English Speakers Beat Caste System

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In New Delhi, knowledge of the English language is being pursued with new vigor six decades after India’s independence from British colonial rule. Long desired as the medium of communication in the knowledge economy, the Queen’s language is now seen as a “social leveller” that helps its speakers to break free from the pernicious caste system that rules Indian culture.


Dalits consider English to be the key to the modern world. Dalit is a self-designation for a group of people traditionally regarded as low caste or untouchables (outcastes), the majority of whom are dark-skinned and believed to be the blacks of Asia. Bedeviled Chief Minister of Utar Pradesh, Kumari Mayawati in her fourth tenure (May 2007 – date), made English compulsory in primary education in the state. The Chief Minister herself is a Dalit. While importance of foreign language in a globalised world is valid for all, the Chief Minister’s decision faced stiff opposition from rivals and conservatives who consider the new emphasis as cultural subversion.


The foreign language is seen by social reformists as a tool for transition in a society where the caste system sentences some to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Indian society considers the status of the Dalits as destined or preordained. Bhalchandra Mungekar, an educationist explains, “Jobs create vertical and horizontal social mobility while caste, which is immobile, played an ascriptive role”. Acquiring knowledge of the English language provides access to new skills and opens the door to an achievement-oriented option. The pro-English campaign has its roots in the social reformist and architect of the Indian constitution Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who considered English a tool for social liberation. Ambedkar who was himself a Dalit saw English as a game changer and considered the Dalit status as man-made.


Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891 — 1956), also known as Babasaheb, was an Indian jurist and political leader who was born into a poor family of the Untouchable caste. Ambedkar spent his life fighting against social discrimination and the Hindu caste system, overcoming numerous obstacles, to become one of the first of the caste to obtain college education in India, going on to study in prestigious US and British institutions. Ambedkar returned to India as a famous scholar and lawyer before becoming India’s first law Minister. Author of the ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ Ambedkar was a fierce critic of Mahatma Gandhi, who as an abolitionist of the practice nonetheless held a more romanticised view of the caste system, calling the untouchables Harijan (children of God). Ambedkar rejected the term "Harijan" as condescending.


Another Ghandi, Rahul Ghandi grandson of Indira Ghandi and no relation of Mahatma’s, has been ridiculed for his love for Dalits following his much publicized lodging in the hut of a Dalit woman in the company of visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in January 2009. Ghandi is popularly favoured as India's Prime Minister in waiting.

Last Updated on Saturday, 12 November 2011 12:05
Written by Fumy Ayodele

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