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Madhava Prasad

The political commons: language and

the nation-state form

In his brilliant analysis of the state of the Arab world, Mustapha Safouan1
places language at the centre of the etiology of Arab unfreedom. Colonialism
alone cannot explain Arab despotism, he argues, recounting the history of how
a ‘moment of intellectual ferment’ in early twentieth-century Egypt quickly
gave way to a military coup d’état and severe repression from which the country
has not recovered. To Safouan ‘the failure to resist the imposition of an
absolute ruler’ meant that ‘the set of political concepts introduced by the
British had made no impact except among the university and high school
students and graduates living in the big, more or less cosmopolitan towns’.2
The long history of the transformation of European society, leading to
the production of the nation-state form of socio-political existence stands in
sharp contrast to the political metaphor of society as a family with ‘an
unquestionable head, the ruler’.3 The Arab people, Safouan forcefully argues,
never ceased to depend on this figure of the ideal father and hence the
continued state of infantilism.4
The key to maintaining such a monarchic-despotic order is language: the
‘mother tongue’ is banned, and only ‘a language that drew its prestige from
being either dead or foreign had the right to be taught in schools’. Learning
thus automatically alienates the learned from the rest of the people and their
culture. However, unlike the example employed by Dante, in which Latin is
the ‘dead or foreign language’ and Italian the language of the people, in the
Arab countries the distinction is at least nominally internal to Arabic: the
demotic and the classical are mutually unintelligible and the demotics of
different countries of the Arab region are again separate from one another.
The persistence of this distinction which historically belongs to the age of
monarchy, alongside the modern state institutions, effectively gives rise to the
peculiar forms of modern despotism.
Stalin’s famous verdict, that language was neither base nor superstructure,
because it remained unchanged from one mode of production to another, has
been quite influential and has led to the neglect of its political role, which is
far from remaining unchanged from one type of regime to another. The
sociolinguistic distinction between diglossia and bilingualism has also
contributed to an obscuring of the real significance of language to political life.

Safouan is perhaps the first writer to have recognised the unique, defining
role that language plays in political morphology. The ideal of human freedom
is at the heart of the modern, democratic form of political existence and its
achievement is predicated on a particular decision regarding language. No
doubt it is not the only requirement but it is an absolutely necessary one.
Safouan, interestingly, seems to suggest that India has somehow escaped the
fate that has overtaken the Arab world. Yet, while the Indian complaint
is different, it is also, I argue below, a case of unfreedom arising from a
linguistic disorder. Further, while Safouan’s diagnosis of the problem does not
suggest any deliberate attempt to keep it that way, I will argue that the
perpetuation of what I call the structural bilingualism of the Indian state was
achieved by the colonial class of Indians pursuing their class interest.5 My
argument assumes a realist theory of the nation-state, against the nominalist
tendency to treat all actually existing political units as nation-states by virtue
of their being so designated in the discourse and institutions of world
India’s language disorder, which began with the introduction of English as
the language of education and administration in the nineteenth century,
remains unresolved to this day. The initiatives of colonial officials and
missionaries in producing new grammars, literary anthologies and so forth for
the vernaculars; the cooperation of the intelligentsia in these language areas,
who quickly picked up the baton and continued the work; the ensuing
struggles over language modernisation, colloquial and written forms, the
production of textbooks for school education; the emergence of a national–
popular conception of the language communities; the demand for linguistic
reorganisation of provinces encouraged by the colonial state’s proposals
for provincial autonomy and self-government in the aftermath of the
reunification of Bengal and creation of Bihar province; the heightened
receptivity to ideas of modernity and popular sovereignty and a rising tide of
national sentiment vacillating between ‘provincial patriotism’ and Indian
identity; Gandhi’s strategic move as Congress president to accommodate these
demands in the Congress agenda; the emergence of the ‘national language’
question and the Hindi–Urdu–Hindustani issue; Gandhi’s campaign for
linguistic expression of Indian nationalism; the resistance to this from various
quarters, but most vociferously from the powerful Anglophone classes; the
split in the Congress, at the time of independence, over the issue, with
Gandhians being isolated and Gandhi himself eventually endorsing the
deferral; the final defeat of the project of popular sovereignty as linguistic
reorganisation is reluctantly granted as appeasement rather than a positive
measure of empowerment: these are some of the aspects of the history of the
language question in India. What we are left with in the present is rampant
commercialisation of education as ‘English medium’ schools with badly

trained teachers and promising a quicker climb up the pyramid, extort the
meager surpluses of the working classes. Increasingly, intellectually crippled
students enter higher education or the job market with proficiency neither in
English nor in their own home or provincial language. Other concerns
stemming from this history include the positive and negative effects of the
policy decisions and indecision on the system of education, the practice of
democracy, and the character of cultural life. This history is entangled in a
complex web of national concerns and has remained a marginal matter in
spite of expressions of concern by the leadership and intelligentsia. The
Hindu–Muslim question, with its grand themes and epic dimensions, has so
dominated the nationalist imaginary that beside it the linguistic nationalities
have seemed more of a nuisance than a vital issue of democratic life.
Disidentification with this myth of imperial sociology – that India is a land
inhabited by Hindus and Muslims – can only be achieved by returning to and
reconstructing our multinational identity as that positive factor without which
the ‘idea of India’ will remain anchored in myths, holy books and epics and
the violence that they instigate.
This paper is by way of a prolegomenon to a revised history of the language
question in India. In the first of three short sections, I present some of my
ideas about the role of language in the evolution of political morphology in
the modern world. I then propose a reconsideration of the relation between
language and nation-state in terms of the discourse of the people. In the last
section I turn to a brief presentation on the fate of the language question in
the hands of the Indian National Congress, and specifically to Gandhi’s
approach to the problem. My purpose all through will be to highlight the
political character and importance of language in the modern nation-state,
neglect of which amounts to the expropriation of the very people in whose
name democratic regimes are set up.
For Indians if not for postcolonials in general, the study of political
morphology is of great importance, for many of our political afflictions are
formal in nature. It is not surprising that some of India’s most original
contributions to political theory, the work of Sudipta Kaviraj and Partha
Chatterjee for instance, should have focused on precisely these formal
dimensions of our political existence. The concept of passive revolution, which
figures centrally in their work, has proved useful to us by foregrounding a
formal problem, a fold in history. For what is ‘passive revolution’ if not a
symptom of the excess of form over content that characterised a historical
moment? The passive revolutionary process is distinguished by the delegation
to form of the tasks of conquest and reconstruction. Or it might be construed
as a sort of historical Platonism, where the colonial fold raises political form
into a position of directive force (a realm of ideas), instigating the production
of copies.

The linguistic order that has come to prevail in India is designed to

perpetuate the colonial duality, to maintain a dirigiste stratum in relative
insulation from the rest of society. The existence of the dirigiste layer is not in
question: the same political theorists have pointed to the manner in which the
planning process has been kept apart from and impervious to the influence of
the political process. What I wish to add is that language plays a crucial role
in making this possible at all. Kaviraj, in his comprehensive and penetrating
analysis of the language question, has focused on the way colonial agencies
brought about standardisation of the Indian languages.6 He shows how the
field of politics is split into vernacular-regional and national strata, with
vernacular speakers being restricted to their language domain and unable to
exert any influence on the national political scene which comes to be
dominated by the new type of bilingual Indian. ‘The linguistic economy partly
guaranteed that . . . it was only the middle class elements who would provide
the all-India leadership. Vernacular speakers could storm into the leadership
of linguistically homogeneous areas, but there their political stars stopped
climbing.’ Faced with the lack of a national language, and the Soviet solution
being ruled out, the Indian state adopted ‘political diglossia’ based on
acceptance of ‘linguistic self-identifications’ as the only viable option. In its
implementation, however, the nationalist elite was hampered by its own
investment in an imagined Indian unity already accomplished in the past.
‘Much of current Indian politics revolves around how nationalism decides to
deal with them [linguistic nationalities] – to attack and destroy them as
competing attractions or to give them a place within its own internal
architecture.’7 In the ‘two-layered identity’ of the Indian – the ‘linguistic’ and
the ‘national’ – Kaviraj further argues, both layers are modern. Initially, anti-
colonial consciousness remains grounded in the vernacular identity, only later
acquiring an ‘Indian national’ dimension. The national movement, led by
people who were themselves shaped by this history, tackled the problem far
better than the nation-state which, though ‘powerful in technical material
terms’, was quite ineffectual ‘in dealing with cultural conflicts’.
The idea that language is an aspect of culture, which briefly appears here,
is the consensual view that prevails in the social science literature. Some even
line it up alongside religion and race as a primordial element of cultural
identity which gets in the way of the spread of modern values. Language,
however, is not merely a cultural requisite for a nation-state, it is rather
a morphological prerequisite of the nation-state form. Whether this
requirement constitutes a limitation or a spur to emancipation is an evaluative
question that we can defer for the moment. The discourses of the historian and
the theorist of evolution have something in common: both deal with narratives
in which human desire introduces distorting perspectives. The latter must
struggle against the idea that all evolution is pre-programmed to culminate

in the advent of Man. Historians, too, have fallen prey to the evolutionist
ideology. But in addition the historian is often distracted by political ideals and
mixes up the radically historical with elements of human aspiration: various
better alternatives to existing conditions, which we are all capable of and
prone to conceiving, prevent us from seeing that the nation-state form is a
product of specific historical circumstances in which new forces forged
something out of the given material of that time. There is no transcendence
of historical givens here, no immaculate conception of an alternative order
that then supplants the older one. Its innovations, the ‘improvements’ it
introduces, can only be evaluated by reference to what existed before, not by
comparison with alternatives conceived in the imagination.
The relation of the nation to the state is sometimes conceived as organic;
i.e. the nation, in giving objective form to its newly discovered sovereignty,
acquires a state in which it expresses itself. But the state is never a pure product
of its political expression, emerging freshly conceived. Rather, a state form
already in existence, albeit shorn of some of its features, is what acquires the
nation as the new basis of its sovereignty. The advent of popular sovereignty
is one of the great events of human history, and it is only the actual event-al
construction, the nation-state, not the nation itself, that inaugurates the idea
of popular sovereignty. We know that nations or national consciousness have
existed for a long time: Roman Jakobson finds evidence of a Slav national
identity in formation in the tenth century,8 and the Kannada Kavirajamarga
of comparable vintage, can be read as evidence of an early Kannada national
consciousness.9 The empires of old such as the Ottoman were composed of
nationalities that, whether territorially identified or not, had distinctive
cultures that they sought to maintain. It is only with the crisis of the European
monarchic state that the conditions arise for the violent joining together of
peoples and states into a new order of popular sovereignty. It is this, the dual
and separate provenance of the new sovereignty and the site of its
representation (nation and state) that creates the need for a medium in which
they can be effectively joined together. Language is that medium. This is not a
normative statement but is derived from the historical record. The accession
of language to this position of cementing substance must be understood
against the background of the structural bilingualism of premodern political
forms. In regimes of popular sovereignty, on the other hand, the unicity of
language is an indispensable assumption.
When a language is rendered structurally inconsequential to the political
form, it reverts to the status of a cultural or ethnic attribute: this is the
common fate of minor languages in modern nation-states. In such a situation,
the speakers of the minor language are compelled to learn the state language,
if not by the state then by the need to ensure their own participation in political
life. Their own language becomes an item of cultural heritage which they may

seek to preserve.10 This fact is often taken as evidence of the inherently

oppressive character of the nation-state, but the search for alternatives seems
inevitably to lead to past political structures.11 Language is a prerequisite of the
nation-state form because it alone can secure a political symbolic that is
capable of limiting, if not eliminating altogether, the need for transcendent
icons of political authority. As far as the words and ways of language are
concerned, Stalin is substantially right, but with modern political sovereignty
language emerges dramatically with a new function, that of enabling the state
to operate with a historically new basis of sovereignty. To the extent that this
is effectively achieved, language ceases to be an ethnic attribute, any inherent
claim to sovereignty of an ethnie being diluted at the moment of its junction
with the state form precisely by a feature of language that comes to the fore
here: its easy dissociability from the ethnic whole. The assumption of political
identity by an ethnic group is achieved at the cost of the alienation of one of
its attributes, language. Conversely, in ethnic communities for whom this
possibility of alienation does not exist, the ethnic character of language is
reinforced. Political scientists writing about India’s language problem tend to
see language as an ethnic attribute pure and simple, a divisive force no less
potent than religion or race. In doing so they ignore the modern turn in world
history which has secured for language a new role in human political existence.
Indeed the assimilation of language to ethnic substance is a development
of recent origin, a result of the objectifying techniques of anthropology. For
language, among the attributes of an ethnie, is the place of the subject, hence
the medium in which the objective attributes can be counted, described and
held on to. It is the place from which alone it is possible to say ‘I have . . .’ Only
an external agency can count language itself among my ethnic attributes. This
process probably has its beginnings in the altogether unsettling encounter
with the people of the New World, so utterly alien to the Old World symbolic.
It can be surmised from this that the first step in the objectification of human
groups in the social sciences is the assimilation of language to ethnicity.
Anthropology’s fundamental gesture consists in reading, rather than listening
to, the speech of the other, of treating speech as a cultural symptom rather
than a communication.
The transcendent icons of political authority in premodern political forms
are replaced by the ‘empty seat of power’12 in modern democracy. As Lefort
points out, the temptation to restore embodied power, to occupy the empty
space, is constantly present. In India, we have seen the proliferation of such
substitute figures of sovereignty not only in political parties but in other
spheres of life as well. The Indian national identity, asserted without the aid
of a language that can cement this relation, fails to establish a stable
connection and gives rise to surrogate political formations that revive older
forms of embodied power. The only alternative – to recognise the national

character of the linguistic units and to re-conceive Indian unity as a second-

order unity (Kaviraj) – has remained unattractive to the national ruling class.
At another level, linguistic–national identity is historically the first larger unity
that directly posits the dialectical transcendence of caste–communal
identities. It challenges those prior identities, enters into direct confrontation
with them and where successful, reduces them to ‘private’ or lower-level
identities. Here we must recall the dismal record of independent India in
reducing the social effectivity of caste. The ‘annihilation of caste’ for which the
national leadership could only come up with solutions like intercaste dining
and intercaste marriage (both instances of bad infinity), can only be effectively
achieved by the institution of more powerful identities. Challenged by a
visiting wise man in the Vijayanagara court to shorten a stick without touching
it, Tenali Ramakrishna doesn’t hesitate: he places a longer stick beside it and
the trick is done! Indian national identity simply encircles the communal
identities without in any way disturbing them. Linguistic national identities
on the other hand engage the pre-existing identities in a dialectial tension
from which there is no escape. Linguistic–national identity has undoubtedly
demonstrated that it has this power, but its operation has been hindered by
the supervening priorities of coexistence. This has in turn given rise to
pathological eruptions of linguistic pride, as exhibited by the extreme wing of
the Kannada movement and the MNS in Maharashtra, which leave the
national public baffled and outraged, helpless and ready to condone state
In postcolonial states, the boundaries of the territorial unit are set
arbitrarily, limited only by the exhaustion of imperial power’s expansionist
will. The nation-state form exercises its attraction and inspires struggles for
self-government, but at the moment of triumph the incommensurability of
discursive identity and territory that has actually been given poses an immense
challenge to human powers of imagining and creating appropriate political
structures. Taking India as an example, it can be said that the solutions often
entail serious confusion of categories followed by repressive measures to
perpetuate and legitimise the error.

Political commons
The idea of the commons, known in India by various names – oorottu in
Kannada and oorummadi in Telugu – has seen a revival in the wake of
globalisation, in such terms as ‘the creative commons’, ‘reclaiming the
commons’ etc. There are those who believe that the restitution of the commons
will fix all the problems of capitalism. It is often said that the commons has
been redefined culturally in the present-day world to refer not so much, or not
only, to economic resources held in common by a group, but also to the culture

of such a group. Water, but also music. Yet water and music are both material
resources, ‘separable from a human community’, whereas there is another idea
of the commons which is relevant to the time of capitalism we live in, as it is
to all societies marked by inequality (the idea of the commons only makes
sense in an unequal society). As Stephen Gudeman13 puts it, the commons is
also about those ‘shared interests and values’ which constitute the base of a
community, hence inseparable from it. Gudeman’s expanded definition covers
a long list of items, which include symbols, like the Constitution, monuments
and so forth. Even so, his list does not include language, which only goes to
show that it is only in the peculiar circumstances obtaining in postcolonial
nation-states that this dimension of language becomes evident. Sticking with
this expanded sense, I want briefly to explore how language, the medium in
which alone community interests and values become available for sharing, is
the foundational commons, which ensures commonality of interests and
values in the context of the new kind of social inequality, brought into being
by capitalism. Not just economic or cultural but political meaning may thus
be recovered for the commons. The unity of a social order marked by
inequalities is a puzzle for which the idea of a political commons might serve
as a solution. Common religious practices in which inequalities are ignored
or compensated by assignment of roles might be deemed to function in this
way. In Marxist thought the perpetuation of relations of exploitation and
power is explained by the theory of ideology. In modern nation-states, unity
of language seems to be the foundation without which ideologies cannot
perform their function. In these states, moreover, new structurally invisible
but socially effective forms of inequality replace older symbolically sanctioned
forms. What secures their unity and ensures the existence of a society, or the
society-effect, is in the end a common language. The ‘commons’ dimension of
this common language comes sharply into view only in exceptional situations,
such as in India where a constitutional democracy, against universally
acknowledged common sense, continues to restrict state activities to a private
domain (for that is what the English language after independence is, the
property of a class), instead of locating them in the commons where
participation of all is assured. Conducting the affairs of the Indian state in
English is like shifting the panchayat meeting from its traditional venue under
the peepal tree to the drawing room of the local landlord.
The failures of the Indian state on this score, while widely recognised, are
usually described as a case of neglect. By examining the issue from the point
of view of a foundational politically salient idea of the commons, we can see
clearly that far from being neglect or oversight, it was a deliberate act of
expropriation involving a devaluation of the available commons and the
relocation of activities associated with the commons to a private site – the
English language – whereby a structural bilingualism characteristic of

premodern political structures (including the colonial state) is restored in a

formally democratic set-up. This then is no less than a counter-revolution
staged by the colonial elite at the moment of independence. The writings of
Gandhians like Maganbhai Desai, editor of Harijan, and Pattabhi
Seetaramayya and others like Rammanohar Lohia show clearly that far from
simply letting the given situation continue for want of decisive action, a fierce
battle was fought, lasting over a decade and a half, in which the Anglophone
class ultimately triumphed by simply refusing to implement the national
movement’s promises.14

Historical review
Whatever one may think about the character of the Indian revolution – for that
is what the adoption of the Constitution in 1950 was and is – it is now widely
acknowledged that it soon lost its way and that either the reconstitutive power
it was supposed to wield was too feeble to begin with or those in charge of
exercising it failed to do so. Sometimes the leadership is excoriated for not
showing the requisite courage to implement the policies by which the
revolution was supposed to be achieved, such as land reforms in the economic
domain. Sometimes – and this is particularly true for the political goal of
democracy – the people are blamed for persisting in a contrary or unsuitable
state of mind: all the necessary arrangements have been put in place for
achieving this goal, and the state has conducted elections with admirable
almost uninterrupted regularity, and if this has not resulted in the sort of
democratic political community that the model prescribes, it is because the
people’s ‘mind-set’ has not changed. Instead of a recomposition by class
interest, the polity has fragmented according to multiple and irreconcilable
logics: religion, caste, personality cults, dynastic rule, regionalism and so forth.
Political parties are almost without exception founded and controlled by one
person and/or their family members. Where they profess to represent the
interests of a social group, they nevertheless fail to attract any significant
following outside the leader’s own region of origin. In this way a separation
has spontaneously imposed itself, as a result of which we now have an officially
recognised distinction between regional and national parties. In other areas
of social life we are witnessing an increasing recourse to symbolic
constitutional supplements (the proliferating ‘rights’ that are liberally
bestowed upon unsuspecting citizens) and penal remedies for social problems
(acts and laws dealing with rape and other atrocities, which bring to the state
the immediate satisfaction of the victim’s gratitude while leaving the social
phenomenon untouched).
As a passive revolutionary state, the Indian state had only to follow the rule
book on capitalist-democratic makeovers. Failure to do so results in

incompletion, giving rise to all sorts of distortions and reverses. Such is the
conclusion of one dominant line of thought on the Indian ‘democratic
experiment’. There is also another, increasingly popular view, which discards
the rule book and affirms the singularity of India’s democratic culture:
this is the only way it can be, and it is as good or as bad as any other. This
optimism is frequently brought up short against the daily accumulating
evidence of dysfunction, and requires ever-increasing effort each time to
rejuvenate itself.
Such an act of self-narration that relies on the idea of a failure – to make
the right choice at some crucial juncture which confronted the subject with a
set of alternative choices – may well indicate the fact of a choice made, an act
performed, rather than a failure to act. The failure to make the right choice is
a failure, to be sure, but not a failure to act. What has failed is the subject’s
resolve to act according to their own desire, insofar as they choose an option
that, while negating their own desire, seems to submit to and affirm the desire
of an Other. It is the subject’s self-narration that then becomes the site of the
analytic effort: in the struggle for self-knowledge, the subject must repeat and
revise this narrative until they are able to assume the past, in all its dimensions,
as their own.
In the lives of nations too there are narratives, such as the ones above, that
aspire to explain to themselves the way they came to be. But the analogy
cannot be stretched further for the obvious reason that the nation-state is not
an individual. Nevertheless, there is built into the very idea of a nation-state a
tension between its unicity and its internal division into groups with
conflicting interests. The unicity of monarchies was given by the singularity
of the body of the monarch itself, underwritten by divine guarantee, whereas
in nation-states it has to be produced ideologically, precisely in narratives like
the above, which must be able to reconcile the internal conflicts with a
justification for their containment within the proposed whole. The obvious
difficulties in the way of such ideological production are easily explained,
though not so easily handled in practice. Military power and economic
incentive are among the practical means by which they maybe tackled.
But in nation-states like ours, which are brought into existence by
colonialism itself, the narratives suffer other kinds of derangements which
stem from the spectral presence of the colonising Other. The analogy with
individual subjects becomes relevant to a significant degree due to the fact that
the singular event of modern colonialism, taking place in a time that was
already under the sway of History, introduces the necessity of finding our own
justification for an existence conceived by the Other and overdetermined by
the Other’s desire. We postcolonial nations come into this world bearing the
weight of the name and identity bestowed upon us by the coloniser and in the
course of our existence we must strive to re-ground our existence in ourselves,

to assume full responsibility for it. Coming out of the shadow of the Other’s
desire, we must find in ourselves the cause of our being here and the
explanations for our being just so. It is a struggle for self-knowledge entailing
repeated re-narrations of our past, symbolising little by little the unsymbolised
aspects that govern our existence.
Turning now to Gandhi’s work in this field, the corpus of his writings clearly
shows that while he was unwavering in his insistence that English must be
replaced, he did not succeed in thinking through a concrete political design
for free India which would ensure maximum democratic effect. In his
thinking, the priority of coexistence over the concrete details of political
existence is clearly discernible. Coexistence itself was not always explicitly
understood and acknowledged as coexistence (where the ‘co’ would be an
acknowledgement of a plurality) but there were constant attempts to recast
it as a pre-given unity that only needed to be recovered. Repeated references
to the presence of Sanskrit words in this or that language (‘even’ Tamil), a way
of appealing to substance over the heads of subjects, and the shifting
definition of the role of Hindustani (national language, link language, the
language of the educated classes, the language of the masses, not meant to
replace the regional languages but also somehow expected to do so) – these
are some of the symptoms of the failure to take seriously into account the
prevailing realities of the subcontinent.15 Tagore, addressing the Provincial
Conference in Pabna in 1908, deals with the question of the relation of the
parts, the provinces, to the whole that was beginning to be envisaged. In doing
so he, a provincial, came up with a three-tier model in which the provincial
leadership would first turn its attention towards the interior, work to
modernise it, and then finally, having achieved the requisite degree of
homogeneity, would join other provinces to discuss and produce a ‘Centre’
which would unite them all.16 What is to be noticed here is the location of
political agency in the middle tier, which, by our reckoning, is exactly where
it ought to be, for it is here that the dialectical powers of language can operate
most effectively. By contrast, for Gandhi, the middle tier is only an instrument
for the implementation of policy, the making of which is the Centre’s exclusive
right. Although village communities appear at times to be the building blocks
of the nation in Gandhi’s vision, and hence endowed with primary agency, in
practice he locates all agency in the Centre. As far as the language question is
concerned, this might have worked as long as he was himself the effective
Centre, but by 1947 he is no longer in charge and after having insisted on the
absolute necessity of linguistic reorganisation all his life, Gandhi found
himself endorsing the contrary policy of the coterie that by then held the
Dismantling the Anglophone state is the most important remaining task
of the Indian revolution, one on which many other aspirations inscribed in it

are dependent. Among these are the chances of a fuller participation in

political life, the competence to be receptive to the most advanced thought of
the world, and the ability to produce such thought. Completion of this task is
not to be confused with the provision for universal education in the English
language, a practical necessity imposed on all nations of the world by the
realities of the present global order. Until the social and political effectivity
of English is ended, its benefits as the language of economic opportunity and
access to knowledge will continue to be the exclusive monopoly of an elite
minority. The rest will continue to spend large portions of their income on an
English ‘medium’ education, in pursuit of illusory prosperity. As Tagore
recognised long ago,18 to retain English in these commanding roles is to turn
our backs on modernity: unless we understand how our language policies have
created the conditions for the rise of a milk drinking Ganesha, we will not have
attained the self-knowledge that can deliver us from captivity to the Other’s

1 Mustapha Safouan, Why Are the Arabs Not Free? The Politics of Writing (Oxford: Blackwell,
2 Ibid., 5.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Ibid., 6.
5 Incidentally, roughly a hundred years ago, Gurajada Apparao a campaigner for
modernising Telugu and for narrowing the gap between the written and spoken forms, had
backed up his argument by references to the Egyptian situation as described by an English
writer using the pseudonum ‘Arif ’ in an article, ‘The Arab Language Question in Egypt’,
Asiatic Quarterly Review, September 1912. It is astonishing to note how little has changed in
both these sites in a hundred years.
6 Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘Writing, Speaking, Being: Language and the Historical Formation of
Identities in India’, in Nationalstaat und Sprachkonflikte in Sud- und Sudostasien
(Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1992), 25–65.
7 Ibid., 47.
8 Roman Jakobson, ‘The Beginnings of National Self-determination in Europe’, in Selected
Writings, Early Slavic Paths and Crossroads (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter,
9 See especially K.V. Subbanna, Kavirajamarga mattu Kannada jagattu (Heggodu: Akshara
Prakashana, 2004); D.R. Nagaraj, ‘Critical Tensions in the History of Kannada Literary
Culture’, in Sheldon Pollock (ed.), Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South
Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the
Gods in the World of Men (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), ch.9, ‘Creating a
Regional World: The Case of Kannada’.
10 Anthony K. Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005),
ch.3, ‘The Demands of Identity’. See also Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in
Amy Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1994).

11 Michael Walzer, On Toleration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), finds that when it
comes to toleration of religious differences, empires have fared better than nation-states,
but quickly adds that he does not wish to romanticise them, conscious as he is of their
innumerable faults. The same wisdom is missing from the writings of those who, ignoring
or simply ignorant of the difference made by political forms, always endorse as necessarily
better, anything that preceded the advent of modern forms, thus communal harmony
against secularism, or some unnamed alternative against the nation-state, and so on.
12 Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).
13 Stephen Gudeman, The Anthropology of Economy: Community, Market, and Culture
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2001). See also Naomi Klein, ‘Reclaiming the Commons’, New Left
Review, 9 (2001).
14 Several collections of articles, his own and Gandhi’s, from Harijan, ed. M.P. Desai,
including Our Language Problem (Navjivan, 1956), and The Problem of English (Navjivan,
1960), are the most elaborate documentation of this history. These comments by J.B.
Kripalani, although not related to the language question, demonstrate the power of the
bureaucratic class. The perpetuation of the Anglophone state has to be seen in this light:

When political power came to be definitely transferred it was expected that the
politicians now in power, who had always denounced corruption under the British,
would immediately take stringent measures, as in every revolution, to suppress this
evil. It was also known that some of the leaders, especially Prime Minister Nehru,
would give short shrift to all corrupt officials. Unfortunately nothing was
attempted. Even the services of officers who had indulged in sadistic acts of
cruelty against the nationalists, beyond the ample provision of the repressive laws
of the foreign government, were retained. Occasionally, such officers were even
No revolutionary party coming to power has ever done this. One wonders what
was behind all this compromise! Was it that the Congress government, harassed by
the many difficult problems arising out of the transfer of power and the Partition,
did not relish the idea of adding yet another problem by increasing discontent in the
services? Was it that the politicians and the members of the services often came
from the same strata of society, from the same caste and families? Was it that
members of the services had powerful connections among the new holders of
power? (J.B. Kripalani, ‘Deep Roots’, Seminar, 8 (April 1960)).

15 Three language communities in the subcontinent were cursed with histories of classical
glory, real or imagined, and some community leaders accordingly set about showing their
living languages the short way to death. Hindi sought internment in Sanskrit, Urdu in
Persian and Tamil in its ancient Dravidian source language. The leaders of the national
movement focused on Hindi–Hindustani–Urdu, the choice of script and other problems
which seemed to them, in their wisdom, to be all-important. Meanwhile, in other languages
and in other circles within these language communities, battles more in keeping with the
spirit of the times were being fought. The quarrel between the traditionalists, who wanted
to retain an inflexible written form of the language, and the modernists, who proposed a
new idiom that drew from the spoken dialects, was one of the sites where democratic
sensibilities were in the process of being formed. A national-popular was being conceived
with the potential to transcend caste and religious divides. The national movement
remained oblivious to these developments. Attention was focused overwhelmingly on the
three languages.
16 Uma Das Gupta (ed.), The Oxford India Tagore (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).

17 M.K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Delhi: Government of India
Publications Division, n.d), vol.97, pp.369–71.
18 ‘In a brilliant essay entitled “Shikshar herpher” (Vagaries of Education, 1893),
Rabindranath made the interesting point that the foreign medium had actually hindered
the assimilation of progressive western values in two ways – by confining the benefits of
education to a small minority, and by rendering superficial the enlightenment of even that
narrow elite’ (Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (Delhi: People’s Publishing
House, 1973), 153).