In a welcome step the Government of India has announced a new education policy after 34 years.

India is a pluri-lingual and pluri-ethnic country with multiple diversities and hierarchies. To achieve social democracy, and constitutional values in political and economic life, all governments must focus on the young generation and make them educated in modern languages including English, so they can prove their intellectual worth at the national and international levels.

It is also important to mention that the policies of globalisation have forced the state to put its items up for sale. Whether they are profitable public sector companies or public education at the primary, secondary or higher levels. Now in Corona times the trend is on the upswing to sell off these public assets. In this situation language and literature have suffered a lot due to fund cuts in this sector.

The NEP 2020 document mentions that children aged 2 to 8 quickly pick up multiple languages. It also says that wherever possible, in public and private schools, “the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/ mother tongue/ local language/ regional language” and teachers will be encouraged to use a bilingual approach of teaching-learning, for which more local language teachers will be required.

Every student of the country between 6-8 grades will participate in an assessment-free fun project on the languages of India along with tribal languages. All students will have the option to study a classical language and its literature for at least two years between grades 6-12.

The focus is on Sanskrit. The document says that Sanskrit is an important modern (Schedule 8) language and possesses a classical literature greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together, and so it will be offered at all levels of school and higher education.

Then it mentions “other classical languages, including classical Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malyalam, Odia” and also puts Pali, Persian and Prakrit near to this category.

Besides these languages and English, some foreign languages such as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Spanish or Russian will also be widely offered at the secondary level. This will be enhanced through innovative and experiential teaching methods and pedagogy.

Indian Sign Language will be standardised across the country, while local sign languages will be respected and taught as well.

We know the diversity in culture and ethos and without collective wisdom we would not be able to march ahead. By 2030 the whole system will be tuned for this policy and in the decade of 2030-40 the entire policy will be in an operational mode.

The discussion on policy raises many questions.

The first and foremost is, where is the importance of Sanskrit in modern society? We know that none of the state have adopted it as a first language, only Uttarakhand as a second language.

The real picture is not being presented about Sanskrit, whose followers are very few. Six classical languages are mentioned, so why is the focus on this so-called language of cultural heritage? It should be avoided and the focus should be on all the modern languages of the Eighth Schedule along with English.

The Indian Constitution under Articles 343-351 clearly mentions the need for all scheduled languages, and places a big responsibility on Hindi as the official language of the Union, and thus Hindi has achieved a lot on the national and international stage.

But Hindi cannot displace English from its rank because the presence of English is everywhere in India, whether in the administration, judiciary, competitive exams, teaching-learning, research and innovative processes, trade and diplomacy and so on.

English is more important due to its worldwide presence in higher education. It is a window of opportunities within the nation or outside.

It is also a link language within the nation. For very long we are facing regional barriers of languages and infighting within our people.

The three-language formula enunciated in the 1968 National Policy resolution provided for the study of Hindi, English and a modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages, in the Hindi speaking states; and Hindi, English and the regional language in the non-Hindi speaking states.

For many reasons it was not implemented successfully. We have a diversity in languages and culture, which cannot be judged by any single-language impression whether it be Hindi or English or any other.

The reality is that without approval from all the state legislative assemblies, Hindi could not be declared the state language of the nation, and at present it is only an official language of the Union along with English.

We have to make a cordiality among all modern languages and their followers. It is a time to march forward and learn national and international languages, to which the Union and States should allocate more public money.

The policy in Hindi-speaking states to learn Sanskrit compulsorily in the 6-8 group should go, and the choice should be given to the students to learn modern languages.

As far as teaching in the mother tongue is concerned up to Class 5 or further, the government schools are following it, but private schools are not bothering. More needs to be done in this regard.

The 2011 Census which published language estimates in 2018 recorded a total of 121 languages out of which 22 were in the Eighth Schedule, and the remaining 99 were non-scheduled languages.

The category Hindi was estimated to be the largest, spoken across 10 states as the first language and also the second language of many states. Hindi along with 57 associated languages was spoken by 43.6% of the population.

Bengali (8%) and Marathi (6.9%) had the largest following after Hindi. The Dravidian languages covered 19.7% of the people – Telugu and Tamil were 6.7% and 5.7% respectively.

These were only the five most spoken language categories in India.

Urdu was the seventh-largest with 4.2% of the nation. Punjabi with a rich secular tradition, literature and thoughts, also across the border, had more than 33 million speakers (2.74%) in India.

Haryanvi though it is a non-schedule language recorded nearly 10 million or 1 crore speakers.

Sanskrit though it is a schedule language was followed by only 24,821 people. In the 1971 Census its speakers numbered only 2,212.

So the State should focus on jan bhasha instead of so-called dev bhasha (people’s language not gods’ language). Language should not be abused to fulfil a political agenda.

Most importantly, this policy sanctions a line between poor|rich, rural|urban and public|private teaching and learning mechanisms, in which students from forward backgrounds receive an English-medium education, whereas the poor rural students are unable to get it.

Non-implementation of a uniform policy means that many students lose the chance to learn better English, and so lose opportunities in life as well.

The policy document accepts that 32.2 million children in the 6-16 age group were out of school, the majority of them from disadvantaged groups.

Rectifying this is not an easy job in a situation where the Union and States are not expending much on education. But they are spending extra on so-called national issues which are not productive, they yield nothing.

Without properly educating our children and youth in schools and universities this so-called nationalism will not help make us a better country to live in.

Above all, it is important as the document says to develop critical thinking in young minds, and for it quality scientific texts and narrative books will be needed at the primary and secondary level. This should have been addressed before implementing a new language policy. Such books need to be included in the curriculum.

Ajmer Singh Kajal is professor at the Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Cover Photo: BASIT ZARGAR/The Citizen