A Dalit Temple to ‘Goddess English’

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit intellectual, activist and a bit of a maverick, has for several years been trying to promote fluency in English as the key to the liberation of the people at the bottom of India’s caste system from what he sees as the caste prejudice inherent in Indian languages like Hindi.

He usually hosts a party on Oct. 25, the birthday of Lord Babington Macaulay, the man who got the Raj authorities to adopt English as the language of higher education in India (he also drafted the 1860 penal code that India still uses today). Many Indians criticize Lord Macaulay for creating, in his words, “a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” to act as native interpreters between the British and India’s multitudes.

He was fairly successful and even today many of India’s upper classes think and write in English. For decades some Indian intellectuals have wondered (often in English) how to gain the standing for other Indian languages that English – and those educated in English – have.

Mr. Prasad has no time for such concerns. Today he is presiding over the laying of a foundation stone for a temple dedicated to “Goddess English” in a village in Uttar Pradesh state, about 350 kilometers east of New Delhi. He hopes the temple will be completed by Lord Macaulay’s birthday.

“In cities, people are somewhat aware of the importance of English,” said Mr. Prasad ahead of the trip. “In villages, not much. So I wanted to trigger this sort of recognition.”

The 2009 Annual State of Education in India report found that about 51% of schoolchildren in rural India can both read and understand simple sentences in English by the time they get to Class Eight, usually at age 13 or 14, after which many children leave school.

So why a temple and not an English teaching center, scores of which can be seen in cities and towns all over India?

“I cannot reach large masses of people. I do not have the infrastructure to provide English instruction to scores of people,” said Mr. Prasad. “If you say English is a goddess, worship it, then the message is much better.”

Among the design conceits on the drawing board: the front pillars of the temple could be mounted on concrete shaped like computers, the steps are to resemble a computer keyboard, and a “fountain pen-shaped elevated object” is planned on the roof. There will also be a statue of an anonymous gentleman “in a coat, wearing a hat and who sports specs or sunglasses,” said Mr. Prasad.

“These are all symbols of modernity and I want to inject that into the very childhood of Dalit kids,” he said.

If anything Mr. Prasad, who has a flair for being polemical, seems to think Lord Macaulay didn’t take his Anglicization project far enough. Mr. Prasad says his own aversion to Indian languages extends to “native dress” as well as language although he hasn’t extended that injunction to people visiting his Macaulay parties. He points out that along with many other caste-based restrictions, Dalit men were not allowed to wear the full-length version of the dhoti, a wrap worn over the lower part of the body.

“English attire is caste-neutral,” said Mr. Prasad. “In India, the dress of the people differs from caste to caste. But the architecture of the trouser is same for everybody.”

By Tripti Lahiri


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