Is fluency in English the hallmark of one’s ability? Indian Twitter is back to debating, or rather mocking, the lack of a politician’s grasp over the English language. And the person at the centre of it all is India’s newly appointed Union Health Minister, Mansukh Mandaviya.
But Mandaviya doesn’t need to be known for his English-speaking skills. Why should anyone whose first language is not English be shamed for not speaking or writing it correctly? When will we stop looking at English as a required skill and look at it for what it really is — a ‘foreign’ language?
Soon after Mansukh Mandaviya took oath Thursday, users on the microblogging site dug up his old tweets and started mocking him. The tweets that did the rounds were the ones that showed Mandaviya’s difficulty in communicating in English — “Happy indipedent day” or “Mahatma gandhiji is our nation of father”. These and a few others have since been deleted. One that attracted maximum attention is still up.
Tray and tray will be success .
— Mansukh Mandaviya (@mansukhmandviya) January 9, 2014
Absolute beauty of old tweets by our new ‘Health minister of India’. Seems like he meets all the eligibility to be in #ModiGovt
— Y Sathish Reddy (@ysathishreddy) July 8, 2021
There were several justifications offered to argue why the minister’s English should be scrutinised. Many reasoned that since he will be in charge of the health ministry, especially at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, he would have to deal with various communications and documents in English. Some reflected on their initial opinion and apologised for their tweets.
I am sorry for digging up tweets where the ONLY issue is #MansukhMandaviya's poor English. Yes, the powerful must be called out & their PR-made images torn down. But that can be done without making proficiency in English– a privilege inaccessible to many Indians, a point. SORRY. https://t.co/mcHOeLF8yD
— ????? ?️?☭ (@Lord_VoldeMaut) July 8, 2021
But by and large, Mandaviya was repeatedly under fire and his past tweets kept resurfacing.
Mandaviya hails from a farming family in a village in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district and did his graduation from Bhavnagar University. Those mocking his English language skills must remember that India is a land of multiple languages and dialects. English has surely assumed prominence and significance with time, but ours is a country where most Indians do not use English even as their second or third language. Many don’t know it at all.
Just like me, many of us would likely know people from the older generation who first learnt the English alphabet only in the sixth standard in school. I myself studied in a school where English was taught with a Haryanvi accent. Maybe we have gotten so used to the rich vocabulary of politicians like Shashi Tharoor that we have forgotten that the yardstick to judge leaders is, and forever will be, their work — not their command over the English language.
The colonial hangover
This is not the first time a politician has been mocked for his lack of English proficiency. From former Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no one has been spared. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee once said Modi “cannot speak a line in English properly” without having to “constantly look at the teleprompter”.
There is no language proficiency qualification for people who want to contest elections. A leader proficient in the English language wouldn’t necessarily be a good leader and vice versa. This obsession is a colonial hangover and a blatant show of elitism where we expect people, including politicians, to speak in fluent English, without any error.
A leader doesn’t need English to communicate with his/her voters. Their native language will also help them connect with their constituency. The leader may be bilingual or have command over multiple languages, but it isn’t a necessity. If we expect all politicians to be fluent in English, we are pulling down everyone who struggles with the language, including those from the marginalised and historically excluded sections of society.
This is true not just for politics, but other professions too. In 2018, the Athletics Federation of India inadvertently mocked runner Hima Das in an official tweet for speaking in broken English during a post-event interview.
Mansukh Mandaviya or any other political leader should be judged for their work. Criticism of the new health minister should be about his controversial tweets declaring Ayurveda superior to Allopathy. He should be judged, and rightly so, if he fails to perform his duties as the health minister. As for whether or not his tweets in English are up to the standards of your classist and colonial mindset, give that a rest. Many people have not had the same privilege as us to master a colonial language.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)