Click to view Profile
Giridhar Rao A
Giridhar Rao – ‘This Gift of English’

Book Review

Alok K. Mukherjee
This Gift of English: English Education and the Formation of Alternative Hegemonies in India

Hyderabad. Orient Blackswan, 2009, Pp. 374, Price- Rs. 795. ISBN: 978-81-250-3601-2

English: A Gift Imposed and Sought

India's battles for emancipation and social justice are being fought on many fronts, and at many levels of this deeply unequal society. Education is among the most important of these locations, and language policies and politics are important tools and weapons in these battles. In (British-)colonial and postcolonial India, English has been a critical "social and symbolic capital" in consolidating and challenging "hegemonies" - in arguing this, Alok Mukherjee's new book joins the already quite substantial body of writing on the place and role of English in India.

Mukherjee draws extensively on the work of Gramsci and Bourdieu - indeed, his chapters on these writers serve as primers on the theories of these writers. But before he "performs a Bordeauxian analysis within the framework of Gramsci's theory of hegemony" (81), he gives us a substantial and autobiographical "Introduction" where he situates himself and his career in networks of class and caste relations in post-Independence India - elements and themes that are to recur often throughout this study.

Chapters 2 and 3 "set the stage" by tracing "certain key early moments in the history... of English education" to show that the "gift" of the title "was both imposed and sought" (84). Chapter 2 draws upon texts as varied as Bankimchandra's Anandamath and Charles Grant's Observations to show an emerging convergence between theories of common Aryan ancestry, introducing Christianity, reviving the glories of an ancient civilization, and the role of English in "improving" the colonial subjects. Chapter 3 moves, among others, to Raja Rammohun Roy's Address, James Mill's History of British India, and Macaulay's Minute, and demonstrates that, "an array of colonial intellectuals, working both in England and in India, developed the 'conceptual or categorical framework' that went hand in hand with coercion to establish the legitimacy of the hegemonic idea that the raj has a civilizing mission and that an English education was a critical component of that mission" (164).

Chapter 4 examines the early curricula of four institutions - Hindu College, the Free Church Institution of Calcutta, Dacca College and University of Madras. The curricula are listed in one of the seven Appendices to this study. As the list shows, "there was a near complete absence of topics, texts and authors from India, contemporary Europe outside Britain and religious traditions other than Protestantism. Study of Greek and Roman history provided the classical basis for the highest contemporary manifestation of civilization, which was Anglo-Saxon Protestant" (189).

The next chapter continues this history of "texts, examination and hegemony". Mukherjee demonstrates in some detail how curricula of literature and English-language teaching, and the examination answer papers of "Senior Scholarship students" were "site[s] for reproducing hegemony" (233). And not just in English: "Not only did these early developments set the course of English literature teaching in India, they also affected developments in contemporary Indian languages. For example, histories of Hindi literature have adopted the periodization of English literature, while language and grammar texts in languages such as Bengali and Hindi have followed the English grammarians' practice of using Greek and Latin models. As these mass languages became literate, grammars were derived from Sanskrit and organized around categories very similar to the ones used by English grammarians" (246).

Chapter 6 begins by sketching the "contest for control over the disciplinary space that emerged in the later part of the nineteenth century as a result of the rise of nationalism and the colonial government's response to it on the educational front" (247). This contextualization leads Mukherjee to discuss two "bridge documents", as he calls them in the Introduction: "the diary of Amar Singh, a Rajput aristocrat and one of the first Indians to hold a King's Commission in the British Army, and the autobiography of C D Narasimhaiah, one of the first Indian professors of English, who was a key player in the postindependence developments in the field" (3). Mukherjee sees these two narratives as "powerful examples of the sensibility produced by English education within the conservative context of a Hindu nationalism that emerged in the later part of the nineteenth century" (265). He argues that it is insufficient "to explain the hold of English on post-independence India exclusively in terms of internalized colonialism. There is an equal, if not greater, need to recognize the hegemonic role of nationalism, and to examine the ways in which English education helped in the exercise of this hegemony and its project of developing the disciplined citizen" (265-6).

It is this account of "alternative hegemonies" that leads Mukherjee to declare in the Conclusion that "the hegemonic contest continues": "While English was initially sought by 'high' caste Hindus as an instrument of revival, and while in postindependence India it was expected to serve the dominant group as a pipeline for communication within and a window without, now, groups that have been historically oppressed and disenfranchised, in particular, the Dalits, are looking to English as a means for emancipation and empowerment" (312).

Mukherjee sees this demand for English both in the pronouncements of prominent Dalit intellectuals as well in interactions with students and scholars in Indian universities (Appendix G gives details). But "the fate of various proposals for far-reaching transformation of the field of English Studies in India, made in the past twenty-five or so years, does not give cause for optimism" (289).

Probal Dasgupta (1993) has memorably called English "a piece of real estate. Its owners... enforce normative spelling, punctuation, grammar, and phonological and lexical limits.... These screening devices effectively distinguish the few insiders... from the many outsiders excluded from the fold. This massive fact... undermines the naturalistic and equalitarian rhetoric associated with the discourse that the English language carries" (203). Mukherjee continues this conversation (although his bibliography does not include Dasgupta's study, nor indeed does it any of the critical sociolinguists mentioned below). He calls for a "national engagement" with eight interrelated questions on the rationale and curricula for English in India: "Given the demand of Dalit intelligentsia for an English education that is emancipatory and empowering, examination of these other similar questions cannot be avoided" (307).

Two other frames of reference would have enriched Mukherjee's study even more. The first is a broadening of the debates on language hegemonies in a globalizing world. The writings of Robert Phillipson (2009) and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (2008) do much in that direction, and E. Annamalai (2004) is insightful on the impact of English on the "linguistic ecology" of India. The other context for English in India is the extensive research evidence worldwide that mother-tongue medium education not only improves educational outcomes in all subjects, but also enables more effective learning of the second and subsequent languages. Thus, whether we see English as a livelihood skill, or as a tool to deepen democracy, India's mother-tongue skills are a necessary foundation. A recent overview of this research is Ajit Mohanty et al. Multilingual Education for Social Justice (2009). These two "glocal" frames have an important role to play in revisioning English in India.


Annamalai, E. 2004. "Nativization of English in India and its effect on multilingualism", Journal of Language and Politics 3:1 (2004): 151-162.
Dasgupta, Probal. 1993. The Otherness of English: India's Auntie Tongue Syndrome (Language and Development series). Delhi: Sage.
Mohanty, Ajit; Panda, Minati; Phillipson, Robert; and Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (eds). 2009. Multilingual Education for Social Justice. Globalising the Local. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
Phillipson, Robert. 2009. Linguistic Imperialism Continued. Routledge.
Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. 2008 (2000). Linguistic Genocide in Education - or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Delhi: Orient Blackswan.


Issue 28 (Nov-Dec 2009)

Book Reviews
  • Ambika Ananth – ‘Bend in the Sarayu’
  • Giridhar Rao – ‘This Gift of English’
  • Sailen Routray – Poetry of Rabindra Swain