The goddess of English

Jan 5, 2011 by

While English is not — and most likely will never be — the official language in the United States, it plays that role in many other countries in Africa and Asia, even where it is not the most widely spoken language. One such country is India, where English is an official language both on the national level and, for several states, on the state level.

After Indian independence in 1947, there were attempts to make Hindi the national language. However, the Dravidian-speaking south as well as other norhtern states where languages other than Hindi are spoken — Bengal, Rajastan, Orissa, Punjab, Maharashtra — refused to go along with the Hindification project. Today, there is another good reason for not choosing Hindi as the national official language in India: the Hindi-speaking belt — Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarth, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar — is the poorest and least socially developed part of India. The exception to this generalization are four smaller Hindi-speaking states that appear to be exceptionally developed: Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Sikkim. But quite naturally, other richer and more developed states do not want to adopt the language of the poor Hindi-belt. English, on the other hand, fits the bill perfectly: it is not the native language of any state or ethnic group within India and it is perceived as the language of the richer nations to be emulated. Unsurprisingly, English-language schooling is seen by many Indians as essential for success, although as few as 5% of the population actually speak English.

And now, English is going celestial in India: a political activist Chandra Bhan Prasad wants the country’s poorest caste, the Dalits (the former untouchable caste, before caste discrimination was outlawed) to improve its status by worshipping the English language. To start off he’s building a temple to Goddess English in the obscure village of Bankagaon, near Lakhimpur Khiri in Uttar Pradesh.

The image of Goddess English is modeled on the Statue of Liberty, though the goddess wears a floppy hat instead of a crown, carries a copy of the Indian Constitution (the days of the Raj being long gone), and holds aloft a fountain pen.
Prasad argues that “Universalism [is] central to the soul of Goddess English”, while India’s indigenous languages are both divisive and discriminatory. For him, speaking English is the way for Dalits to exchange their hereditary poverty for high-status jobs in science and IT, which is why his statue of Goddess English stands on a personal computer.

While the rest of the world seems to agree that English is the language to acquire, Indians go as far as celebrating “English Day” (October 25, the birthday of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was instrumental in creation of an elite class of civil servants, “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”) and now worshipping English in the form of a three-foot high statue draped with garlands and paraded through the neighborhood every October 25. And this may be a little over the top, even in a country with a Hindu pantheon that may have up to 330 million deities.

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