The topic of English as the medium of instruction in schools and colleges has been studied extensively in India but an area that has not received sufficient attention is if and to what extent it is able to promote human dignity and human rights, even if marginally. In the last couple of decades, more than in the past, literacy rate jumped up across the country and education is imparted in both the regional languages and English. This feat is possible largely due to a large network of schools that employed regional languages for instruction, be they private or state-funded. By far, the English medium schools were located in cities and towns, leaving the rural poor, of all social groups, deprived of the benefits of education in English medium. English education has been always more expensive and it was primarily meant for the privileged ones. The poor of all social classes, lacking financial resources, sent their children to the schools that used local languages for teaching.
Those who studied in English medium had several advantages. From the knowledge point of view, they had greater access to subjects such as medicine, engineering, information technology, computer sciences etc. Employment-wise they had better opportunities that enabled them to go beyond the towns and country to overseas, and, salary-wise, they were better paid. While this has been the trend, it is not always the case: many who studied in regional languages at schools later shifted to English medium and fared very well, competing with their peers. For decades debates have been going on the advantages of employing mother tongue, at least in the primary schools if not beyond, so that a child grasps the subject matter better. Crazy rush to send kids to the English medium schools, some argue, is making people neglect their mother tongues. Debates on the importance of regional languages and the role of English in the learning processes are unending, and those on both sides have merits.
For now, let’s focus on the argument that studying in English medium is potentially capable of bringing a shift in the students’ understanding of themselves, of their dignity and rights, and how they can activate their agency. Undoubtedly, all of this can happen even if one studies in the local language and it should not be overlooked. In Indian cultural context it is crucial to recall that access to education in English medium is invariably connected to one’s social status, which reinforces one’s understanding of being privileged or born into a privileged class. In contrast, when the students coming from a fragile background, i.e. of discrimination and denial and deprivation, English empowers them so that they can negotiate with the world and find a new socio-cultural space. Confidence and self-respect, gained by studying in English medium, is able to direct the poor and the discriminated students to forging ahead, and even reach newer heights.
In 1835 Macauley introduced English as the medium of instruction in India when only Sanskrit and Persian were available to pursue studies. Scholars and historians question the intent of Macauley but retrospectively one can see the impact and influence this move would have on the history and destiny of the nation, on the peoples and on the marginalized. Immediately it opened a window for the people to see the world from a broader perspective, to counter the superstitious mind-set, and to embrace reforms. At times directly and at times indirectly, Down the decades, English education empowered the poor to confront the inequalities and injustices, and become aware of their dignity and rights. In a country where Constitution declares that all are equal but culture subtly states that we are anything but equal, English education provides the poor, either the tools or the voice required to fight for dignity and rights.
While there are several attempts to make education accessible to all, many Indian states, for various reasons are not able to provide it in English medium. Andhra Pradesh, a southern state, and Delhi are in the forefront in introducing English as the medium of instruction in many of the government funded schools. Those threatened by this move question it and ridicule it but the poor have welcomed it. Kancha Ilaiah, a social scientist, strongly believes and advocates that English medium is the best anti-dote to fight social evils including inequality and caste discrimination. Even if it is not able to bring huge structural changes, English-medium education in India is able to initiate and strengthen the processes that bring greater awareness about human dignity and rights and makes many participate in these conversations.