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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Dalit activist Chandra Bhan

'Let all Indian languages wither away'

March 08, 2007


Let all Indian languages wither away. Let all Indians speak English by 2060. Let this happen and India will be a better nation, feels Dalit activist Chandra Bhan.

In the second part of his interview to Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt, he says the key for Dalit success and emancipation is English, and only English.

Part I: 'Indian languages carry the legacy of caste'

Something good about your identity, community and culture will also vanish by abandoning your language.

What is my identity? What is worth preserving in us? See, after we unveiled the goddess of English, critics said that the English-speaking Dalits will get distanced from the traditional knowledge system. I want to say clearly that the entire fight of the Dalit movement is to somehow get rid of the traditional knowledge system and occupation.

Like, the dhobis (washermen) of India have profound and exceptional knowledge of creating detergents from the dung of donkeys. It's a complicated process. Do you think those Dalits enjoy making detergent from dung? I want to tell these people -- who are against us in our endeavour to know English -- let us exchange our knowledge system.

You give us teaching jobs and other decent jobs and you take the knowledge of donkey dung. Without any training, without going to school or colleges or without learning from skilled teachers, Dalits can skin a dead cow in an hour without messing up or cutting various parts of the body. It is (skinning of dead animals) a real art acquired with profound knowledge of the body science of animals.

We want to gift our talent to other castes. You require exceptional level of human patience if you collect human shit in your bare hands and don't vomit. Dalits have been doing it for ages. Please take this knowledge immediately and allow us to go to CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)!

Alok Rai, the Hindi legend Premchand's grandson, has also protested against Dalits abandoning ethnic languages. He is a professor of English at Delhi University. He has a dog named Rocky. He talks to his dog only in English. Even his dog understands English and he doesn't want Dalits to know English. What hypocrisy!

Don't you agree that Indian languages have their own beauty and are reflecting Indian ethos and culture? What will happen to it once the whole of India abandons ethnic languages?

Those in India today who are considered advanced are generally those who have distanced themselves from their traditions and culture. They know that Western societies are a cradle of modern civilisation, technology and science. Indians should adopt Western society's idea of equality, modern science and knowledge.

Aren't you late? The arguments are coming up that Asian values are better and more tolerant than Western values. Asia is rising and Westerners are readying themselves to learn from Asia, also.

That's the beauty of Western societies. They have magnanimity to accept if something is better than their own system.

How do you see Prime Minister Manmohan Singh? He is on the top and his competitor's knowledge of English or lack of it didn't help them. Dr Singh's human qualities took him to the top.

Let me ask you differently. Measure India's progress in the IT sector after deleting English from India's map. English helps in some way or other.

But you are making a political issue of language. Those IT guys, both, Brahmins and Dalits, know English as well as their mother tongue. In Silicon Valley they have transformed and transplanted Tamil, Telugu and Gujarati culture.

It was made possible because they know English! English is the key factor behind their success in Silicon Valley.

So you want to say that in today's India people who know English are respected more?

Yes.

So, why don't you fight against this false value system that gives prominence to English in a non-English country?

If Brahmins, who traditionally dominated society and were considered equal to God, do not know good English, they are not respected today.

So, the problem doesn't lie in you being Dalit but something is terribly wrong in the standards of Indian society, right?

But, that will not make non-English speaking Brahmins fall below the untouchables in Indian society. Dalits have a double disadvantage, that's my point. I think acceptance of the supremacy of English is a grim reality. It's not a wrong thing to do.

Even when a passerby on Indian roads overhears someone speaking in English he respects him more than other guys. This recognition will help in nation building.

Let all Indian languages wither away and let all Indians speak English by 2060 or so. Many of the regional problems will disappear. The fights between Kannada and Telugu or Tamil will be solved. India will be a better nation.

You are describing a horror scene!

(Laughs heartily) Indian languages are oppressive. Since the last thousand years or so Indian culture and languages have been oppressive. Many great social reformers have come and gone but the caste system still exists.

In the last 60 years, Dalits who knew English only they have been successful. I believe that the British Empire came to India too late and left too early.

Without England, India would have been 20 republics by now and not better than the Afghanistan of today.

Because of the British, India has the first-run advantage of having a modern education system, the system of Railways which binds the Indian subcontinent as a nation. Britishers gave us the postal service, canal and water system while the princely states built only palaces.

What the British got for us was casteless and it was for the use of all sections.

Modern knowledge came to India via English. Check the syllabus of the Banaras Hindu University before English arrived.

Your nephew Captain Pradeep is giving away his one month's salary so that you can survive. Isn't it part of Indian family culture?

Giving -- an act of giving is not a part of Indian culture. The values of giving are unparalleled in the US and Germany. It is not true to say that only Indians have family culture.

How and when did you start this movement?

I was studying the facts about Dalit education. Why have Dalits remained illiterate?

I found at the Teen Murti library archives that not a single student was found in the indigenous education system barring Calcutta. This was so because all the schools were run inside the temple premises or inside the homes of Pandits.

There was no way a Dalit could enter a Brahmin's home or the temples at that time, in the 1850s.

The Muslims got education because learning centres were in madarssas or mosques.

Dalits were barred from there too. Only when the British started modern education in 1854 after Charles Wood's Dispatch, (popularly known as the 'Magna Carta' of English education. Wood gave clever recommendation for spread of British governance and education in India through English) did Macaulay's system came into force.

In 1857, the British announced that admission should not be denied on basis of caste, gender or class. There were riots in certain parts of India, people burnt schools. By 1890, the British had to start separate schools for untouchables. Some of which exist today, although, for different reasons.

Lord Macaulay is the man who also developed the Indian Penal Code and told Indians that everybody is equal before the law. Before him Brahmins used to get away with nominal penalty for a serious crime and for the same crime Dalits could be killed.

How successful are you in convincing Dalits to adopt English?

On the day of Lord Macaulay's birthday I said on the invitation letter that 'hereafter, any Dalit parents or their relatives who knows English should whisper A,B,C,D in the ear of a new-born child within two minutes of his or her birth and the first picture shown (to the child) should be of the English goddess.'

The child will not understand but the Dalit person will have a sense of responsibility to teach English to a newborn.

I believe India should adopt the American way of Affirmative Action, it should extend beyond government jobs. It should be extended in business and economy. Dr J J Irani is looking into the issue of reservation in private businesses.

I also recommend Dalit capitalism to integrate Dalits and non-Dalits as it happened in the US after the race riots. Americans have given a stake to Blacks in every walk of life. They are into a supplier-dealership chain.

For instance, army uniforms, Blacks may be given the order to supply buttons but they will have some contract. Infosys can make a commitment to get ink or paper from Dalits. GM has Black auto dealers. In America around 5 lakh couples are such where the husband is Black.

I believe, in India social contradictions are such that Dalits and Brahmins will come (together) on one platform. In villages, Dalits are tormented by OBCs and not Brahmins.

Kanshi Ram did everything possible to unite OBCs, Dalits and minorities but Muslims or OBCs didn't accept him as a leader, finally he figured out that it is these (OBCs and Muslims) people, whom he considered as the natural allies of Dalits, were tormenting the Dalits.

Brahmins have been thrown out of the political system so Mayawati has taken them into the Bahujan Samaj!

Do you want to kill Indian languages?

I don't want to kill it. I want a museum of Indian languages, culture and traditions.

Lock Indian culture in the museum. Let it go to the museum and let all of us speak English.


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