Colonial Language Policy and the Politics of Knowledge It has been decades since India achieved formal independence but colonialism has seeped into our society deeply, manifesting itself often as cultural hierarchies with the colonised being dominated once again.
Moving away from conventional definitions of economic and political dominance may help explain why, even after decades of formal independence, colonial languages and ideological formations persist in decolonial nations. Ashis Nandy provides an alternate definition of colonialism, describing it as 'a psychological state rooted in earlier forms of social consciousness in both the colonizers and the colonized' (Nandy, 1983). The impact and intensity of colonial rule can thus be articulated in relation to epistemology, power and how these shared a dialectical relationship with the policies of the colonial government.
The language policy of the colonial government in India had an immense effect on the flow of ideas, the subversion of vernacular languages and the consequent politics of knowledge. Changes in the British Indian government's policy on languages had a decisive effect on culture, the psychology of colonialism, on politics and ideological formulations. It led to the solidification of certain notions and the subjugation of some, in accordance with occidental preferences for certain texts and structural conformity.
The famous 'Minute on Education' formulated by Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835 asserted a distinction between a traditional education and what he considered a western one. He glorified the latter and made a case for funding it more vigorously; the 'Eastern tongues' were to be ignored or relegated to a lower priority. The proposal was made in the context of distinctly British notions of class, education and related concepts concerning their own society, which were ultimately channelled into the areas they colonised. These included ideas of what was to be considered 'barbaric' or 'civilized' (ibid.).
The beginnings of these transformations could be described with the setting up of Fort William College, Calcutta in 1800, with printed dictionaries and other publications entering the picture. 'With the exception of Marathi during the Maratha ascendancy in western India, no Indian language was used as an official language throughout the medieval period of Indian history. That situation changed with the British. The dominance of Persian in most parts of northern India as the language of high culture and high administration came to an end finally. The British started schools in the native language and in giving the pandits in its monopoly, opened new vistas before the 'natives' in the use of their languages.(Deshpande, 1987).
The beginnings of colonial interactions with India's cultural and epistemological textures weren't entirely hostile; Indian vernaculars were given some importance even if strictly for administrative and state purposes. In place of Persian several native languages were accorded official status. It could be that the British aimed to replace the dominant groups by replacing their language. This however was short-lived for as soon as Macaulay's Minute was presented major legal and educational reforms were carried out on its basis. It derisively devalued 'Eastern tongues' and championed English or any good European library as perhaps far richer in value.
Macaulay therefore opposed the funding of vernacular education in general, and further advocated the need to form a "class who may be interpreters" who were "English in taste", serving the needs of the company and better equipping it for administrative efficiency and government. He also emphasised how this class could be relied upon to refine vernacular sources of knowledge by making use of "western nomenclature" and ideas, highlighting his intrinsic belief in the inferiority of the Orient, its culture and languages and how the West could improve it, or at best, save it. The foundations of the hierarchy had, thus, been placed and the dichotomy was furthered through means that will be analysed below.
These views on the hierarchical positions of Eastern tongues and the others may be rooted in ideas popular at the time in countries like Britain which emphasised similar dichotomies like that of the 'barbarians' and the 'civilised'. Even within British society such views were quite widespread. As Crowley explains, education was one of the arenas this dichotomy was prominent in, it also had hints of the "civilising mission".
"Education, for example, was clearly one such discourse and by definition the 'educated' had had access to it and, also by definition, the barbarians had not. However, when the problem was raised it was not inequality that was challenged but its results since as Reynolds observed: It was but natural that the fully articulate class, among whom discussion is fast and fairly free, should concentrate their attention chiefly upon the very apparent diseases of the less articulate classes, which can only speak for themselves, at best, through the comparatively clumsy machinery of elections and trade unions. Social reform came very largely to mean reform of those inarticulate classes. The 'less articulate classes' had a limited access to discourse (democratic though it was) and their 'very apparent diseases' were to be remedied by a large-scale reform of the 'inarticulate'. (Crowley, 1989) This could perhaps be considered the very basis of how these differing ideas emerged and ultimately discerned themselves in colonial contexts- the colonised people were seen, as the lower classes in Britain, the inarticulate class- this not only roused the notion that the British were superior, but their articulation could save the colonised from wallowing in their own barbaric nature.
Thus, the colonisers not only viewed the conquered people as the inarticulate class but used the production of knowledge and its intricacies to create other kinds of polarities. Said's poignant analysis of the concept of Orientalism explains how this logic of subjugation worked. By undermining the assumption of value-free knowledge, it was evident that 'knowing the Orient' was part of the process of dominating it. Reconstructing historical and literary texts reflected and reinforced the imperialist project because it created an 'other' which was open for scrutiny and was only to be understood in terms of its eventual subjugation. Thus, discourse as a form of knowledge was "a form of power itself" (Said, 1979) and not a supplement to it.
Hence, power and knowledge have inevitable connections that were intricately related to colonialism. Pennycook, whilst investigating the cultural discourses of Colonialism, asserted that by constructing negative discourses about 'the other', the colonisers explicitly or implicitly created positive imageries of themselves which impacted the colonised people's culture (Pennycook, 1988). Furthermore, this control on cultural discourses were employed in a way so the British could 'rationalise' their quests. Thus, formal independence of these nations didn't actually bring an end to discourses like these because some forms of dominance weren't military at all.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o could best describe what the psychological impact of colonialism was, with reference to the African context. He describes the interaction between colonialism and Africa citing his personal experiences. "It is an ever-continuing struggle to seize back their creative initiative in history through a real control of all the means of communal self-definition in time and space." (Thing'o, 1962). He describes how physical violence has overshadowed the much less talked about psychological war on the very culture and the way the colonised people lived, which forever scarred with their experiences with the colonisers. "The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle, a process best described in Cheikh Hamidou Kane's novel The Ambiguous Adventure, where he talks of the methods of the colonial phase of imperialism as consisting of knowing how to kill with efficiency and to heal with the same art. (is it a different quotation from here?) "On the Black Continent, one began to understand that their real power resided not at all in the cannons of the first morning but in what followed the cannons. Therefore behind the cannons (was) the new school. The new school had the nature of both the cannon and the magnet. From the cannon it took the efficiency of a fighting weapon. But better than the cannon it made the conquest permanent. The cannon forces the body and the school fascinates the soul." (ibid.) Education warped the manner in which the colonised people viewed themselves. English became the standard one was to achieve and the authentic culture and languages of the people that were colonised were relegated to lower statuses; they were undermined in their own spaces.
If this is how one is raised, in conditions wherein what is your own is clearly subjugated in favour of the colonizer's language and culture, it becomes a part of one's psyche, it changes how we think about ourselves and whatever we aspire to be. "Its (Colonialism) most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economics and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people's culture is to control its tools of self-definition in relationship to others. For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction, or the deliberate undervaluing of a people's culture, its art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature; and the domination of a people's language by that of the colonizing nation." (ibid.) Deliberately undervaluing the culture, traditions and languages was a systematic attempt at consolidating their own rule by subverting the very essence of the people.
"In fact, its greatest weakness still lay where it has always been, in its audience: the petty-bourgeois readership automatically assumed by the very choice of language. Because of its indeterminate economic position between the many contending classes, the petty bourgeoisie develops a vacillating psychological make-up. Like a chameleon it takes on the colour of the main class with which it is in the closest touch and sympathy." (ibid.)The domestic bourgeoisie is identified by their similarities to the colonial rulers and these markers they went on to adopt as status symbols and the like. The case wasn't very different in India either but it had more complex consequences.
G.P. Deshpande has commented that the trends in literature and theatre in Indian society were heavily influenced by colonialism, and how patterns of creative and aesthetic enterprise were largely similar. "Dominance and toot constitute the essence of imperialism. At the same time it is also true that domestically new kinds of economic relations were being introduced. The colonial state was very unlike any earlier form of state that the Indian people had known. India was forced into a new era. To describe this era as an era of modernity is not really saying much. What happened during the colonial phase was that 'different sides of the great geopolitical divide... two worlds and two histories', to use Perry Anderson's phrases (of course, used by him in a different context) confronted each other. This confrontation was bound to have as strange and unlikely results as the confrontation itself. (Deshpande, 1987)
These results were in fact strange in India's case. India's interaction with colonialism was distinct in the sense that it wasn't a complete subversion of vernacular languages with a distinct English preference; it was altogether a more complex reaction.
The impact of English was derisive- In Marathi, the sentence-structure changed and new terms like 'culture' appeared. In North India, Devanagari script started gaining ground as the mass language. Hence, the British did serve a few particular purposes in the arena of development of languages and scripts. A case in point could be the Mizo language:
"Mizo people followed the oral tradition prior to the colonial contact", says Carolyne Rosangliani, a Mizo student of Delhi University, "they didn't have a script. So, it was the British missionaries who were instrumental in creating a script for the language. The script remaining Roman but modified to the requirements of the Mizo language. A part of it though, I would say, obviously was because they wanted to spread the message of Christianity and to enable Mizos to read the Bible in their own language. A coincidental occurrence about it is that Mizo can be an official language because we have a script. And, it must be true of other Northeastern languages, too perhaps where you see that their script is Roman. I think the Khasi language is like that. In contrast take the people inhabiting Karbi Anglong, they're a large tribe in Assam with their own district but Karbi isn't an official language because of the lack of a script. Correlate this with the fact that Karbis are predominantly (integrated) Hindus." (Rosangliani) It is evident that the missionaries did in fact aid the development of scripts in various languages even if it was for their own ends. Formalisation of languages was indeed a positive aspect of these interactions for it gave them a chance to write in their very own languages.
Furthermore, developments in terms of prose and other literary changes did occur in colonial times. With the arrival of printing press, prose became a feasible mode of expression rather than the previously prevalent oral traditions. Thus, the Indian context is starkly different from the African experience. The former could be related to at least some form of positive developments. "Further, unlike in French and Portuguese colonies in Africa or the Caribbean, India had a flourishing indigenous linguistic and literary tradition (in some the natives had been exterminated; some had oral traditions; some may have had written).
"Nor would it be historically accurate to suggest that the west denied the existence of Indian (or for that matter Chinese) cultural values. It was interested in reducing those values to a secondary position. These differences, namely, an existence of fairly old literary and linguistic traditions and inheritance of a classical tradition in arts make the Indian situation very different."1 It did have a staggering psycho-social impact, but some patterns are identifiable that were of benefit. "We need a theoretical perspective which would bring together in a systematic way the aspects mentioned above. Amilcar Cabral has written in a consistent manner on colonialism and culture. His insight-Ã‚Âthat 'national liberation' is 'necessarily a cultural act' is more than borne out by the above survey. But his theories cannot be entirely applicable to the situation of colonial India. He had Africa and Portuguese colonialism in mind. He has characterised the African situation thus: One of the gravest errors, if not the worst, committed by the colonial powers in Africa was to have ignored or underestimated the cultural strength of African peoples. This attitude was particularly blatant in the case of the Portuguese colonial domination which not only categorically denied the existence of African cultural values.. . but also stubbornly refused to allow any political freedom of expression." (ibid.)
In conclusion, the psycho-social impact of colonialism in terms of epistemological and literary aspects was immense. These have differed across regions dominated by colonial powers and have been an essential instrument in the process of domination and control itself. "In the case of countries like India what colonialism did was to set in motion a process of retrieval of culture. Colonialism in cultural terms was, like a period of disturbed sleep for these ancient people. They lost some, they gained some. In short, colonialism has been of mixed experiences as much in cultural sphere as in spheres of economy and polity. In India, colonialism has had a dialectics of its own. It resulted in the suppression of the Indian people. At the same time and because of it, it led to the retrieval of cultural, classical traditions and languages. That in sum was our colonial aesthetic experience which was also anti-colonial aesthetic."(ibid.) In parts of Africa, this very aesthetic experience was choked to death during their domination.
Our identities are shaped around our experiences and it becomes imperative to understand its complexities. Our colonial experience has shaped much of our current patterns in arenas we can't possibly pinpoint. Furthermore, these fundamental changes shaped how we think today of ourselves, as colonised people.