Politics and the English Language (in India)

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. – Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, April 1946.

The most controversial subject in the [Constituent Assembly of India, which drafted the Indian Constitution beginning in December 1946] was language: the language to be spoken in the House, the language in which the constitution would be written, the language under that would be given the singular designation, ‘national’… [One session] when [one Assembly member] began speaking in Hindustani, the chairman reminded him many members did not know the language… [In Hindustani he replied], ‘I move that the Procedure Committee should frame the rules in Hindustani and not in English. As an Indian I appeal that we, who are out to win freedom for our country and are fighting for it, should think and speak in our own language.’India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Gupta, p. 116.

Wait, why do they randomly say full sentences in English sometimes? – My younger brothers while watching Bollywood’s Hindi-language 3 Idiots with me.

And so in the pursuit of answering my brothers’ question, confirming the fears of the Constitutional Assembly member while assuaging Orwell of his:


On the front page of YouTube India last month was an advertisement for Google Maps. In it, an airline pilot calls his crew to say that he will be five minutes late; however had he listened to his Google-Maps-consulting driver, he would have known he was more than five minutes away and would have prevented the subsequent succession of delays. The advertisement ends with a call to action voiced as a mix between Hindi and English:

Chalo panch minutes ko panch minutes banate hai.  Let’s be on time with Google Maps… ‘Bas panch minutes aur’… Look before you leave.” This translates to “Make five minutes [mean] five minutes. Let’s be on time with Google Maps… ‘Just five minutes more’… Look before you leave.

Just in the last 10 seconds of this Hindi advertisement, English is used in at least four different ways: the name of the product itself (‘Google Maps’) is kept in English; ‘minutes’ is used as a loan word in the middle of otherwise comletely Hindi sentences; “Look before you leave,” is the marketing phrase and hashtag Google Maps has adopted. It can be found posted on billboards all over India; and, hardest to explain, ‘let’s be on time with Google Maps,’ is neither a trademarked phrase nor a common loan phrase used in Hindi. It’s just English.


When I told friends that I would be moving to India, many asked, “do you plan to learn… Hindi?” When people speak of India’s diversity, they’re often referring to India’s linguistic diversity. The number of ‘official’ languages is an amount best answered with, ‘it depends.’

In historian Ramachandra Gupta’s account of the drafting of the Indian constitution in 1946 to 1949 (p. 116-119), he explains how questions of language proved more divisive issues than those of caste, religion, and even the fundamentals of the rule of law. Gandhi had imagined Hindustani, a mix of Hindi and Urdu, becoming the national language of India; however, with the partition of India and the adoption of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan, Hindustani itself was partitioned into Urdu and Hindi in politicians’ imaginations. Ultimately, the Constitution of India decided that, “the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union [referring to the national government of India]” for fifteen years more, at which point, “the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in the Devanagari script.” This designation stops short of recognizing either English or Hindi as ‘national’ languages, an important distinction comparable to the ubiquity of English in the American government without its recognition as the ‘national language’ of the USA. Since then, the Indian Constitution has designated 22 languages as ‘Scheduled Languages,’ and India’s states have recognized even more.

Most Indians do not speak Hindi (or even Hindustani) as their first language, and many Indians (particularly in the south) take offense at efforts to establish Hindi as India’s official language. In late 2016, the Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs announced that the Indian government was trying to persuade the United Nations to adopt Hindi as one of its official languages. Among many who objected Sashi Tharoor, an Indian Member of Parliament and widely respected academic, rebutted:

“What purpose is being served by trying to make Hindi an official language in the United Nations? I understand the Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister can speak in Hindi, but what if a future External Affairs Minister comes from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, who couldn’t speak in the language?”

I recently visited Bangalore – India’s IT city and the capital of the Kannada-speaking southern state Karnataka. As one of India’s wealthiest and most educated cities, Bangalore’s population has swelled in recent years as both the educated and the poor have flocked to the city for work. In Bangalore’s wealthier areas where the educated have come from states all over India, English is the assumed language. An Indian friend of mine who works in Bangalore explained to me that her office communicated mostly in English because she and her colleagues did not share any other common language. In my hostel, I was speaking with a group of four friends, all Indian and non from Bangalore originally, explained how they spoke English among themselves; they also shared no other common language.


Far from being in a state of impending collapse or in a state of decadence as Orwell described, the English language thrives in the country which gained its independence from Orwell’s own the year after he published “Politics and the English Language.” In Orwell’s essay, he outlines the most common ways that the politically powerful hide behind bad writing. He writes, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India[…] can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” In summary, he argues, “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Orwell was concerned how the powerful used a twisted English which was difficult to understand because they did not want to be understood. The politics of the English language in India are vastly different from the politics of language he spoke to. That is not to say that the powerful in India don’t also disabuse language to hide their sins behind vague euphemisms – the forcible clearings of India’s slums in the 1990s were done in the name of ‘economic development’ after all.

Rather, English is quite simply the language of the powerful, educated, and wealthy. Since the establishment of the British Raj (and to varying degrees before its establishment too), to speak English is to speak the language of power.  To be clear, acknowledging this is not to condemn those who speak it; in fact for many English is a path to liberation from their caste or poverty. Conversely though, this prioritization of English marginalizes those who don’t know it, and the pursuit of English, as Orwell might say, puts Indian languages ‘in a bad way’.   A recent article in The Wire explains:

English dominates. It guarantees bread and butter, provides a sense of superiority in society and allows people to enter the circles of power.

In short, it has become the language of knowledge and empowerment. Calling it the ‘milk of the lioness’, BR Ambedkar [Untouchable political leader who fought for the abolition of the caste system and the primary architect of the Indian Constitution] had underlined to fellow Dalits just how imperative it to learn English to move ahead in the world.

Sassoon Dock Art Project, Mumbai Dec 2017. ‘The Idea of Smell’ by Hanif Kureshi. One of the most hipster events I have ever been to (India or otherwise), the Sassoon Dock Art Project was an art installation in an old fishing dock in South Mumbai. In this exhibit, the artist hung seven fishing nets parallel to one another. On the nets are dozens of ‘smells’ written in white letters. Some smells are unique to India (i.e. Diwali Firecrackers or Delhi Winter), while others are known across the world (New Book, Your Ex, Marijuana). Most smells were written in English. Far fewer smells were written in Hindi, even generously counting Hindi words transliterated into Roman letters. By writing mostly in English, the artist limits the experience of his art to those who can read it. Most people at the Sassoon Docks when I visited were the Marathi-speaking dock workers themselves, but this art was not for their benefit. A plaque explains the art “invites the viewer to immerse themselves in a path of feelings through the idea of smell”. Implied in the art of Sassoon Dock itself is that ‘viewer’ was meant not to be a Sassoon Dock laborer himself, but meant to be an educated Indian or an English-speaking foreigner like myself.

The Goat Trust and the English Language

Our name is in English. In Hindi, the word for ‘goat’ is बकरा or ‘bakara’ for bucks and बकरी ‘bakaree’ for (female) goats; however, when we write The Goat Trust (TGT) in the Hindi Devanagari script, we simply transliterate our name without translating.

In this photo below taken on TGT’s demonstration farm, “The Goat Trust Lucknow” is transliterated in green on the sign above us. In red letters is written “प्रायोगिक बकरी फार्म” (“praayogik bakaree farm”), meaning ‘Experimental Goat Farm’. Similar to the Google Maps advertisement above, English is present in at least three different ways – “The Goat Trust” is simply transliterated, ‘farm’ is used a loan word in an otherwise Hindi phrase, and Lucknow’s name itself has been Anglicized. Most everyone pronounces Lucknow the ways the British pronounced it, ‘luck’ and ‘now’. In Hindi, in Urdu, and historically, it is written was pronounced with the ‘kh’ sound – ‘Lukhnow’ – written in Hindi as लखनऊ (as in our sign below) and in Urdu as لکھنؤ.

(Dec 2017 AIF site visit to TGT. Left to right: Sanjeev Kumar – Managing Trustee of TGT and my mentor; Katrina Dikkers – AIF Clinton Fellowship Program Director; myself; and Amanpreet Kaur, AIF Clinton Fellowship Program Officer)

The Goat Trust’s website is mostly in English, even though many of our staff and the vast majority of our clients can not read it. Key innovations and programs have Hindi names, but the website descriptions are in English. Training materials and sessions are all in Hindi but our social media presence in English. Meetings are conducted solely in Hindi, but staff who don’t know English will still receive formal disciplinary letters written in Hindi (and have to ask me to translate for them).

Several times a coworker has asked me to draft an email for them in English, recognizing that it will take me ten minutes and take them two hours. Conversely, much of my more recent work has been interviewing our Pashudhan Bank clients, and I have had to rely on my coworkers’ translation abilities. Pashudhan Bank is our livestock leasing program, and I am interviewing them to calculate their change in incomes since they began leasing.

On our campus and in our office, our staff constantly borrow words from English to talk about the health and productivity of the goats; however, these loans words have not been borrowed by our clients living in villages. On our campus baby goats are ‘kids’. In the villages, people would never say ‘kid’, instead using the Hindi word for ‘children’, ‘bachche’, to describe baby goats. In our lab we’ll talk about ‘insemination’ and ‘pregnancy’; those words get me nowhere in the field. In TGT meetings we discuss how to market ‘manure’ fertilizer. During interviews asking, “kya aap manure bechate hain? [do you sell manure?]”, needs to be followed with some creative gesturing to articulate ‘manure’ non-verbally.

In cities, English is ubiquitous. In villages (where most Indians still live), local languages remain dominant. Advertisements directed at wealthier Indians make extensive of English, but in the villages where wealth is rare all signs are written in Hindi.


Works Referenced

Raised in Arkansas, Michael attended college in Washington, D.C., at American University. Fascinated by the intersection of religion and politics, he studied International Relations, minored in Religion and Arabic, and concentrated in the Middle East and South Asia. Michael studied Arabic in Jordan and later tried to study in Varanasi, India, but was unfortunately unable to travel. Michael is expectedly excited to finally go to India through the AIF Clinton Fellowship after years of waiting. The year following his graduation, Michael worked an odd sequence of positions as an intern at a think tank on the Middle East, as a Segway tour guide, and then as an assistant at a lobbying firm. This past year, he served through AmeriCorps VISTA in Camden, New Jersey, where he did monitoring and evaluation for a homicide prevention initiative. Hoping to assist poverty alleviation and conflict resolution programs across South Asia and the Middle East throughout his career, he's excited to expand his evaluation knowledge through the Goat Trust's microfinance programs as an AIF Clinton Fellow.

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