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How English Creates a New Caste System in India

Contemporary India has created a system in which the majority of Indian youth find little educational and economic value in learning their native and regional language.

By Sunil Bhatia


Indian people pose with copies of J.K. Rowling’s new book, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, on July 31st, 2016. (Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

Gauri, a 60-year-old grandmother from Pune, India, wanted her grandchildren to learn English in a private school. But her children could not afford the fees and there was no one at home who could supplement their English language instruction.

“See, we are not that strong in English so we’ll not put them in English medium schools,” she says. “Why show your fake teeth?”

Gauri frequently likens not knowing English to having “fake teeth.” Learning English, she believes, gives them real teeth. But as she looks at her family’s prospects, Gauri only feels toothless.

Gauri is not alone in her despondency. Fluency in English is endemic of the deep class-based divisions that continue to plague Indian society. A 2014 report from the Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy in India found that only 20 percent of the population speaks English, and only 4 percent of the population speaks the language fluently. The report emphasizes that men in India who spoke fluent English earned 34 percent higher wages than those who had some fluency.

The majority of the population (approximately one billion) doesn’t speak English. But the language has emerged as one of the most crucial determinants of social status, income, prestige, and employment. That means 4 percent of the country’s population has the ability to determine, control, and oppress the majority 96 percent simply by virtue of knowing English.

In his new book, Inglorious Empire, writer and politician Shashi Tharoor lays out the catastrophic effects of 200 years of British colonization of India. The English language was not a gift to Indians, he writes, but an instrument of colonialism that was primarily intended for the benefit of meeting the administrative needs of the British colonial masters.

In 1835, Lord Macaulay famously provided the rationale for teaching English to a select group of Indians, “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

The English language’s colonial legacy, however, continues to be embraced and revered by a minority of elites and has become the language of aspiration, intelligence, modernity, and mobility, for millions of middle- and working-class Indians.

English has always been the language of the elite caste, an indelible and powerful feature of India’s imperial history, as popularized in the PBS series, Indian Summers. Yet, today, English’s dominance is an integral part of a corporate global economy and modern labor market that privileges the lives of those Indians who can speak the language.

Over the last decade, as a researcher, I have been collecting hundreds of stories of how globalization has shaped the identity formation of affluent, middle, and urban poor youth inPune, India. Through this ethnographic research, I’ve learned that a new form of psychological imperialism has emerged.

The competition for gaining admission to prestigious private “English medium” schools is fierce. It starts early: Thousands of parents every year spend enormous amounts of time and money preparing their preschool aged children for English language interviews and tests.

The English language divide, similar to the caste category, plays a vital role in determining whom they will marry, which friends they will have, where they will work and shop, what schools they will attend, what books they will read, where they will travel, how much they will earn, and what media they will consume.

Additionally, tales of Indian writers of English novels and non-fiction—people like Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga, Rohinton Mistry, and Jeet Thail—gaining recognition at home and abroad support this notion of the English supremacy. As Anjali Mody, an Indian journalist who writes regularly on India’s educational issues, writes, “India’s obsession with English is depriving many children of a real education.”

Zainab, a 22-year-old college student, says that non-English speakers like her are frequently referred to as “Ghati” — a pejorative term used to exclude the majority of the youth who studied at her college.

The rise of a rapidly expanding service industry has created many small and large English language institutes and private schools across India. One such institute is called The English Clinic, perhaps associating lack of English speaking skills with some form of pathology or disease.

Wasim, a 23-year-old slum-dweller, wanted to speak fluent English so he could get a job in a call center to help pay for his sisters’ weddings. Wasim often associates being rich with the ability to speak English. He says if he had some money, the first thing he would do is go to college to become fluent in English.

My research also revealed that, despite speaking fluent English, Indian call center workers were subjected to hours of training in accent reduction, communication style, voice modulation, and personality development.

The responsibility of communicating clearly with foreign clients with the right accent, tone, choice of words and emotion falls directly on the individual call center worker in India. Every year thousands of call center agents received training to remove their MTI’s (Mother Tongue Influence) or the influence of their native inflection on English.

The leading icons of India — Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Virat Kohli, Amitabh Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai — may be multilingual, but they are especially lauded for their their ability to speak “good English” and make India proud on the global stage. Contemporary India has created a system in which the majority of Indian youth find little educational and economic value in learning their native and regional language.

Undoubtedly, English needs to be taught in the globalized economy, but not at the expense of degrading and erasing the richness of India’s linguistic diversity of 22 regional languages and about 1,000 dialects.

Religious foundations of caste practices are still deeply entrenched in Indian society and efforts to remove caste barriers are part of an ongoing struggle. English as the language of status and achievement in India is creating another layer of societal hierarchy, internalized oppression, and control that the country can do without.

Colonization did not end when the British flag went down and the Indian flag went up. The effects of colonization linger in the psychological realm — where self and identity become subjected to a second form of colonization.