NEP 2020: Elephant in the room, examines P Chidambaram

By: |
August 16, 2020 6:15 AM

The complex issue of language has been complicated further by the NEP's insistence on the three languages principle.

Students' Federation of India (SFI) members during a protest rally against the National Education Policy-2020, in Kolkata (PTI Image)Students’ Federation of India (SFI) members during a protest rally against the National Education Policy-2020, in Kolkata (PTI Image)

The New Education Policy is mostly Motherhood and Apple Pie. How how can any one find fault with a statement that reads, “Providing universal access to quality education is the key to India’s continued ascent, and leadership on the global stage in terms of economic growth, social justice and equality, scientific advancement, national integration, and cultural preservation”? (Introduction)

But there is more in the lines of the NEP and between the lines. In this essay, I wish to examine the NEP in so far as the policy deals with language and school education.

Teach English or teach in English
The central — and vexed — question is language. The NEP states that “the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible.” (para 4.11). I support the use of the home language/mother tongue as the medium of instruction for children whose parents opt for it, and there will be millions of parents who will do so. Nevertheless, the reasons for the hesitation in making an unqualified policy statement on medium of instruction are evident.

It is well known that the policy of home language as the medium of instruction faces spirited opposition because (1) it goes against the prevailing view of a very large proportion of the people; (2) it cannot be implemented unless private for-profit schools are barred; and (3) the government itself is not sure whether the objective of quality education will be realised if classes beyond Grade 5 or Grade 8 are taught in the home/local language. Restoring the importance of English in schools was a powerful weapon that Ms Mamata Banerjee used to slay the CPI (M) in West Bengal. Re-introduction of teaching English in schools was a reform proudly announced by Mr Adityanath, chief minister of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh.

Three languages principle
The complex issue of language has been complicated further by the NEP’s insistence on the three languages principle. I shall assume that the first language will be taught as a subject and will be the medium of instruction, the second will be taught up to an advanced level, and the third up to the level of imparting functional literacy.

It is good if a child learns more than one language, especially in a multi-lingual country, but how many languages, which and where must be left to the child and the parent. The NEP has acknowledged this freedom but with a sting in the tail: “The three languages learned by children will be the choices of States, regions, and of course the students themselves, so long as at least two of the three languages are native to India” (para 4.15).

Two paragraphs below, there is a whole paragraph devoted to Sanskrit that will “be offered at all levels of school ….as an option in the three-language formula” (para 4.17).

The intention behind the twin policy prescriptions on language is evident and certainly not innocent. As a consequence, all political parties in Tamil Nadu have united to oppose the NEP as a whole.

Consider this: for a Tamil, which will be the other language native to India? Obviously, by reason of government’s patronage, it would have to be Hindi or Sanskrit, bringing the spectre of ‘Hindi imposition’ or ‘Sanskrit (read Brahmin) domination’ — both anathema in Tamil Nadu. Let me warn the government: the NEP will not pass muster in Tamil Nadu as long as the issue of language is not resolved to the satisfaction of the Tamil people.

Consider also this: for a student whose home language is Hindi, the second native language will obviously be Sanskrit. For a Gujarati, Marathi or Punjabi, whose home language is closely related to Hindi, the second and third languages will be Hindi and Sanskrit. None of them will opt to learn a language that does not trace its origins to Sanskrit. Besides, they may not be required to learn English
at all as one of the three languages!

The inequity and discrimination are writ large.

Education, not a public good?
In the case of higher educational institutions, the NEP is quite categorical that there will be only two kinds of institutions — public and private not-for-profit institutions (para 18.12). However, when it comes to school education, the NEP dithers. It speaks of public, private and philanthropic schools, conceding that private for-profit schools will continue to be allowed.

It appears that, in the view of the Modi government, school education is not a public good, but a field where private profits can be made. In fact, the government has confessed that it is beyond its capacity to occupy the entire space of school education.

Once private for-profit schools are allowed, it will be difficult to enforce an uniform policy on language or curriculum or teacher standards or any of the other lofty objectives of the NEP. Private for-profit schools are businesses; they will strive to maximize their profits and provide what the market wants — English as the medium of instruction, private tuitions, coaching, Saturday and Sunday classes, rote learning, focus on exams, academics at the cost of sports, etc. If the NEP falters or fails in achieving the objectives of school education, it will be on the Achilles’ heel of private for-profit schools.

More on the NEP later.

Website: pchidambaram.in
Twitter @Pchidambaram_IN

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