“Indian languages carry the legacy of caste”: Article Watch

The following is an interview of Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist who writes a weekly column on Dalit issues in The Pioneer newspaper. The interview is hard-hitting and severe against the ‘preservation’ of culture… because in that preservation lies also the preservation of the oppression of culture. For an Indian Christian who never believed in caste… has no caste… and hopefully never saw any Indian as anything less than an Indian… this interview challenges my hidden biases… or at least appeals for a more radical response. The interview was split into two articles and so I’m linked to them both after an extensive excerpt from each. Read full part 1 (“Indian languages carry the legacy of caste”) here. Read full part 2 (“Let all Indian languages whither away”) here.

In an article on reservation for oppressed classes in the information technology sector, noted sociologist Gail Omvedt had quoted a Dalit boy as saying: ‘In Pune they just assume that anyone working with computers is a Brahmin.’

The hidden agony of being born in the former untouchable class is now coming into the open in the so-called resurgent India. Dalits, who number around 161 million and live on the margins of society, are passing through testing times.

In a changing India, they don’t want to be left behind as they have for thousands of years in the past. Their aspiration to get ahead is driving them to a variety of new ideas and actions. They are also, looking back to their messiah — freedom fighter and Constitution expert Dr B R Babasaheb Ambedkar.

New Delhi-based Chandra Bhan Prasad, 48, is a Dalit activist who writes a weekly column on Dalit issues in The Pioneer newspaper.

Born in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, in a peasant’s family, Prasad has done an M Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University on technological acquisition in post-Mao China. Due to unavailability of resources he could not complete his Ph D in the Chinese history of science.

Prasad picked up the gun in the early 1980s when he joined the Communist Party of India-Maoist Leninist with dreams of changing Indian society. “The Maoists are ambiguous, they can’t win,” he says. “They are not reflective on the issue of caste in India so I left the CPI-ML.”

Now, married but struggling without a regular income, Prasad keeps throwing up provocative ideas concerning Dalits in the national debate.

His latest idea is the anti-thesis of the saying — ‘language is the cradle of civilisation.’ Prasad thinks the ethnic languages of India are carrying forward — generation after generation — the prejudices and biases of casteist Indian minds.

Prasad, in a passionately argued debate with Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt, claims that for the empowerment of Dalits, the knowledge of English is must, especially in a society where those who can speak English are riding up the social ladder faster than others.

English, he says, is the new goddess!

Read full part 1 here.

Part Two, entitled, ‘Let all Indian languages whither away’ .

Let all Indian languages whither away. Let all Indians speak English by 2060. Let this happen and India will be a better nation, feels Dalit activist Chandra Bhan.

In the second part of his interview to Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt, he says the key for Dalit success and emancipation is English, and only English.

Something good about your identity, community and culture will also vanish by abandoning your language.

What is my identity? What is worth preserving in us? See, after we unveiled the goddess of English, critics said that the English-speaking Dalits will get distanced from the traditional knowledge system. I want to say clearly that the entire fight of the Dalit movement is to somehow get rid of the traditional knowledge system and occupation.

Like, the dhobis (washermen) of India have profound and exceptional knowledge of creating detergents from the dung of donkeys. It’s a complicated process. Do you think those Dalits enjoy making detergent from dung? I want to tell these people — who are against us in our endeavour to know English — let us exchange our knowledge system.

You give us teaching jobs and other decent jobs and you take the knowledge of donkey dung. Without any training, without going to school or colleges or without learning from skilled teachers, Dalits can skin a dead cow in an hour without messing up or cutting various parts of the body. It is (skinning of dead animals) a real art acquired with profound knowledge of the body science of animals.

We want to gift our talent to other castes. You require exceptional level of human patience if you collect human shit in your bare hands and don’t vomit. Dalits have been doing it for ages. Please take this knowledge immediately and allow us to go to CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)!

Alok Rai, the Hindi legend Premchand’s grandson, has also protested against Dalits abandoning ethnic languages. He is a professor of English at Delhi University. He has a dog named Rocky. He talks to his dog only in English. Even his dog understands English and he doesn’t want Dalits to know English. What hypocrisy!

Read full part 2 here.


2 Responses to ““Indian languages carry the legacy of caste”: Article Watch”

  1. 1 Avatar March 14, 2007 at 11:13 am

    I certainly agree with Mr.prasad on his advocacy to enlighten Dalits with English.
    I always thought casteism to be a product of irrational bigot minds.
    I denounced my caste and i condone caste system till my last breath.

    English should be taught to Dalits for two reasons
    1) The world runs on English now (except for evolved Japanese ,German and French people,Thanks to Brish) Dalits should not at all lag behind others in acquiring English.

    2) voicing out their agony and suffering could be done easy at international stage and thus compelling Indian leaders to take seriously the job of suppresing this henious caste system.

    But i wll not give consent to his theory on Indian languages.

    which indian languages is he talking about?
    According to Amartyasen Sanskrit has the most Atheistic literature than any other language in the world.
    Problem aroused because of the propagation of hating and irrational side of Sanskrit.

    Language is just an expression medium.The results depend on one’s ability to use the language to achieve a target, like using New Testament and not Old Testament in Evangelism or Reforming( Old Testament has more racist overtones and an egoistic God ).

    (hey…don’t think i’m a champion of indian langs,iam just an observer in this world )

    English is not devoid of racism and ugly death metal bands which induce more violent nature than any other language.
    More on language and culture :read asimov’s Foundation

  2. 2 NAyK March 14, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    To Avatar: Thanks for you comment, Avatar. I really liked your point, which I think is correct, against the rejection of local languages. I guess, I would believe it since ‘hate begets hate’ a hatred of Indian languages to adopt newer languages *english* can only lead to further hate.

    My question to Prasad would be, once everyone in the world speaks English… it is not possible that hatred, bigotry and division will still be engendered in the language of the people, from any caste/creed? In effect, the oppressed would still be looking for redemption and may perhaps need to flee from (reject) English again. And the cycle will just go on and on.

    In my view, hatred/castism/racism is rooted beyond language into the very ethos of the evil side of our being. No one is untouched by it… we all are propogators and victims of hatred. The concern is, “What now?”And of course there are many answers… but which answer is right? That is perhaps an important question.

    Anyway… thank you for taking the time to think and respond. I will try and see ‘Foundation’ when I can.

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Philippians 2:11-13 (NIV) (12)Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (13)for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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