'Goddess of English' breaks caste chains
By Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI - India's Dalits are turning to the "Goddess of English" for
deliverance from centuries of religiously-sanctioned caste oppression.
Dalits, meaning literally “the broken people”, have begun erecting a temple to
their new muse in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of northern Uttar Pradesh, a
sprawling state of 190 million people, regarded as the heartland of orthodox
The inspiration for the idol of the goddess is unmistakable for the close
resemblance it bears to the Statue of Liberty in New York. But – instead of a
flaming torch – the goddess holds aloft a pen
with her right hand, and cradles a book in the crook of her left arm.
Also, where Hindu deities are usually portrayed standing on a lotus flower
pedestal, the Goddess of English stands on a computer console, signifying the
technological age that the Dalits hope to enter. It also represents a break
with a traditional past that has been so cruel to Dalits, once regarded as
untouchables and forced to do menial work.
The high priest of the temple, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a leading Dalit
intellectual, told Inter Press Service that the Brahmins (members of the
highest caste in the Hindu social hierarchy, entrusted with learning and
priestly duties) of Uttar Pradesh made the mistake of repudiating the English
"Nationalist politics based around the Hindi language appear to have turned
even the Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh into a backward caste and the Dalits are
determined to avoid that mistake," said Prasad. "As India globalizes the only
way anyone, not just Dalits, can avoid being left behind is by learning
Indian provinces that made the study of the English language optional in
schools have fallen behind states that maintained the language as compulsory
through the secondary education level.
"This is why Bangalore [capital of southern Karnataka state] has become an
international hub for information technology and not Lucknow [capital of Uttar
Pradesh]," Prasad argued.
Prasad readily admits to borrowing his ideas from Thomas Babington Macaulay, a
British colonial who introduced English as a medium of instruction in India in
1854 with the objective of raising "a class of persons Indian in blood and
color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect".
Macaulay's policies made him a natural target for Hindu nationalists. "No Hindu
who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his
religion," he argued. "It is my firm belief that if our plans of education are
followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respected classes 30
Prasad said Macaulay's policy set in motion the liberation of the Dalits by
dismantling the traditional system of learning based on Sanskrit, the use of
which was denied to the lower castes.
"When the British opened English-medium schools, Dalits were prevented from
entering them by upper caste people, forcing the colonial government to issue
orders that no one could be denied admission on the basis of caste, creed,
gender or religion," Prasad said.
"Lord Macaulay was a social revolutionary who, by drawing up the Indian Penal
Code, made all Indians equal before the law," said Prasad, who dutifully
celebrates the colonial's birthday each year on October 25.
In contrast to Prasad's views, Hindu nationalists pejoratively call Indians who
are less than proud of their own traditions and heritage "Macaulay's Children".
Among the tallest of Macaulay's Children was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (born 1891)
who overcame the handicaps of being born a Dalit to acquire degrees from
Columbia University and the London School of Economics.
Ambedkar, who left a progressive stamp on the Indian republic as the architect
of its 1949 constitution, was among the first to exhort his caste fellows to
learn and use the English language as a means of emancipation. "English is the
milk of the lioness," he told them.
Ambedkar's constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, outlaws all forms
of discrimination and includes a system of positive favoritism that reserves
jobs in the government and seats in educational institutions for Dalits.
Prasad said that despite such constitutional provisions, Dalits, who represent
16% of India's 1.2 billion people, have continued to suffer discrimination or
worse. "In many parts of India we are not allowed to enter Hindu temples, so we
now plan to set up our own temples dedicated to the Goddess of English. Others
are welcome to join us."
"With the Goddess of English, Prasad has hit upon an idea that rests upon the
flexibility and accommodation of the Indian tradition," said Yogendra Singh,
one of India's leading experts on the sociology of culture, and emeritus
professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"Prasad displays a great sense of history and a remarkable understanding of the
Indian ethos that has an infinite capacity to locate the present in the past,"
said Singh, author of the seminal work Modernization of Indian Tradition.
Much the same could be said for the Dalit chief minister of Uttar Pradesh,
Mayawati (one name), who has ignored criticism and squandered public funds to
set up statues of herself around the state. The statues invariably depict her
carrying a handbag - a symbol of female modernity and power for most Indians.
Singh told Inter Press Service that even if Prasad's plan to set up temples to
the Goddess of English across the country fizzles out, the message that there
is value in learning the English language will have gone home.