English, Tamil: Ideology vs. Reality (3 of 3)

Bernstein states that the way 'a society selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates the educational knowledge it considers to be public, reflects both the distribution of power and the principles of social control.’ Habermas and Bernstein, among others, provide some crucial rubrics to understand the complex political processes that underpin the medium of instruction issue in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka -- and similar Indian states -- which carry strong political and ideological overtones. Habermas regards ideology as ‘systematically distorted communication’ and the ‘suppression of generalizable interests,’ where structural features in communities (including language communities) and societies operate to the advantage of the dominant and the disadvantage of subordinate groups. Ideology here is taken to be the values of dominant groups in society that permeate the social structure, with or without the consensus of all. Power, through ideology, is omnipresent in language. And language is a principal means for the operation of power. Going by Gramsci’s notion of hegemony – domination by consent of all parties, including the dominated – language is intimately involved in the manufacture of ideological consent and in turn where power resides.

Tamil Nadu provides for a very insightful case study in this regard. The MOI issue in Tamil Nadu is bound by issues of power, domination, legitimacy and social stratification. Historically, the Tamil region has had an uncomfortable relationship with the Indian union and it was one of the only states that problematized the notion of having a national language – to be used for all official communication and to be used as the MOI in all public schools – and was successful in undermining the idea altogether. But it also gave birth to a political discourse that was obsessed with a rigid Tamil identity. The Dravidian governments have insisted, since then, on the necessity to preserve 'Tamil heritage' and its purported uniqueness. They have expressed concerns over Tamil losing its stature among its own populace.

Even if one does not problematize essentialist notions such as 'Tamil heritage', it is untenable to assume that maintaining Tamil as the primary medium of instruction in public schools would achieve that goal. The government has not done any studies to establish if public schools have produced more ‘authentic Tamils’ than private schools. Both in terms of feasibility and ideological apprehension that Tamil will lose its foothold among its people, the governments’ concerns seem unfounded. The Dravidian parties (DMK and ADMK) have, over the decades, used Tamil to exploit a populist sentiment that is not necessarily reflected on people’s economic aspirations and the means to achieving them. However, this populist sentiment is not peculiar to Tamil politics alone. The mainstream media, especially films, exhibit a dichotomous behavior in which people who speak ‘pure’ Tamil considered to be true to their identity while indirectly maintaining that those who speak ‘good’ English are sophisticated. (This observation is all the more relevant for a state like Tamil Nadu.)

‘Symbolic violence’, Bourdieu says, is when structures of domination in a society are reproduced by imposing cultural values claimed to be universal. English, in this context, maybe argued as an elitist cultural value thrust on the poor and socially backward by creating an illusion of empowerment while simultaneously delegitimizing Tamil’s role in achieving the same. But it is in direct contradiction with macro, external realities such as the difficulties faced by Tamil medium students when they enter the university level and the labour market. The underlying problem is not whether or not English is desired by all sections of the society but whether the State should maintain its exclusivity.


English linguistic capital continues to be linked to cultural and economic capital and to reproduce the existing stratification of society and schooling. This practice has only become stronger over the years; the recent economic growth driven by the IT industry has re-invented the elite status that English language has long held in India. Students’ performance in private, English medium schools has also legitimized the power exerted by English, further increasing its desirability. Therefore, it is unrealistic to hope that students from Tamil medium schools will be able to compete on a level playing field in the future.

The MOI issue in Tamil Nadu, may also be interpreted through Gidden's structuration theory: where agency (parental aspiration) combines with structure (parents’ cultural background and the school system) to produce and reify social structures and behavior. The successive governments lead by the Dravidian parties, by the way of restricting the MOI to Tamil in most of the public schools, has repressed the agency of those who need it the most – the poor and the backward classes. The political elites of Tamil Nadu – primarily from the Dravidian parties – have created a landscape that has normalized several false dichotomies.

The purported significance of a Tamil identity, it can be argued, is no more than a hegemonic thrust of a moralistic ideology that marginalized the fundamental aspirations of a people who were already politically and economically disenfranchised, especially the SC/ST. The DMK’s vision of empowering the masses by reclaiming the Tamil identity has been farcical at best. It laid a heuristic obstacle by creating dead ends to students who were indirectly forced to go through Tamil-medium schools. Tamil’s virtual absence in universities and colleges stand testament to this claim. The language policy is underpinned by the oversimplification of Tamil ethnic identity to medium of instruction in schools. A point that needs to be contrasted with the fact the much of the modern exposure of Tamil, as a language and a cultural entity, has been fuelled by social and technological development rooted in English.

A State that envisions an egalitarian society – that makes policy reforms to accommodate lower castes by quotas and other such reservation systems – should also take into account the interests of the wider public in other critical issues. Regardless of what percentage of people choose English-medium schools – if given the choice – the state government’s role in forcing them one way or the other is questionable. In a state with such visible stratification based on caste structures, the State needs to democratize the educational system in a way that reflects the current priorities of the people.


Kalpana said...

Very useful cliche that helped to remember the strategies again. Thank you.

D Clumsy Counter said...

I am a student from TN... i studied english as my first, hindi as my second, and Tamil as my third language...
Hindi was chosen for me to study for it to be an added advantage to me when I work/do business in the future... he he he... I hate Hindi (what worth is it than Tamil, Sanskrit, Bengali, n others???) being thrust as our national language while it is evidently English that's more preferred... I tell new people that I meet that I don't know hindi and they sometimes even go crazy about it and one joked that Tn shud be given to SLanka... (he was a moron though...)

I am not impressed by all the Tamil Governments either... like - don't they have questions to ask for themselves about their identity?
I heard that our National Anthem is also something that was written in praise of the Queen during the Brit rule...
I am losing hope in India and TN... How more silent can it be on the SL Tamil issue?
When I see other international students use their language even in their computers, I feel bad for the students who don't have Tamil medium education for their college studies... I am very sorry for those who even lost their lives while being highly intelligent but unable to cope up with English in their college...
And to the HELL to the boring media which lacks the balls to even bring out the old glory of Tamil.

My confusions are endless...

Just as I was confused and searching for answers, I wanted to cook keerai and i youtubed, which lead me to your video n then ur kothu parotta and then to your blogspot address... i am just happy to see such wonderful works being posted so that I don't waste time to figure out these complications alone and anew...
Dheepak Kumar .V
Thank you...

Anonymous said...

poor suresh :) catering to serious postmodern deconstruction scholars on one hand and hungry 19 year old kothu barotta aficionados on the other. romba paavam. Dei barotta, why it matters whether you study hindi or chinese, whether TN goes to sri lanka or siberia. Just get your F1 visa and get the hell out of medras. Old glory of tamila ? WTF dude ?! Tamil is fit for a gloryhole only. Actually nee chinna paiyyan glory hole ellam google pannadhe. Cook the keerai and eat it with barotta and stretch your legs so your lungi does not uncover the private parts while you get some shuteye.

Your sincerely,
Giddens Bourdieu-Habermas Bernstein's onu vitta chittappa,
vivekananda theru,
dubai kurukku sandu,

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