Dr Gopa Nayak is a writer and an academician. She has a DPhil from the University of Oxford and her first Master’s degree is in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. She writes in both Odia and English and her poems have been included in anthologies of poetry of women. She can be contacted at gopanayak[at]gmail.com.
Mr Modi’s choice of speaking in English has caught the attention of his fans and critics alike. The former group has appreciated the effort, in going so far as saying, it shows our Prime Minister knows English as well as Hindi and Gujarati as if, this linguistic feat would add to his CV as the Prime Minister. However, his critics feel that he should not have gone into this game at all instead he should have stuck to his popular rhetoric in Hindi even if his Hindi speech would have seemed incongruous with the setting. Some feel that his advisors may have been prompted by the fact the majority of the crowd at Sriharikota who hail from South India would have felt alienated given the recent commotion over the direction from the centre to use Hindi in social media. It could also be that English is preferable to Hindi when it comes to wooing the top brains of the country.
The question is – should English be used by the Prime Minster of a country where it is a foreign language, leave alone the Prime Minister changing his persona just to appease a certain section of people? I mean no offence to the scientists; they make India proud and have put Indian space mission as one the most laudable achievements in the international arena. However, these scientists are Indian nationals and they also seem to be proud of their citizenship otherwise they would not have chosen Sriharikota when other greener pastures could have been open for them. The fact remains that as a nation we have adopted English alongside Hindi to be used for all official purposes albeit after protests from southern states back in the sixties bringing about an amicable arrangement in the use of both Hindi and English.
It seems Mr Modi as one of the most popular Prime Ministers that the country has ever seen was reiterating the stand that he is comfortable with both Hindi and English. However it must be accepted that his statesmanship is better articulated in Hindi rather than in English as his speech in Sriharikota reflected. In this sense, he should perhaps speak in Hindi when communicating with foreign diplomats as is the practice followed by Chinese, Japanese and even French leaders. That would send out the signal that we are a proud nation that values its cultural heritage which includes our vast repertoire of languages and dialects. This also aligns with the perception of the vast majority of Indians who have no qualms in using Hindi even if it is not their mother tongue be it for talking to a neighbour who does not understand any other language or be it watching Hindi movies. We don’t hesitate to use Hindi when we feel it would give us an edge in business or employment. The Prime Minister as the representative of the people of India has perhaps sent out the signal through his speech at Sriharikota that he is not against the use of English. The preferred use of Hindi by the Prime Minister should not be considered as synonymous to imposing Hindi on non-Hindi speaking citizens. However, why Hindi was chosen over other regional languages to be used at the national level and if and should it be changed is a matter of debates and discussion but as of now it has been unanimously agreed that both Hindi and English are to be used in India.
As an Indian I feel blessed that I am exposed to all kinds of diversity not only in language, but in food, dress and, not to mention, religion. That is, perhaps, the greatest asset of India as a nation. As an Indian I have realised that my acceptance of languages which are not same as my mother tongue, in my own country, has instilled in me a kind of flexibility and adaptability which has been my strength during my long overhauls in foreign settings. Not only that, but my English, has, at times, given me an edge over my European counterparts who in their love for their mother tongue are not comfortable speaking in English even though they are closer to the language compared to me both physically and culturally. However, that does not mean that I will give up my Indian heritage. Some of our English educated intellectuals sometimes give the impression that speaking in a foreign language should have to be culturally aligned with everything foreign. This is evident even in our national channels among some of the English news readers who sound more enthusiastic when talking about the World Cup compared to Rath Yatra. This is what irks the nationalists of the country.
We should be proud of our culture and heritage as we should be in our expertise in making a foreign language our forte. Our familiarity, which may perhaps not be termed as expertise, in using English has given us an edge in the international arena where other countries like China and Japan are lagging behind with all their resources and policies to improve the English language skills of their nationals. These facts should not be overlooked by policymakers when they try to formulate language rules and policies. English should not be relegated to a back seat under any pretext be it the Central government’s directions to States or even State level policies to appease the sentiments of vast majority of people who find it difficult to acquire a foreign language. India needs English not only as a link language for communication within India but for education and employment opportunities both inside and outside India.
The Prime Minister’s speech at Sriharikota, if anything, has highlighted the fact that language is a powerful tool which can work wonders when handled with pride and prudence.