Status Symbols in India and their Colonial Roots – Part II: English

The roots of colonialism in India have been firmly in place since 1858, when the British Raj came to power. India was completely transformed, and even since their independence in 1947, the country’s colonial past is apparent in the everyday lives of all Indians. A country that was built on a caste system, status symbols, and hierarchies have always been evident in India but exacerbated and developed throughout British rule. The white supremacy established by British colonialism has effects today seen in status symbols and standards of beauty, language, and architecture.

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India has 22 official languages and 121 languages spoken throughout the country. However, India currently claims to be the second-largest English-speaking country. But the surge of English-speaking people in India was not instantaneous. As the British Raj began to take power they tried to assimilate India under one language⁠ — Hindustani. This was a mix of many of the languages spoken in the country such as Hindi and Urdu and it caused many conflicts when being created.¹ But as upper-class Indians were becoming soldiers, servants, and “allies” to the British government, English speaking was often necessary. The language began to spread amongst the Indian elite and English speaking slowly began to associate with wealth and power. 

In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute on Education” influenced William Bentick to transform the Indian education system. The Bentick educational policy encouraged the study of English for all Indian students but also required that all lessons in colleges be taught in English. This means that any Indian wanting to earn a degree or receive a higher education must thoroughly learn the language. Any Indian able to do this was deemed a “learned native.” ²  

Macauly’s Minute also desired a certain class of Indians who were well-versed in English and could be used as “middlemen” between the British and other Indians. This sparked the creation of the “Baburaj,” an elite group of Indians with a thorough knowledge of English who gained a higher status across the nation.³The ability to learn English in India has been the privilege of a narrow class of educated, city-dwelling elites, and the language has become another tool for social stratification. The anglophone elite has long looked down on non-speakers, and fluency in English is generally considered a suitable proxy for intelligence and competence. English has long been perceived as a language of status and opportunity in India, says Tarun Timalsina in Harvard Political Review. 

In India today, private schools often have more English education and premier educational institutes are usually conducted fully in English. Higher business positions and government positions also frequently require proficiency in the language. Statistics also show that an upper⁠-caste individual is more than three times more likely to speak English and 41% of high-income Indians speak English. The English language — the language of the colonizer⁠ — has become a symbol of wealth and power in the country and has stemmed from the imperialist structure the British developed.

Ariana Bhargava

Ariana Bhargava is a high school student based in Massachusetts. She writes for Reclamation and Brown Girl Magazine. She is passionate about storytelling, activism, and photography.

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