Don’t banish English, Amartya Sen tells Mulayam

April 20th, 2009 - 7:59 pm ICT by IANS  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, April 20 (IANS) Nobel laureate Amartya Sen Monday criticised Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s campaign pledge to banish the use of English in Uttar Pradesh, saying such a move would only deepen existing divisions between the haves and have-nots in the state.

“I don’t know what Mulayam Singh Yadav has in mind… I don’t really see what the problem is about because it’s a language that’s widely used,” Sen told an international gathering of leading writers, publishers and academics at the London Book Fair.

Answering a question after delivering the ‘Chairman’s breakfast speech’ that traditionally opens the Fair, the Harvard University professor of economics and philosophy reminded his audience that a similar attempt by West Bengal’s Communist government failed after proving deeply unpopular.

“In the late 70s there was an attempt by the Communists to de-emphasise English and move towards a Bengali-based education, but that’s all been entirely reversed for the simple practical reason that the children didn’t want it and the parents didn’t want it,” Sen said.

However, he said, there was “a very different issue” about existing social and economic disparities in India, which had taken the form of English becoming the language of the elite.

“There is an elite which is much more familiar with English, which is not the case with many other people,” he said, but added that the way to eradicate such divisions was to bring more people into education, including English education, rather than ban the use of the language.

“That’s an argument why others who are excluded from it ought to have the opportunity to do it (learn English),” said Sen, an expert in public policy issues who has long criticised Indian politicians for not giving elementary education the same priority as higher education.

Sen said English had become the language of currency in many areas of life - from Internet surfing to job hunting.

“Now, one way of excluding people from doing English is to keep the division between the English-speaking haves and the non-English speaking have-nots.

“So rather than being an egalitarian force, the exclusion - if it is carried out - will have exactly the opposite effect: that is to keep the stratification as it is. Because obviously Mulayam Singh Yadav will not be able to prevent people from doing English in India as the language of commerce, industry, rule of law and public use.”

Sen also reminded Yadav that at the end of the day English was an “Indian language” as much as any of the others that are in use.

“An Indian language would be that which is in use in India and English language has been in use for quite a long time,” he said, while pointing out a lesser-known fact - that many of the other Indian languages are full of ‘foreign’ influences and words.

“Just look at the ancestry of our language. Sanskrit itself came from abroad in around 1500 BC. There are lots of influences coming to India. There’s the influence of Persian, Arabic, Chinese.

“Arab, French, Portuguese words are quite common even today,” Sen said.

This year’s London Book Fair has an India focus and is being attended by some 50 Indian writers and 90 publishers.

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