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The language of choice

Supreme Court judgment marks an important turn in the debate on language education policy.

Research has maintained that familiarity with school language is crucial to progress in early years and while the verdict does not counter this position, it seeks to enable an element of choice in education. Research has maintained that familiarity with school language is crucial to progress in early years and while the verdict does not counter this position, it seeks to enable an element of choice in education.

Shivali Tukdeo

Supreme Court judgment marks an important turn in the debate on language education policy.

In 1876, Ramabai, 18, set off on a long and arduous journey from south India to Bengal and the north to become a scholar. Trained in Sanskrit scriptures, philosophy and languages early on, Ramabai would soon be conferred the title “Pandita”, speak seven languages and go on to write engaging scholarly books in Marathi and English. Travels between different languages and knowledge systems were central to Ramabai’s educational experience and her work.

Language continued to occupy centrestage in the story of India’s formal education as well and its steady expansion over the course of the last century. Despite the tradition of plurilingual pedagogic practices and an outpouring of research on the importance of home-language(s) in education, the place of language remains contested and forever unresolved. Given that considerations of employability, higher educational opportunities and regional pride increasingly govern the perceptions of language in education, no policy decision can confine itself to educational ideals alone.

In this context, the judgment by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court (dated May 7) offers a significant turn in a series of long-standing dilemmas on language education policy. Responding to the government order on the medium of instruction in 1989 that eventually became the language policy in Karnataka in 1994, the bench considered the following questions: (a) Who is the rightful authority to decide the medium of instruction for students? (b) What does “mother tongue”mean and who is the rightful authority to decide what can be called mother tongue in a particular context? (c) Can education in one’s mother tongue be imposed? (d) Is the right to choose implicit in the right to education? Discussions of each of these questions were framed within the scope of three articles in the Constitution: Article 350A, which calls for the state and local authorities to ensure adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue to children from linguistic minority communities; Article 19, which is entitled “right to freedom”, including freedom of speech and expression, freedom to form unions, move and practice a profession; and Article 21A, which resolves that the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age 6 to14.

Thinking through the questions of medium of instruction in light of the constitutional scheme, the judgment involves four important points. Adhering to a rather narrow interpretation of the term “mother tongue” the judgment holds that in the context of the Constitution, mother tongue would mean “the language of the linguistic minority in a state” and it would be the child or the parents who will have decisive power to declare their language as the mother tongue. Second, the bench also holds that “the child, or, on his [sic] behalf, his parent or guardian, has a right to freedom of choice with regard to the medium of instruction in which he would like to be educated at the primary stage in school.” Considering a liberal interpretation of the terms “freedom of expression’’ the judgment holds that the right to freedom of speech includes the freedom of a child to be educated in a language of “the choice of the child”. Finally, the judgment holds that the state cannot impose mother tongue as a medium of instruction.

The verdict privileges Article 19 over others and foregrounds individual liberty and choice as primary drivers of access to education. The judgment does not engage with issues of pedagogy, educational philosophy and instructional practices. Research on right to education has maintained that familiarity with school language is crucial in enrolments and progress in early years and while the verdict does not counter this position, it seeks to enable an element of choice in education. In the same line, the judgment suggests a shift in the state’s role as loco parentis and goes on to re-order the power of authority in education.

The distributive authority in determining educational access and content is positioned alongside the arguments of freedom, individual liberty, choice and lesser involvement of the state. This narrative, while in contrast with much that stands for right to education, is closely connected to the dramatic growth in private schooling and the manufacturing of English as a “cure all”. The current judgment will not affect Kannada as a subject in class I to IV but its broad orientation does signal a turn.

The writer is a member, faculty in education programme, at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

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