But before that I must introduce you to the concept of the Rooster Coop—an excellent paradigm from Arvind Adiga’s otherwise unremarkable book, The White Tiger.
“Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”
And the English Language is, unfortunately, one of the components of that coop.
In India, English is, without a doubt, the pre-eminent language. As a rule of thumb, anybody who is somebody will try and express himself in English as opposed to his native language. Which is not remarkable considering most avenues to success in our country require knowledge of English. Which in India, a country that has a minuscule minority who speak the language, is odd to say the least. After all there’s only one thing worse than discrimination against a minority and that’s discrimination against the majority.
This fascination of ours with the language leads to some odd consequences, sometimes. You could for example, write your higher secondary examination in, say, Bengali. Not only that, you might be a bright young lad with an affinity towards the sciences and, by extension, engineering. But unless you know a certain language, you would never be ‘good enough’ to study in, say, the IITs.
Now there are a few arguments invariably put forward towards maintaining this status quo.
The first is the English-is-a-global-language one. Classical Rooster Coop, of course. How many Indians, as a percentage, would ever be in a position to interact with the world? So in any case this line of reasoning would, at best help a small minority. Secondly, I’d say there are quite a few countries that, without adopting English as a Holy Grail, have done remarkable well for themselves, globally. We could, maybe, present the Japanese as an example? Language is only a means of communication—the world respects ideas not the medium, and I can think of no better way for ideas to be nurtured than to educate a person in his mother tongue.
The second is the Hobson’s choice one—which single language in a diverse, multilingual country like India would work other than English? So in other words, a person must give up his claim to being educated in mother tongue and learn a foreign one (prohibitively expensive for most Indians) to keep the country going. Shouldn’t the Union of India actually help its citizens rather than burdening them with so high a cost of having to abandon their native languages if they would want to advance in life?
So what’s the alternative? Should Hindi be imposed instead of English? Hardly. In my opinion, no one single language should be imposed. India, for better or for worse, just isn’t a single language country. Maybe we could learn something from the EU. Some people would want the EU to become a federation in the near future. Then would one language be imposed through Europe? Would students of History in Germany be forced to study the history of WW2 in English? I hardly think so. So why impose that burden on India, whose people are many times poorer than those in the EU and, therefore, much less suited to take on the burden of learning a foreign tongue?
English’s charmed status, on the other hand, does incalculable harm by strengthening the Coop and making social mobility doubly difficult. In any “middle-class” job, knowledge of the language is de rigeur . So, now not only will a person from an economically disadvantaged background have to struggle to acquire the skills needed for the job, he will also have to spend considerable time and money to acquire a functioning knowledge of the English language. Most Indians, of course, can hardly do the former, much less attempt to accomplish the latter. And so we have an automatic contraction of the list of eligible candidates for the job, irrespective of the actual skills needed for the job. Only people whose parents were rich enough to get them tutored in English need apply.
And so the Coop remains intact and the chickens remain confined in their cages to faithfully await the butcher’s next sale.