Public intellectuals must end their hypocrisy on English education for the masses

In a closed-door meeting with public intellectuals, Rahul Gandhi told me he’s not opposed to English medium education in government schools. But surprisingly, a Left intellectual disagreed.

Representative image of a classroom.


Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Public intellectuals play a very important role in a democratic system. A public intellectual challenges the policies they think will go against the people’s interests, and keeps on proposing pro-people policies and theoretical propositions. India needs more honest public intellectuals becasue of the historical, spiritual, social, and political discrimination of the SC/ST/Shudra communities, and women. Specifically, when it comes to education, many public intellectuals take a hypocritic stand, where what’s good enough for their own children is not what they propose for the children from historically marginalised communities. 

The education sector has played a most powerful discriminatory role in Indian history, keeping out marginalised people from getting an education that can lead to material improvements in their lives. To correct this, the constitutional democracy is opening up many channels of anti-discriminatory policies, and the school and university education system is constantly undegoing shifts and changes in this process. Currently, one of the important issues across states is whether governments should promote English medium education in schools.

On May 7, 2022 Rahul Gandhi, the former Congress president, wanted to meet some public intellectuals and activists in Hyderabad. I was also invited to meet with him, of course, without any specified agenda. I went to the meeting with a view to ascertain his opinion mainly on two issues. Firstly, his view on English medium education in government schools, along with the question of development of government school infrastructure to match private schools. Second, to know what his Other Backward Class policy is. Both these issues have immediate relevance to Telangana, where he addressed a big public meeting on May 6 at Warangal. In that meeting, the Telangana Congress made a declaration for farmers, but on other issues, they were silent.Featured Videos from TNM

At the meeting, I asked Rahul Gandhi what his stand on English as a medium of education in government schools was. He said, “I am not opposed to the English medium in government schools.” He then asked Revanth Reddy, the Telangana Congress president who was also present in the meeting, as to what the party’s state unit’s stand was. The KCR government has already announced English medium education in all government schools from the 2022-23 academic year for classes 1 to 8. Revanth Reddy also said that the Telangana Congress is for English medium in government schools.

That Rahul Gandhi, at least in private, agreed that he is not opposed to the English medium in state government schools is important. In 2015 when I met Siddaramaiah, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka, in his official residence for a one-on-one meeting and told him that he should think of introducing English medium in Karnataka government schools, his response was two fold. One, his high command would not accept such an educational policy, he said. And secondly, Kannada intellectuals including UR Ananthamurthy and Girish Karnard had been opposing any such move in the state for a long time. Hence, he said, high profile intellectuals and the media will create a problem for his government. Instead of introducing English medium in school education, which would have brought more votes, he chose to rake up the Tipu Sultan issue. That ended up strengthening the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi is a driving force of the Congress party’s high command and to know his stand is important in the context of the BJP’s anti-English posture.

However, in that closed-door meeting last week, one public intellectual who was also an invitee intervened and said, “I am opposed to introducing English medium in government schools.” Rahul Gandhi asked him why, and he replied, “Since I studied in the Telugu medium, I think studying in the Telugu medium will be better than studying in the English medium.”

I was surprised at this position of someone who is known as a Left intellectual. The problem with those who take this position on the question of English medium in state government schools is that they educate their own children in the best private English medium schools that they can afford. I knew that the man who opposed English medium education in government schools educated his own sons in one of the best English medium schools in Hyderabad.

It’s not just one public intellectual who opposed English for rural children in one meeting — this is a hypocritical stand taken by several public intellectuals without concern for how it practically affects the futures of SC/ST/Shudra children.

Public intellectualism in Euro-American countries emerged as a Left-Liberal profession to spread the ‘Idea of Honesty’ and fight for human equality in every sphere. A public intellectual is neither a politician nor an institutionally trained bureaucrat to say one thing in office and do something else in personal life. Particularly on issues of public concern, they have to have an honest, committed stand, which should not drive the society and the state in opposite directions. For a public intellectual, what is good for them should be seen as good for others, and they must fight for others’ benefit. Such a consistent stand of public intellectuals pushes politicians to a new position in the interest of the larger masses.

Intellectual dishonesty is a historical legacy of Brahmanism. The productive masses suffered historical loss and backwardness during the period of Sanskrit hegemony, which was controlled by the Dwijas, mainly Brahmins. Now, this kind of intellectual dishonesty about English language education for the poor keeps the rural and urban working classes away from English education, which will confine them to the margins of the system.

The Vice President of India and a popular right-wing leader, Venkaiah Naidu, and the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, have expressed similar opinions. They have repeatedly said in public that introducing English medium education in government schools is a wrong decision. Naturally the reference is to the decision of Jaganmohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh and the KCR government in Telangana. The AP government pushed the policy by overcoming the political and judicial hurdles. The Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, went one step further and said that people of all states must communicate with each other in Hindi and not in English.

But to my surprise Rahul Gandhi without hesitation said he was not against states deciding about the medium of instruction issue in government schools. And I hope that his party at the national level will formulate a language policy that gives freedom to the states as he believes that India is a ‘Union of States’ not a unitary state.

If the Congress comes to power in Telangana and a grand old national party like the Congress goes along with the view that Rahul Gandhi expressed in that closed-door meeting, the nation will enter a new phase of education policy. Naturally, the BJP also will have to come around.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. He has been campaigning for English-medium education in government schools across the country for the last 30 years. Views expressed are the author’s own.