Lessons from India on decolonising language and thought at universities

Students graduating from the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, University of Law in Hyderabad. Reuters/Krishnendu Halder

Foundation essay: Our foundation essays are longer than usual and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

Susa lo-mtunzi gawena. Hayikona shukumisa lo saka
“Move your shadow. Don’t rattle the bag.” – JD Bold, Fanagalo Phrase Book, Grammar and Dictionary, the Lingua Franca of Southern Africa, 10th Edition, 1977

In South Africa’s bad old days white people spoke English or Afrikaans. These were the languages of command. When needing to engage with those who didn’t speak English, whites could use Fanagalo – a pidgin based on Zulu and peppered with English and some Afrikaans. It was developed on the country’s mines and was good for giving orders, if not having a conversation.

In this piece I want to look in particular at the question of knowledge and our universities in South Africa. There is a struggle afoot to change the racial composition of the faculty and students at universities to move towards transformation.

It is abundantly clear that equal attention is not being paid to the questions of both the language of instruction and the content of syllabi in South African universities. English still dominates instruction at the major universities, as does Euro American knowledge.

There are some small steps towards change. The University of Witwatersrand, where I work, recently tabled a multilingual policy. It will incorporate Sesotho and isiZulu as co-languages, along with English as an official part of campus life, in and outside the classroom.

Are there any lessons that South Africa’s universities can learn from India on this journey? After all, from the very moment of independence in India, a debate began about the landscape of language in the university space.

A three-language policy

India’s three language formula – mother tongue, regional language and English – was hammered out in 1956. It represented a whittling down from the original six language formula which envisaged the learning of Sanskrit, Persian/Arabic, and a European language.

Because of the government’s three language policy, schoolchildren learnt English, Hindi and the language of the region they grew up in. If their mother tongue was different from these three, they could enrol in schools run by the community where they could also learn their mother tongue.

In effect, an Indian child was nearly always trilingual, and more often than not knew four languages.

In many schools Sanskrit was compulsory until high school and could be taken as an optional subject all the way through to the final examinations. This added another language to the four already being taught at school and home.

English as part of the language hierarchy

A cynic might say that the policy’s only achievement was that Indians now speak four languages badly. But it remains that, because of this enshrined multilingualism, universities are not dominated by English – as much as an elite would like them to be.

In universities run by the state governments, one had to learn the language of the region within the period of probation or risk losing one’s job. Even at the country’s Central Universities, where English was the medium of teaching, lecturers always had to allow for the diversity of their students’ educational backgrounds and linguistic landscapes.

Against this backdrop a certain economy of language emerged in which English was one of many languages of instruction and of sociability. While I was teaching in Kerala, formal lectures in English were supplemented by after class conversations in Malayalam. In Delhi, formal lectures were sometimes bilingual, but after class interactions were nearly always bilingual, if not trilingual.

Despite all of this, none of the regional languages acquired the epistemological status that English possesses. While universities set up Hindi language translation bureaus, these were often poorly funded and irregularly staffed.

Social and political movements argued for more access to knowledge in languages like Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil, among others. Because of their efforts, a commentary-in-translation industry arose outside the academic realm.

But what about the content?

However, that is the tip of the iceberg. Indian academia remains very much in thrall to the Euro American paradigm, as is the case with most developing nations. There has been a robust engagement with the question of languages in India’s universities, but not an equally vigorous struggle with the politics of knowledge.

Our most prominent academics are those who know their Marx, Foucault and Derrida. Or, depending on their intellectual concerns – from environmentalism to feminism and the history of science – the relevant icons and academic literature from Europe and America.

Indian languages and Sanskrit, or Arabic and Persian, were seen as the repository of a literary imagination. At universities, one could opt to study these languages - but not as repositories of concepts and a social imagination.

We have had engagements with the political and ethical language of Islam, but as history. There has been a sustained scholarship on Sanskrit poetics, ritual and political concepts, but within the realm of Indology.

British politician Thomas Babington Macaulay spearheaded the introduction of English as India’s official medium of instruction. He sought to produce a vast clerkhood in India working in the service of empire. This clerkhood would have a knowledge of English that would allow Indians at best to become mimic men excised from their intellectual past.

When the intellectual class revolted, it was inevitable that they would turn to another European inheritance – Marxism. And Marxism has become the opium of the decolonised intellectual.

In India, thinking through categories of experience, ethics and politics from indigenous concepts has been an enterprise abandoned even before it was begun.

A warning to South Africa

India’s experience stands as a warning to South Africa, even as institutions like the University of the Witwatersrand work towards a deeper politics of broadening the landscape of language.

To avoid such initiatives becoming a merely functional multilingualism - a higher version of Fanagalo – all academic faculty must be supported to become bilingual. Translation funds need to be set up for creating a corpus of social science and scientific literature within local languages.

The desire to be ranked among the top 100 universities in the world compels universities in the global south to jump through hoops and show that we are capable of reproducing Euro American social theory competently.

It is not without significance that the most radical intellectual initiative to emerge from India in the last generation -the subaltern studies collective did not address the question of the politics of knowledge at all. The very act of provincialising Europe was done through an assiduous engagement with European thought and a studied indifference to Asian or African modes of thinking.

What would it mean in South Africa’s universities to think with traditions of intellectual inquiry within Africa rather than just through a notion of ubuntu that is little more than a Readers’ Digest version of everyone getting along fine with each other?

A decolonised imagination would be daring enough to draw upon Islam, Confucianism or the different and radical modernities of the Caribbean and Latin America.

In our universities we think with and teach a theoretical tradition forged in Europe in the last 400 years, rather than affirming that questions of self, community, politics and ethics have been the marrow of traditions of intellection in our spaces for a few thousand years.

We need to rattle our bags to begin with and not just caddy for those who play.

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