Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd – Shudras Never Were Allowed To Learn A National Language

English Language

In the recent Parliament elections in the two Telugu states there was an interesting discussion: who speaks good English whether Chandrbabu Naidu or Jaganmohan Reddy or KCR? Three of them are Shudras. Chandrababu Naidu and KCR are first generation English learners, whereas Jaganmohan Reddy is a second generation English medium educated leader, as his father was a doctor and could speak English well. His father initiated teaching in English medium in the Government schools in 2006 by converting 6000 Government schools into English medium. This was a major step of rural educational transformation any state Government so far has taken.

Taking this as a good political discourse on language, let us see where do Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis stand in English education historically?

English is the third India’s ruling (official) language in its known history. Before English became India’s ruling language in 1858, to start with in Calcutta Province, by shifting the language policy from Persian to English, the Persian was an all India ruling language. Before the Persian became the administrative language Sanskrit was the ruling language. As of now only these three languages have acquired all India character. All other languages were regional, local and tribal languages all through the Indian history.

We do not know what language was in operation in the Harappan city civilization. Perhaps it could be something like Pali, which had big presence in the Buddhist period. How much of Pali was used by the ruling monarchies we do not know. The fact that both the Buddhist and Jain literatures exist in Pali indicates that it too was a major Indian language but it was destroyed over a period of time during the Sanskrit hegemonic days. Though many South Indian languages were having links with Pali it did not survive as a language as Sanskrit survived even in South India today. The Sanskrit was sustained through the Hindu spiritual system, though it never was allowed to become family and market language.

The Shudra agrarian producers, including the present other backward classes and the unreserved Shudra landed gentry and peasantry had no right to read and write the Sanskrit language during its hegemonic period. The Dalits and Tribals were always kept outside civil societal system. The question of they gaining access to Sanskrit, or even Persian did not arise. They mostly lived within small languages that were spoken by the caste clans and tribes. Their notion of nation was mere tribal or caste clan.

By the beginning of the 21st century the Shudras/Dalits/Tribals are at best in a situation of communicating in regional languages in the respective linguistic states. Their connectivity with the nationwide people is very minimal. By this time the Brahmins/Banias became an international community with their grip on a new language—English.

In the beginning they abused English as colonial language but continued its learning in private schools and colleges. By the beginning of the 21st century they became an English speaking and writing class in themselves. However, at the same time a small section of Shudras/Dalits/Tribals (mostly in the North East) got into English education and began to establish Pan-Indian communitarian connections.

It is important to realize that till English became the national language the Shudras/OBCs/Dalits/Adivasis have never been connected with one another across the country. During Sanskrit period only the Brahmins were connected across the country. Few Banias and Kshatriyas knew Sanaskrit but not as a home language. Among Brahmins it was a home language.

During the period of Persian language hegemony the Muslim elite and the Brahmin elite were inter connected because the Brahmin elite also learnt that language. But hardly any Shudra/OBC/Dalit/Adivasis learnt Persian. The Muslim elite also did not teach that language to the lower castes. They were more close to Brahmins and Banias than to the lower castes.

Today in every nook and corner of the country, in all 29 states, there are a few people from the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis who read, write and participate in the administrative activity of the state in English language. Their confidence levels are picking up because they too know an international language and compete with the Brahmins and Banias who otherwise dominated every field of the state and market, without participating in production.

The Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis forces were confined to agrarian and artisanal production as that did not involve much of interstate connectivity. The rural agrarian and artisanal production, unlike business activity and running of the state, did not require much of a pan-Indian travel and connectivity. Because of their mundane dispersed agrarian, artisanal and cattle grazing activity they did not require multi-dimensional communication skills. The Brahmins in the spiritual domain, the Banias business domain acquired advanced linguistic skills both in Sanskrit, regional languages and they used those linguistic skills to control and dominate the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi masses. If only English language was not introduced to the Indian people the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis could not have come into modern economy at all.

Even the market relations in all states run English. Though the market is not fully conversant with English the technical market English is quite well spread now. Hindi has no such reach.

From Mughal rule in the 16th century to mid-British period Persian had that kind of all India reach. Even though many small rulers were handling the administration in Persian and other languages they were dependant on Muslim or Brahmin officials. For example, the Nizam of Hyderabad state was using Urdu and Persian. Some states were using Persian and other regional languages.

Though the top layer of Shudras became landed gentry or even landlords by early 20thcentury, their Persian linguistic skills were not developed. The Sanskrit language survived as a Hindu religious language but the Shudras even now have no right to priesthood and hence they did not engage with the Sanskritic texts at scholarly level.

Very few individual Shudras here and there became proficient in Sanskrit but they did not become great scholars, whose interpretation of Hindu scriptures was not accepted as authentic. Only a Brahmin pundit’s Sanskrit was considered authentic. Hence hardly any Shudra developed interest to invest time and energy and resources in that linguistic domain. As a result for several millennia they remained in truncated zones without having any sense of nationhood.
What is the way out now?

The Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis have only one solution—English medium education in all Government schools in all the states. The duel medium of education—regional language in Government schools and English medium in private schools is a deceptive system aimed at keeping the Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis out of national and international reach. In the post-Independence India again the Brahmin-Bania forces planned this system to again continue their hegemony.

As of now the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis have no nationally connecting language. Mahatma Phule was the first Shudra to get English education and through which he told the world that the Shudras were the slaves of India. By that time Rajaram Mohan Roy, Gopal Krishna Gokhale ( Elphinstone College) , Bal Gangadhar Tilak, LLB, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Elphinstone College (all Brahmins) were educated in English. In fact Tilak started an English medium school in 1880. Mahatma Phule was their senior in Mahrastra but studied up to only class 7th in a Scottish Mission School. He saved Indian Shudras from historical illiteracy.
Very few Shudras got that opportunity to go to England and get English education but they had their limitations of learning . Some Shudras even though had some financial status they never took education seriously. There were small kings like Baroda king, who later helped Ambedkar, or the Mysore king but there is no evidence that their family members went to England and got educated. Only the Brahmins and Banias were thinking about education as they know the power of education.

Of course, a real educational revolution for Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis began with Ambedkar. That revolution basically remains notional. It has not taken spiritual and material shape. Whether Hindutva forces allow English learning for all is a significant question.

My experience of long struggle with the anti-English in Government sector intellectuals tells that they would not allow that language to emerge as mass language until and unless it becomes an election issue.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a Political Theorist, Social Activist and Author


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