English as an unsanctioned language
Los Angeles Times
January 17, 2007
 
English as an unsanctioned language
 
Schools in southern India, where call centers are
king, face closure if they don't start teaching in
their native tongue.
By Henry Chu, Times Staff Writer
January 17, 2007
 
BANGALORE, INDIA  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. 
 
 
henry.chu@latimes.com