“English! Six armed god”: Politics and Prospect of the English Language in India

Mir Mahammad Ali, Bhatter College, Dantan


The paper attempts to explore the historical processes of the development of the English language in a non-native country like India where it is mostly used as a secondary language of communication. It also assesses the role of English both as a means of communication and a carrier of culture. Attesting to the popular demands and the growing importance of the English language in the diverse fields of contemporary India, the paper also tends towards examining the socio-political issues that are largely responsible for its predominance as a modern lingua-franca surpassing other indigenous vernacular languages. The paper also critically investigates the dichotomy of introducing English language through the means of literature as a colonial tool of ‘Cultural Imperialism’ in India, and on the other hand, the post-colonial response to it through the appropriation and abrogation of English. Finally, it also highlights the current trends in the modern usage of English, particularly those in a postdigital, social-media dominated society where the entire world becomes a global village in terms of communication.

[Keywords: English language, English literature, colonialism, post-colonialism, hegemony, lingua-franca, vernacular, Cultural Imperialism]

The homogenous or the monolithic idea of the English language or by extension of English literature as a peculiar property of the British people has now become a mythical history, owing to the emergence of a number of ‘englishes’ instead of the one standard Anglo-Saxon version of ‘Queen’s English’. Today for a variety of reasons the word ‘English’ with a capital ‘E’ at its beginning has become less frequent and superseded by a number of ‘englishes’ with a small ‘e’ at their beginning. The emergence of a multiplicity of the ‘englishes’ like American English, Australian English, Canadian English, New Zealand English, Caribbean English, African English as well as Indian English fundamentally takes place as a result of the Colonial encounter of the British people with the natives in diverse conquered lands and their imposition of English upon the native tongue. So, the initiation of English language and literature in India, quite logically, occurs as an upshot of the British Colonial Power.

In the prefatory chapter of his monumental book on post-colonial studies Beginning Postcolonialism (Manchester University Press), John McLeod illustrates the fundamental difference between ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Colonialism’ as put forward by Peter Childs and Patrick Williams in their seminal book on Post-Colonial studies An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory:

“Imperialism’ is an ideological concept which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another.

Colonialism’ however is only one form of practice which results from the ideology of imperialism, and specifically concerns the settlement of one group of people in a new location.”

So, while the practice of British ‘imperialism’ is generally regarded to be associated with a wider mercantile process, ‘colonialism’, on the other hand tends to be a major means of its effective manifestation where a dominant community makes a ‘settlement’ in a new country they are to rule. The practice of colonization had never been an easy subservient process of mutual negotiation because of the constant repudiation and rebellion of the natives against the domination. Colonialism, as an institutional practice is fraught with a number of societal issues which John McLeod in his book Beginning Postcolonialism markedly presents as:

“The Process of ‘forming a community’ in the new land necessarily meant ‘un-forming’ or ‘re-forming’ the communities that existed there already, and involved a wide range of practices including trade, plunder, negotiation, warfare, genocide, enslavement and rebellion.”

The shifting dynamics of the power in the hands of British East India Company in the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey in 1757 after defeating the Bengali Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah resulted in the military control of the native Indians and their supposed coercion. The political manoeuvring of the Colonial power to rule over the natives through the means of armed forces is conglomerated with the ideological control of their minds through the imposition of the dominant class’s language and literature through missionary works. In his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological Apparatus”, the influential Marxist Critic Louis Althusser traces the principle roots of Colonialism and theorizes two means or ways through which the Colonial Power controls the Colonized natives, namely: RSA (Repressive State Apparatus) and ISA (Ideological State Apparatus). While former one is imposed for the physical control of the natives through the means of police, armed forces etc, the later one with its far-reaching impact is generally implemented for the ideological control of people through the means religious and academic institutions like schools, colleges, churches, media, political systems etc. In his systematic study of the imposition of English language in the African Anglo-phone empire, the Kenyan writer NGugi Wa Thiongo takes up similar kind of propositions when he claims in his book Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature that:

“Bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation.”

Ngugi here critically investigates the colonial power-politics of imposing English as a means of colonial domination and essentially emphasizes upon the fact that a writer should never discard his own mother tongue and adopt a foreign language to express his own familiar surrounding environment through vernacular communication or writing. Consequently, after writing many of his ground-breaking books including Decolonizing the Mind in the English language, he permanently abandons it never to write in this language again. In the present time, Ngugi writes in his indigenous ‘Gikuyu’ language, though his books are immensely translated into English by translators.

There is a multiplicity of responses from the heterogeneous body of writers, academicians, critics and scholars as to appreciation of English in Anglo-phone Countries. Not each and everyone are antagonistic towards the English language like Ngugi. While Ngugi repudiates the English language, the majority of writers from Anlgo-phone Empire like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, Caribbean Writer V.S. Naipaul, George Laming from Barbados, Salman Rushdie from India, Pakistani diaspora writer Hanif Kureshi to name a few from a plethora of other writers adopt this language as a ‘colonial gift’ and makes its effective use after its appropriation and abrogation. In a famous speech entitled “The African Writer and the English Language’ delivered by Chinua Achebe in 1964, Achebe emphasizes that:

“Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone   else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have given the language and I intend to use it.”

 While the initiation of the English Language in the Indian subcontinent was an offshoot of the Colonial imposition of the language, intended for the facilitation and effective execution of their administrative purposes i.e. for the smooth interaction with the colonized people, however, the teaching of English literature as an academic discipline serves a different purpose altogether. The systematic study of the English literature began in England for the first time in Kings College, London (Later to become London University) in 1828, then in Oxford University in 1894, and then in Cambridge University in 1911, but in India it was introduced much earlier in the mid 18th century through the Enlightenment project of the Christian Missionaries. Considering themselves to be a ‘ white superior race’ and ‘God’s elect people’ to rule over the whole world, the White Anglo-Saxon Christian British colonizers believed that it was their Christian duty to ‘civilize’ the so-called ‘uncivilized’, ‘barbaric’, ‘irrational’ colonized natives by enlightening them through Christian English education. The study of English literature in India, as Gauri Viswanathan claims in her influential book Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India serves ‘colonial interests’ as ‘the evangelists tried to promote Christian morality indirectly through the teaching of literature”. Again, in her book The Indian English Novel: Nation, History, and Narration (Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures in English), Priyamvaba Gopal further elaborates some of Viswanathan’s arguments:

“The English Parliament wished to see a Europeanized improvement in the morals and manners of natives, partly to suit its administrative needs, but it was nervous about interfering in their religious beliefs through missionary activity. The teaching of English literature, she argues, was seen as a way to disseminate English values without coming into direct conflict with their religious beliefs.”

Thus, from the British colonial standpoint, the study of English literature becomes synonymous with the moral uplifting of the native Indians which also serves as an effective tool of cultural imperialism and colonial hegemony (or domination), to use Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci’s term. A child born and brought up in a familiar Indian household, with his interaction and exposure to the familiar Indian social and cultural milieu, feels alienated to the description of English setting expressed in literature and consequently nurtures a sense of acrimony or disgust towards his own familiar environment and begins romanticizing, idolizing, and idealizing the bookish foreign descriptions from which his sense of anomaly and inferiority eventually follow.

Though myriad contentions prevail as to the exact function of the English language and literature in the Anglo-phone Empire like India, one unanimous idea triggered by the learned scholars go uncontested that the modern education in India generally begins with the initiation of English language and literature. Let us quickly proceed to have a brief overview of the historical processes of the evolvement of English language and literature in the Indian subcontinent particularly focusing on the Anglo-Oriental controversy.

When the British East India Company invaded India and made a settlement there, one important thing that they did among other things was to modify the traditional education system in India where Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian which had been given priority for so long. Replacing this traditional education by introducing English in their place was the only way to do modernize India, but they were afraid and anxious in doing so immediately after occupying the Indian territory. A royal Charter Act was issued from the British parliament regarding Indian Education in 1813:

“Not less than one lakh rupees should be imparted for the promotion of education in India.”

But the problem is that it did not specify the scope of its implementation i.e. it did not clarify whether it should be imparted for the promotion of the higher studies of the elite class or for proving elementary education to the common masses. Again, another controversy arises whether Indian languages and literature like Sanskrit, Persian and native should be propagated or whether Western education should be provided with this sum of money. And lastly, another dilemma was that what should be the medium of instruction of education, whether it should be imparted through the medium of indigenous Indian languages or whether English should be the medium of instruction. These contentions, nonetheless, caused the emergence of two diverse groups among the British architects of Indian education: on the one hand, Orientalists like William Jones propagated for the promotion of Indian Education to the common masses through the medium of vernacular languages, and on the other hand Anglicists like Thomas Babington Macaulay who after attacking almost everything that is Indian, voiced for promoting Western education through the medium of English. Though towards its inception Orientalists were given the power to engineer Indian education, but soon after observing the failed attempt of Orientalists towards promoting Western education, this task was handed down to Anglicists, with Thomas Babington Macaulay as its chief proponent.

There is no doubt that today Thomas Babington Macaulay is generally regarded as the chief architect of Modern education in India who propagated extensively for promoting English education. In reality, he was antagonistic to everything that is Indian and mercilessly attacked everything that is Indian including Indian philosophy, Indian history, astronomy, literature, religion and all eastern ideas. The notion of the ‘Orient’ as a ‘strange’, ‘exotic’ ‘timeless’ continent, popularized and romanticized in fictionalized discourses, was advocated immensely by Macaulay, a practice vehemently criticized by Edward W. Said in his monumental book of post-colonialism Orientalism (1978). Some of Macaulay’s infamous statements as stated in his infamous Minutes on Indian Education (1835) are:

“A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Explicating the motive behind the introduction of the English language and literature in India, Macaulay proclaims formation of a ‘middle class intelligentsia’ who would act as ‘comprador bourgeois’ i.e. a class of people who would act as an agent for foreign invaders and interlink between the colonizer and the natives, as asserted in one of his most infamous and oft-quoted statement in Minutes on Indian Education (1835):

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and millions whom we govern, a class of people Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

Whatever causes propelled the introduction of English in India, the outcome is more or less a congenial and favorable reception in contemporary India. Today for a variety of reasons, English is considered as one of the Indian languages, not a language of the colonizers imposed upon Indians, but as an adopted language by the Indians. As the Indian post-colonial writer and critic Aijaz Ahmad claims that:

“English is now for better or for worse, one of the Indian Languages.”

In the aftermath of the World War-II, when most of the South-Asian and African colonized nations were getting their independence from the colonial powers in the mid 20th century, predominantly from a decaying feeble British Colonial power, the prevalent lauding maxims like “The sun never sets in the British Empire” is generally used in past tense, intending to express its lost former glory. Lands once-colonized including India began to question “not only the heritage of the Enlightenment but also the very foundations of Western civilization”, (M.A.R. Habib, A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present). Using the colonizer’s language taught to them, the newly independent nations like India began to question from a postcolonial perspective the ideological propensity of the British Empire, their violent and ruthless means of oppression, their looting and plundering of lands and resources, the very Enlightenment philosophy of the Christian missionaries to ‘civilize’ the so-called ‘barbaric’ natives and their means of ‘Cultural Imperialism’, and challenges in a ‘contrapuntal’ way (Said, Culture and Imperialism), the oriental discourses and cryptic historiography of the Britishers of representing the Orient in a mystic, effeminate, dogmatized, and culturally degraded way. This practice of writing back to the ‘canon’ or to the ‘centre’ i.e. to the once dominant colonizers through a language taught by them is distinctively theorized in a greater detail in one of the seminal books on post-colonialism The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1989) by the Australian trio Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin.

Keeping aside the complicated and debatable issue of determining the exact definition of language, let us proceed to have an overview of its function. Language, at its best, serves two main purposes, it is a means of communication and on the other hand it is a carrier of culture. There is no human society which can be independent of language, not only because it is a vehicle of communication, but also it represents one’s cultural values and ethos to the world-scale phenomena. The prevalence of English in India as a secondary language serves both these twin purposes, though in a different context. The predominance of English as a communicative language in the post-independent India is filled with socio-political upheavals. In the post-independence era, many of the Indian languages were consistently colliding with one another for their supremacy to become one ‘national’ language for the common understanding and interaction of all people from the diverse regions of India. But in a multi-lingual country like India, the pan-Indian languages like Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telegu, Urdu, Malayalam, Kannad, Bengali were not supportive of choosing one unanimous ‘lingua-franca’ (i.e. a language used as a common language between speakers whole native languages are different, OED) among indigenous languages. As a result, a foreign language like English was chosen as a modern ‘lingua-franca’ to serve this purpose of internal communication. Besides, after becoming a ‘global’ language used by a number of native and non-native speakers from myriad countries in the world-scale phenomena, the English language adopted in India, also served as a vehicle of international communication also.

In India the language as a communicating device achieves a great status, often associated with one’s cultural sophistication. The moment one starts speaking “Hello, how are you?” instead of telling it in Hindi “Tu Kaisa hai” or in Bengali “Tui kemon achis?” s/he is being revered distinctively from the multitudes of non-English speakers. In contemporary India, it is now generally preferred in the employment fields also as a key means of job opportunity. Concerning its emerging importance in India, Priyamvada Gopal in the introduction of her book The Indian English Novel: Nation, History, and Narration (Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures in English) quotes famous Indian writer Vikram Seth’s ironic salutation to English in his poem “Diwali”:

               English! Six armed god,

               Key to a job, to power,

               Snobbery, the good life.

               This separateness, this fear…

Subsequently, apart from communication, the next function of language is the transmission of culture. In the postmodern media-dominated society where the entire world becomes a single operational unit in terms of connectivity which media theoretician Marshal McLuhan terms “global village”, the humanities and social science departments, and more recently those disciplines of digital humanities tend towards understanding the multifarious cultures on a global scale under the umbrella term of “Social or Culture Studies”. As M.A.R. Habib points out in his book A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present:

“It has become more important than ever that we understand the various voices crying from afar in other languages; and it is just as urgent that we understand the bewildering multitude of voices in our own culture.”

Thus it becomes as necessary of listening to the miscellaneous voices of people from all over the world like that of Black Americans, Jewish Americans, LGBT communities, religious and gender minorities, feminists, exiled Palestinians, as well as of diverse ‘Subaltern’ groups like ‘Dalits’ in India, Aborigines of Australia to name a few, as necessary of representing one’s indigenous folk culture and art-forms on a global scale. This proliferation of multicultural and intercultural understanding of society can only be done through the means of a globally connected common language which English performed significantly in the 20th century and will do so in the present century.

Moreover, in countries with a history of Colonialism like India, it additionally accomplishes another task of making the identity of a ‘nation’. Colonial discourses conventionally represent colonized nations in derogatory and pejorative means from a biased, prejudiced, authoritative and idiosyncratic viewpoint which largely serves the colonial purpose, but once the countries achieved their independence from the colonial yoke, they started writing their own history in order to make the identity of a ‘nation’, often counter-arguing the colonial discourses, in a language taught by them. This point is highlighted nowhere so explicitly as in Shakespeare’s Tempest where the half-monster Caliban retorts to the usurping Prospero:

“You taught me language, my profit on’t I know how to curse.”

After the postcolonial reading of Shakespeare’s Tempest becomes popular as a result of the publication of the Caribbean writer George Lamming’s The Pleasure of Exile (1960) where he critically explores the Prospero-Caliban relationship from a postcolonial point of view, this speech of Caliban has become the catchphrase of postcolonial writers from India and abroad who attack in their writing the colonizers by adopting a language taught by them.

As mentioned earlier, though English as a foreign language has been imposed in the colonized countries by the colonial power, nevertheless, it retained its indigenous forms in these settled territories. The postcolonial theorist-trio Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin asserted that the writers from the once-colonized countries ‘refashioned’ the language in order to have it acclimatized to their own social-political and cultural needs, therefore paving the way for the creation of new ‘englishes’ instead of one dominant Queen’s English. In India this kind of creative violence with the language can be discerned from literature, to advertisement, to communicative languages, as well as in social-media messaging etc. One of its forms like ‘Hinglish’ which is a portmanteau word, hybridizing ‘Hindi’ and ‘English’ is widely popular in conversations, literature, to advertisements. One such example is the use of the word “Youngistan” (Young+Hindustan) in the television advertisement of Pepsi coldrink “Yeh hai Youngistan meri jaan” (This is Youngistan, my loved ones). Again, Salman Rushdie’s experimental use of “Chutnified English” in his novels bears the Indianized flavour of English usage or V.S. Naipaul or Upamanyu Chatterjee’s use of Indianized English expressions like “Give it to me na” etc. Now this usage of the word ‘na’ is intrinsically related to the peculiar Indian way of expression.

To conclude it can be said in postdigital world, the prospect of English language is immense in India as well as in the global arena. Finally, it is also very important to note that in this age of mutual dependency where the Indians have been immensely benefitted with this language, there are some influential poets in the English literature too who have borrowed from the Indian languages to enrich the English literature. By mentioning such an example from the Upanishads, which T.S. Eliot quoted to conclude his famous poem “The Waste Land” (1922), this paper can also be summed up:

Datta. Dayadham. Damyata.

Shanti shanti shanti.

Works Cited:                                                                                                      

Ahmad, A. (1996). “The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality”, in P. Mongia (ed.), Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: a reader, London: Arnold, 276–93.

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Macaulay, T. (2006) [1835]. ‘Minute in Indian Education’, in B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths and H. Tiffin (eds) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, second edition, London: Routledge, 2006, 374–75.

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Thiong’o, N. (1986). Decolonising the Mind, London: James Currey.

Viswanathan, G. (1989). Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, New York: Columbia University Press.

Mir Mahammad Ali teaches in the Department of English, Bhatter College, Dantan, Paschim Medinipur. Contact: mahammadali1990@gmail.com

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