Who Neglected Bangla Anyway

Sandip Bandyopadhyay


Language, as a discursive issue, has once again come to the fore in West Bengal. In the early 1980s, it was a debate over the teaching of English at the primary stage; this time it is a demand for introducing Bangla at all levels of official correspondence in the state. The former debate entailed a vigorous demand for rehabilitating English at the elementory stage of school education; the current demand accompanies a debate over the role and status of Bangla in the very state of West Bengal. The advocates of English apprehended that without English, education would be meaningless. The champions of Bangla attributes the cultural decay in West Bengal to the continuing neglect of the mother-tongue. Meanwhile, the State Government half-heartedly conceded the demand of the English lobby and reintroduced English at the primary stage in 1998. To the Bangla movement, the government’s response seems to be wholehearted. It has agreed to give priority to Bangla move, no doubt. But this is not likely to resolve the deeper issues involved in the ongoing language debate.


In the 1980s and after, the Anglicists had argued that removal of English would put at a disadvantage the large majority of the children who could not afford to continue beyond the primary stage of education. The opponents, on the other hand, held that English as a forign language was a burden to the majority of the primary school students. If they were relieved of this burden, school would be a ‘more congenial place’ for the ‘mass of children’, they hoped.


The debate at the ground level followed the language of political battle — each side hurling invective against the other, discovering 'conspiracy' in the opponent's view etc. However in order to add an academic dimension to the debate, both camps invoked some pedagogical issues too. Newspapers swarmed with experts' views on the right age for introducing a second language (SL), how the SL is learnt, what the recent researches have brought out etc. Politics however finally overpowerd pedagogy and the issue served as an element of campaign during the elections too. The Government and its loyal units found a colonial mindest among the anglicists. The critics of the official policy, on the other hand accused the authorities of playing havoc with school eduaation in the state. Both sides traded charges against each other; the battle of words continued.


The scenario however began to change by the turn of the century. The most important development was the Government's confession that the state of primary education in West Bengal has worsened considerably. Earlier in 1991, Ganashakti, the CPI(M) daily organ, had claimed that the rate of drop out at the primary level had been reduced to 25% only and as many as 92 lakh children had enrolled in primary schools till 1988. (Pashimbanger Sikshachitra, pp 7-8). In 1995 however, the state Government while launching a booster programme (Ananda Paath) with Unicef assistance, admitted that the rate of drop out between calsses I-II had gone up to over 37% (pp-1-2). The Ashok Mitra Commission (1992) which supported the Government’s second language policy, also pointed to the lamentable condition of primary education in the state. The condition of the Calcutta Corporation schools, for instance, came under attack by the Commission. Another study conducted by a voluntary group Sikshabhavna in 1996 found that 58% of the students tended to drop out between classes I-IV. That the enrolment trend had begun to decline in the 1990s, was borne out by official figures too. As for example, Paschimbanger Sikshachitra : thakan o ekhan, a 1996 state govt publication put the number of children enrolled by 1994-95 at 84 lakh only. (p4). Compared with the Ganashakti figures presented in 1991, it is evident that spread of pirmary education in West Bengal which had made a significant progress in the 1960s, suffered a setback in the follwing decade. The 1996 publication, however, continued to claim that education was one of the areas in which the Left Front Government has made a remarkable achievement.' (Ibid,p1)

Facts, however, speak otherwise. Even the official figures reveal that removal of English has not been able to encourage greater participation of children in primary education. The statistics rather show a declining trend. In terms of students' performance too, the scenario was found to be highly depressing. A joint study carried out by the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) and State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) in 1995 maintained that pupil’s achievement in all the subjects was ‘much below the minimum expected score.’ The findings of Sikshabhavna were more alarming. Only 9.8% of the students in class IV could score 50+ marks in Bangla and Mathematics. In the fifth standard, the percentage was found to be as low as 5.6. In sum, both the official and non-official surveys exposed the fact that primary education in West Bengal had turned out to be a shambles.




The situation however has generated contrasting reactions. The English lobby is happy that its apprehension  has come true and is convinced that revival of English can salvage the sagging spirits of the children and their parents. The official camp, on the other hand, blames the craze for English-medium schools and, the consequent neglect of the vernacular makes a villain of the Anglicists. The advocates of this camp therefore strees the need for restoring Bangla as a means of improving the condition of primary education. They also relate their demand to a wider question of the status of Bangla in West Bengal. The English lobby is playing to weaken the very foundation of Bengali language and culture, they argue.



The charges that the two opposing camps level against each other are however based on half truths. By insisting on English only, the Anglicists overlook the other far more important factors relating to primary education. Similarly, their opponents ignore the fact that rightly or wrongly a large number of parents want their children to learn English from the beginning. According to a recent SCERT study, even in the rural areas, parents are increasingly opting for English medium schools for their children's education. (The Statesman, 11 May, 1998) The trend was discernible even in the 1980s. A section of the ABTA, the teachers organisation owing allegience to the ruling maxist party, had been covertly supporting the English lobby, sending their children to English medium schools or compelling the authorities of public schools to teach English at the primary stage. It is too well known that many schools had started teaching English long before the official recommendation came into effect. Viewed in this perspective, it is clear that the Govenmmenf's language policy has totally fallen through. The loyalists however do not admit it and they are now trying to save their faces by pitting English against Bangla and thus whipping up a sort of Bengali chauvinism. The Save Bangla slogan is in fact, directed against an imagined enemy because the English lobby had never insisted on promoting English at the expense of the mother-toungue. They couldn't do it for strategic reasons too; because that would have impaired their liberal image. In the face of the Save Bangla movement, the Anglicists have actually changed their stand. They do not oppose the demand for Bangla as a medium of official correspondence straight away; but continue to argue that the government is underrating the value of English in education. Sunanda Sanyal, in a recent article in Desh, a Bengali periodical, (27 May, 2000) has gone to the extent of saying that it is the English language that taught us to think. (So, to do away with English is to discard the very faculty of rational thinking). The ghosts of the 19th Century Anglicists sometimes do reappear in the persons of the advocates of English. But do they have the strength to pose a threat to Bangla? Are they alone responsible for the declining status of Bangla in West Bengal? More precisely: who neglected Bangla anyway?


Bangla Despite their preference for English, parents in lakhs had been  sending their children to the schools that did not teach English at the primary level. English was no burden to those children. Why did they then perform so badly in Bangla and Mathematics? The question should take us to the central issue: the condition of primary schools and the kind of teaching-learning activity that takes place there. Unfortunately enough the 20-year-long language debate has hardly touched on this issue. In recent years several studies have exposed the deplorable condition of primary schools all over the country and West Bengal is no exception. The ISI-SCERT survey (1995) found that most primary schools in West Bengal could not provide blackboards for all the classes and 34% of the schools had only one room for the four classes. What kind of teaching can such schools offer? As it is too well known, the common practice is that if the teachers at all teaches, s/he reads someting from the textbook and pupils are asked to cram the information given in the book. In such a situation, ‘a lot is taught (on paper) but little is learnt or understood’, as the Yashpal Committee Report (‘Learning Without Burden,’ 1993) observed.


And now the question of the  alleged decay  of Bangla. It is common knowledge that the dynamism of a language derives from its creative use in communicative interaction. But as in everyday communication, so in intellectual discoourse, language in West Bengal has become a sort of Banglish which is neither Bangla, nor English in terms of correct usuage. Even in the case of written Bangla, the language of the official  monographs, textbooks, teachers' manuals etc is often substandard. We have not yet been able to achieve uniformity in spelling rules and the result in that children are exposed to different spellings of the same words in diffferent books. Even the govt publications do not always follow a uniform rule.


Recently, I came across a guidebook for the teachers of the ‘joyful learning’ programme. The specimens, of ‘joyful’ rhymes given in the book are an assault on the Bengali language, to say the least. Another guidebook written by the Director, SCERT has every page fraught with spelling errors. And about the author’s understanding of pedagogy, the less said the better. A child's inability to attain a certain level of proficiency has been compared with a case of snakebite. Prompt action can only savea person bitten by a (poisonous) snake. Similarly, immediate and regular assessments can enable a child to achieve the  desired level of learning, observes the author, the Director of a research institute. Consider, there are the people who pass for educationists in West Bengal. Do these examples speak for our concern for education and regard for the mothertongue? Can an official instruction in favour of Bangla change this situation?


Finally, the West Bengal Govt's recent decision to introduce Bangla in official communication is nothing new. The State Govt made the same resolution as early as May,1961, on the eve of Rabindranath's birth centenary. What prevented the former and the present governments from putting it into practice in the last forty years?