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Goa Election 2017: Language politics looms as a potentially divisive factor

If language is seen to betoken identity, it is generally taken to be national identity. The French language, for example, is considered the prime marker of French national identity. The very term linguistic-ethnic identity stems from the idea that language determines ethnicity and, for many, nationality. It is this conceptualisation of identity that spurred the emergence of Bangladesh. And Tamil Nadu had exploded in riots in the late 1960s over the imposition of Hindi as the sole national language.

In particular, the language in which education is given can become a political issue. Under the noise and clutter of the ongoing elections in Goa too, language lurks as an issue — not of ethnic but of religious identity. The chief issue over which RSS strongman Subhash Velingkar split from the BJP a few months ago was that the state government was subsidising schools in which languages other than Konkani and Marathi were the medium of instruction. That really boils down to English medium schools. So salient is the issue that 'MOI' (for medium of instruction) is a commonly used acronym in Goa’s political arena.

Subhash Velingkar. File photo. PTI

Former RSS Goa chief Subhash Velingkar split from the BJP over the issue of state grants to English medium schools. File photo. PTI

In the minds of many voters, English medium schools translates to diocesan schools run by the Catholic church. To be sure, these are popular with most parents, since fluency in English is perceived as vital for career prospects. However, for many proponents of indigenous culture, particularly Hindutva activists, promoting English as the medium of instruction is a compromise on identity. They are determined that, at the least, the government should not subsidise, and thus encourage it — even if it tolerates it in the unaided private sector.

This was an issue in the previous round of Assembly elections too. At the time, Hindutva activists were convinced that Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who had led the Goa campaign of the BJP, and then the BJP-MGP coalition government, would end state subsidies to schools that use English as the medium of instruction — particularly to diocesan schools. They are deeply disappointed that Parrikar did not do that. Nor did Laxmikant Parsekar, his successor as chief minister, even when Hindutva hardliners like Velingkar pushed the envelope. The BJP’s five-year term has passed, and those schools still get aid from the state government.

Politically, it appears to have worked out well; voters by and large do not seem to hold the continuance of aid to diocesan schools against the BJP. If the issue comes up during a range of conversations with voters across the state, it is from a few Christians — who express unease that aid to these schools might still be withdrawn. As things stand, the government’s inaction on the issue has promoted communal harmony, and kept happy those parents — of various religious affiliations — who want their wards to be instructed in the English language.

Polarisation in Kashmir

The language issue has the capacity to polarise communities. For example, it became a major political issue in Jammu and Kashmir three-quarters of a century ago, leading to communal polarisation between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. The then prime minister of the state, Gopalasami Ayyangar, had introduced the scheme, which allowed students to choose whether to write in Urdu or Devanagari. A host of Muslim leaders, including Sheikh Abdullah had vehemently opposed the move, arguing that it insidiously polarised religious communities — among children.

Interestingly, Ayyangar had appointed eminent educationist Dr Zakir Hussain, who later became the President of India, as a one-man committee to recommend the scheme. But, after examining the issue, Dr Zakir Hussain did not back it. Ironically, the Hindutva hardliners who oppose state aid to English-medium schools in Goa have been at the forefront of defending the rights of Kashmiri Pandits since the exodus of the majority of that community from the Kashmir Valley in 1990.

The ways in which Pandits may be rehabilitated in the Kashmir Valley now has once again polarised opinion in the state and, to some extent, beyond — on communal lines. Hindutva backers argue that separate Pandit colonies need to be established, in which Pandits might feel secure. Many Muslims, including those in power in the People’s Democratic Party, have countered that Pandits can only be secure and integrated in the long term if they live in composite multi-religious communities. Many Kashmiris are keenly aware of the need to re-establish a composite culture — one that does not allow for script or any other marker of religious identity to divide society.

The fact that a quarter of Goa’s population comprises a vibrant community of Catholics underlines that need to strengthen a composite multi-religious community among Goans too. Language, after all, is meant for communication, not division.

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2017 11:58 AM

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