English as an unsanctioned language

Times Staff Writer

Few cities have been as successful as this one in parlaying a knowledge of English into an economic boom.

Every day, an army of call-center workers chirps, “Can I help you?” in lilting Indian tones to thousands of customer-service callers half a world away. In other gleaming high-rises, legions of software engineers toil at their computers designing programs for clients in the United States, Britain and Canada.

Bangalore is the world’s back office, an information technology outsourcing champ and a jewel in India’s burgeoning economy.

But a recent move by state authorities threatens to tarnish that reputation. In a twist that has caught many here by surprise, hundreds of schools across Karnataka state, of which Bangalore is the capital, face closure for making English their chosen language in the classroom.

Amid an upwelling of activism promoting indigenous languages across India, the state government announced in September that any campus established within the last 12 years must teach in the local tongue, Kannada, or shut its doors. The fates of nearly 300,000 students now hang in the balance as 2,000 schools, almost all of them private institutions, fret over what to do before the ax falls in April.


Officials say they are merely enforcing a 1994 court ruling that prescribes Kannada as the primary language of instruction in elementary schools.

But the crackdown has triggered vociferous protest from educators who complain of infringement on academic freedom, parents who see English as the ticket to their children’s success and business leaders who warn that Bangalore could lose its competitive edge if it shuns one of its greatest assets.

“This is a bad policy. They didn’t think of the consequences,” said G.S. Sharma, head of an association of 1,000 private schools in this southern state, the vast majority of which teach in English. “The government is forcing us, like dictators, to follow its policy.”

Across the country, movements to emphasize indigenous languages have scored successes, most notably changes in the names of some of India’s biggest cities. Bombay is now Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata, and Madras goes by Chennai. Even Bangalore officially became Bengaluru a few months ago, though the new appellation has yet to catch on.

Those who support ditching colonial-era designations hail it as a way of scrubbing India clean of its subjugated past, particularly the centuries of oppressive British rule.

But globalization has made English an indispensable ingredient in India’s economic rise of the last decade. It is still spoken in the corridors of power in New Delhi, the capital. And to the frustration of advocates of local languages, almost all educated Indians speak English as their second, or in some cases even their first, language.

In Karnataka, native speakers of Kannada make up about 70% of the state’s 53 million people. A Dravidian tongue, Kannada is one of polyglot India’s official languages, along with more than a dozen others, including Hindi, Tamil and Bengali.

Local linguistic pride runs strong among some segments of the population here. When Rajkumar, a film star and icon among Kannada advocates, died in April, thousands of fans mobbed the streets of Bangalore in mourning, then went on a rampage when they were prevented from viewing his body. They burned buses and battled police in clashes that left several people dead.

Some Kannada advocates also speak disdainfully of Anglophone professionals as greedy sellouts who have turned their backs on local culture for a chance to make money as “cyber coolies” in call centers and engineering firms.

“The mother tongue is the right of the child, not the choice of the parents,” said Chandrashekhar Patil, president of a Kannada literary organization and a supporter of indigenous-language schools. “We do provide for teaching English, but at a later stage, after two or three years of primary education.”

A high-ranking state education official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said pressure from pro-Kannada groups that are vocal and powerful, but in a minority, goaded the government into enforcing the 1994 court ruling. For 12 years, authorities had ignored violations, aware of the popularity of education in English and grateful that the mushrooming private institutions could take some of the heat off the state’s own overcrowded, underfunded and, in many cases, substandard public schools.

Disagreement within

The decision to crack down on Anglophone schools sparked some internal dissent, the official said.

“We all cautioned that it would send the wrong signal, that it would affect Karnataka’s development,” he said.

Basavaraj S. Horatti, the state education minister, acknowledged that enforcement of the court ruling had been dilatory until now. But that was no excuse, he said, for schools to continue flouting it.

“Now we are taking action. One hundred percent, the government is correct,” Horatti declared. “It’s not a mistake of ours. It’s a mistake of the parents and the management” of the schools.

He said the state system would have no problem absorbing students whose schools are closed down -- an assurance doubted by many and from which parents take scant comfort. He also noted that the hundreds of English-language schools established before 1994 were exempt from the ruling and would remain in business. His own daughter graduated from such a campus, Horatti said.

In fact, so many children of state government ministers -- 71%, according to a local newspaper -- attend Anglophone schools that critics accuse officials of hypocrisy.

Some are defiant

Opponents of the crackdown have pledged to fight back, daring the government to forcibly close down their campuses and risk a public-relations nightmare complete with photos of forlorn children stranded on sidewalks with their backpacks, unable to get an education. A recent rally in behalf of the affected schools attracted hundreds of cheering supporters.

The schools’ backers are hopeful that another court ruling may come down in the next few months either reversing or relaxing the 1994 decision. The education official who spoke on condition of anonymity said many in his department also hoped for a court-ordered reprieve, which would provide political cover for the government to back down.

“That will save our skins,” he said. “It’s a futile case we are arguing.”

That the debate over language has spawned such an emotional and political uproar is perhaps unsurprising, given India’s history. In the 1950s, not long after the country gained independence, violent language riots eventually forced the government to carve two states into four, along linguistic lines.

English has always elicited ambivalent feelings here, as the language of imperialism yet also as a tool that allowed India’s freedom fighters to unite and agitate against the British.

“Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose -- all the great Indian leaders learned English,” said Sharma, the private school association head.

The importance of English is not lost on 9-year-old Niba Sultana, an apple-cheeked, pigtailed fourth-grader at the private New Generation School in Bangalore.

“They say that if you learn English, you can get a good job and learn good manners,” she said -- with excellent enunciation.