Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Languages can be under threat in many ways. My language, Oriya, is under a particular kind of threat – a rather dangerous kind, because it goes unnoticed by speakers and specialists alike. It is a language which has arguably a thousand year old literary tradition. It is a scheduled language, and is therefore viewed as a privileged language. There are structures to support the language in the form of Sahitya Academy, publishing houses, university departments of Oriya, etc. Therefore the observation that it is under threat might appear strange.

It is now widely believed in Orissa and elsewhere in the country that English is the language of opportunity and empowerment. So parents want to send their children to English medium schools. There is demand for introducing English in the curriculum in non-English medium schools as early as possible. Urban Oriya speaking children these days become literate in English and Hindi before they become literate in Oriya. No one seems to mind. There is societal encouragement for children to learn English. It might appear to be an exaggeration, but it looks as though many have come to believe that more than half the battle in life is won if one acquires command of English. And exposure to it does not come from the classroom alone any more.

For information and knowledge the younger generation is no more dependent on the classroom. There is a growing tendency among the young to minimize reading for information, and explore other resources for the same, such as the Internet and television. This is what takes them to English. Then thanks to various reasons, including corruption, alongside of the formal education system, there has developed a fairly strong informal one, quite efficient and organized, in the form of coaching classes, for primarily science subjects, at all levels. Most who are willing to spend money for some quality education, join the informal system while still enrolled in the formal one. In the informal system the language of study tends to be English, of whatever quality – English, because it is the language of science and technical education in India.

Now if for our high school generation English is the language of information and knowledge, Hindi for them is the language of entertainment, thanks to Hindi cinema and television serials. And then Hindi is being increasingly viewed as a language that considerably facilitates mobility in India. People know that learning Hindi helps.

So what motivation is there for the generation at high school to study Oriya for purposes other than passing the school examination? He knows his Oriya and speaks the language in day-to-day life. If he still has time after private coaching and of course money, he is willing to spend the same to improve his communication skills in English.

If this situation persists, then in two or three generations the domain of use of Oriya would largely shrink, and it would become just the language for informal communication. That would be terrible for the language with such a glorious tradition. Nothing will give me greater happiness than the reassurance that my apprehensions entirely baseless.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Recently I attended a three-day seminar at the university of Pondicherry organized by their department of Philosophy on “Noam Chomsky and the Contemporary World”, but this is not a piece on the proceedings. It is about a demonstration that demanded cancellation of the seminar.

In the evening on the second day, we were told that that morning the local BJP activists had organized a demonstration at the university demanding the cancellation of the seminar. Reasons: Chomsky is a foreigner and he is anti-India. He has called India “a terrorist state”, and the university must not honour him by organizing a national seminar on his work. The organizers looked visibly worried, probably apprehending the situation to worsen on the third day. It was averted apparently by a press release by the university which seems to have mentioned that the seminar was not eulogizing Chomsky but was sharply critical of him too. There was indeed some eminently avoidable Chomsky bashing by one or two persons, and this was what really seemed to have helped the university, and of course the seminar! It seems that the seminar in the process received a good deal of publicity in the media, but let it not be said that things were stage managed for this.

Quite a few didn’t know what Chomsky had actually said, and in what context. If “all states are terrorist states”, India is a terrorist state, but such an observation certainly does not amount to any special censor of any one particular state on this account. In any case, most at the seminar didn’t seem particularly interested to find out. They were not hostile to Chomsky, on the contrary, many of them supported or were at least sympathetic to his political views. Almost none of them were sympathetic towards the demonstrators, but they were of the opinion that if Chomsky indeed said such a thing, it was understandable that a nationalist party had taken offence. And no one seemed interested in explaining the context of the “offensive” statement to the activists; the feeling was that it would be a futile exercise. No one would be willing to listen because they had made up their mind.

Therefore the university did not strongly construct its response around the right to speak, academic freedom, and its right to freely discuss ideas on any issue in an academic manner; what it did by way of justification of this academic event was project the fact that the seminar criticized Chomsky too! But who can fault the university for this – which university today wants additional problems, as though it does not already have plenty? That way the seminar was saved, and there was no demonstration and no unpleasant incident in the campus.

Many obvious and disturbing questions arise in this connection. Are we becoming increasingly more intolerant ? Do we lack in self-confidence? We call ourselves a self-confident country; then why are we so upset about an opinion? Is it because it comes from an outsider? That is, we might say whatever negative things we wish to about ourselves but will not tolerate a thing from an outsider. If this is true, then it’s a mindset out of sync with the liberal outlook that we must necessarily have, for the collective well being of our plural society, if for nothing else!