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State could not impose a Particular Language on Linguistic Minorities
May 07, 2014

A constitution bench of the Supreme Court has struck down a Karnataka government order dating back to 1994, which made the mother tongue the compulsory medium of instruction in all government-recognised primary schools. This meant that except for children who identified English as their mother tongue, Kannada would be the medium of instruction. The court said, “Such a diktat violated the fundamental rights of children and their parents, and a state could not impose a particular language on linguistic minorities. The judgment is a welcome voice of reason in an emotionally fraught debate which set up Kannada and English in mutual opposition.

The Karnataka government’s order stemmed from a genuine concern for safeguarding regional languages. It may also be in line with the National Curriculum Framework of 2005, which urges a three-language formula but emphasises that a child’s home language or mother tongue is the best medium of instruction. But there has been an unmistakable strain of regional jingoism in the state government’s insistence on Kannada. As English-medium schools sprouted in Bangalore, it went into combat mode, derecognising over 2,000 such schools in 2006.

For a growing number of people, English is the language of technology and modernity, of jobs and social mobility. Hence the growing demand for English-medium private schools and the mushrooming of English-language centres for those who cannot access it in their regular education. Governments need to recognise this aspirational urge. It is also true that studies have revealed that children learn well in their home language, even as they imbibe other languages, and that in the early years, the world is more intelligible in the cadences of the home language/ mother tongue. 

But the idea of a mother tongue is complicated in Indian contexts. Imposing a single language in a state assumes a linguistic homogeneity that does not always exist. Which language suits a child best? What educational goals should be privileged? These are complex and delicate questions best left to schools and parents to navigate.

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