellers, cobblers, illegal squatters etc.

He argued that such groups were bargaining with the state for what they felt was due to them. The state also acquiesced to their demands, not because it saw them as legitimate citizens but rather because it viewed them as pity groups. The government acts as if it is doing them a favour by providing basic necessities for subsistence. It is these families whose children will be at a disadvantage if the clause of the new policy is interpreted and applied verbatim. They send their children to state sponsored schools with the hope of a future more secure than theirs.

Their children, who have studied at government schools, are now a part of the growing blue-collar gig economy. This includes jobs such as delivery personnel at Zomato/Swiggy (and other such start ups), working in specialised security agencies, driving for companies like Ola and Uber –  and these jobs require basic working fluency in English.

These professions have helped them provide a better standard of living to their families and they could apply for these blue-collar jobs arguably because they could understand English and were capable of communicating in the language. To take away this opportunity from thousands of underprivileged families by substituting a vernacular language as a medium of instruction in primary education is akin to keeping them trapped in this cycle of poverty.

Private schools may come up with overpriced programs and workshops to “teach” English to those who are already familiar with it. Government schools, which lack the required resources, will fall behind.

Furthermore, when students who have studied in a regional language will go to college with those who can fluently speak in English, they will suffer social exclusion and ridicule. This will not only break their self esteem but will also limit their scope of employment opportunities, especially in private sectors which majorly work in tandem with global standards.

Besides, knowing the language also allows one to network with individuals that can be potential employers. However, with such a policy, the deck is already stacked against the lower caste and poorer families.

This coupled with the proposed idea of providing “internship” opportunities at local shops, carpenter’s shop and other places that require skilled labour is testament to the lack of foresight of the government.

While it is good to teach such skills at schools, jobs like carpentry, plumbing etc. are excessively underpaid, dis-organised, exploitative where employees are frequently made to work in inhuman conditions. Until effective measures are taken to improve those conditions first, internships or apprenticeships at such places is essentially telling students that they will be forced into a life of poverty and continual struggle.

Government should instead take steps to improve said sectors. They need to be unionised, the workers need to given proper wages and regulations have to be put in place to ensure safe and hygienic working conditions. Till the overall structure of these sectors is changed, it is pointless to offer such internships and push them into these professions.

Also, it is very obvious that savarna families do not want their children doing these jobs primarily because it doesn’t fit into their plans or ambition, nor is it seen in a respectable light in their social circles.

The children from poorer backgrounds with barely any knowledge of English will be forced to take up such professions. They will now be trapped in the life of despair that they wanted to escape in the first place. This is why they went to school. For these families, school is the stepping stone to at least the blue collar if not the white-collar economy.

While it remains to be seen how this policy will be put into effect, it is worth looking at these aspects to understand how short-sighted and casteist certain aspects of this document is.

Ranjini Ghosh is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University, Delhi

Featured image credit: Rajesh Rajput/Unsplash