Some years ago, a renowned Indian academic stunned me during a casual dinner conversation. I was talking to her about my writings in Hindi as well as English. Writing in Hindi was important for pedagogic reasons, she agreed. But she was shocked when I insisted that I write some of my articles originally in Hindi. “Languages like Hindi and Tamil are good for street conversation. But surely you cannot do conceptual thinking in these languages, the way you can in English and French,” she said.
That conversation has stayed with me, for it revealed in a flash something we all take for granted. She had said what our elites believe but do not say openly. Indian languages are believed to be inferior languages and those who express themselves principally in an Indian language are assumed to be inferior beings.
Like gender and race, inequality of language is so obvious and omnipresent that we take it for granted. We stop noticing the elephant in the room. Advertisements for English speaking courses, ever mushrooming English medium “public” schools, everyone at social conversations trying to impress one another with their limited English, parents speaking to their children in rudimentary English. We see and experience it every day. But we dare not name this linguistic apartheid.
The language question lies at the heart of the current controversy about the civil services examination of the UPSC. Much of the debate in the English media distracts our attention away from this core issue. The agitators themselves are much clearer, though they could have posed this issue more sharply.
The protest is not against an aptitude test per se, though some protesters seem to say so. All over the world, aptitude tests are a standard way of judging a candidate’s suitability for a job. You can dispute whether a particular aptitude test fits the bill, but not the very idea of an aptitude test. There can be a debate about the right mix of skills needed for being a civil servant. (My colleague, Manish Sisodia, thinks you need an “attitude test” — a test of social skills and emotional intelligence — for this job.) But it would be hard to dispute that certain basic analytical, linguistic and quantitative skills are a must.
Similarly, though there is something to the humanities versus science subjects dispute, this is not the heart of the matter. It is true that over the years, students with a background in engineering and management have come to do much better than others in the civil services examination. But then, medicine, engineering and management tend to draw a disproportionately bigger share of the talent pool of our school-leaving students. Science students may be more familiar with the format of the CSAT, but it is disingenuous to argue that tests of reasoning and quantitative skills are necessarily loaded in continued…