Abolishing English in schools: implications for higher education in West Bengal
Abstract In 1982, the then ruling Left Front government in West Bengal (India) abolished the teaching of English from its primary schools. The move led to a high-pitched controversy over the social importance of teaching English, when and how it should be taught. The main arguments in favour of the decision were to confront the elitism inherent in giving primacy to a “foreign” language and to promote higher enrolment and reduce drop-out rates. Those opposed to the decision spoke of redrawing class maps and the difficulties of negotiating a nation of many languages with fluency in only one regional language. Over the years, there were more complex arguments; moreover, demand for English among the rural poor led to a greater demand for private schools or private tuition. The abolition of English was accompanied by major interventions in Bangla language-teaching, which too were hotly debated within the academy. Twenty-five years later, in 2007, a new-look Left Front government sought to reverse the decision and re-introduce English into primary schools. There was opposition within the government from those who had been votaries of the previous decision. The reversal was endorsed by government, however, despite vocal protests. The paper revisits some of the arguments attending this flip-flop of policy. It argues that these have wider significance for language policy in higher education, in West Bengal of course, but also resonating in other contexts with strong traditions in regional languages.
Professor Samita Sen is at present Vice Chancellor, Diamond Harbour Women’s University. Her monograph on women’s employment in the jute industry in colonial Bengal was published in 1999. She is at present working on women’s migration in relation to tea and overseas plantations. Her various research publications include issues such as education, the women’s movement, marriage, domestic violence, domestic workers, women in governance and women’s land rights. Her recent publications include a jointly edited volume on marriage and sexualities titled Intimate Others (Stree, 2010) and a Reader on Women’s Studies, Mapping the Field (Stree 2011). She is a member of a Calcutta-based voluntary women’s association, Sachetana, since 1983.