It appears that a storm is raging in Bengal over a recent controversy stoked by one RJ called Ayanatika who perhaps made some comments or observations around the inferiority of Bengali medium schools. Naturally, apologists for the Bengali medium rallied on the social media showing off their present state of employment in jobs with impressive salaries to vindicate the point that the students read in the Bengali medium are not always the losers. It is strange that only a generation before me and hence two generations before those who are writing in the social media, schools like the Ballygunge Government, Mitra Institution, Diocesan for Girls, and the United Missionary School were the top-ranking ones which produced star students and with their confident, strongly networked, and boisterous alumni associations thumped the executive boards and elite clubrooms of Calcutta were Bengali medium ones. I distinctly remember a few relatives who studied in Loreto House and La Martinere as shy and retreating ones, unable to stand up to the staggers and straddles of their cousins who went to the creamy schools, incidentally in the Bengali medium. Then what happened and why did the tide turn? To my mind, that is the more significant question than the demerits of the Bengali schools vis-à-vis their English counterparts.
The likes of Amartya Sen, Barun De, Nitish Sengupta, Sukhomoy Chakravarty and before them, Satyajit Ray went to only Bengali medium schools and which is perhaps why their command over the vernacular is so secure. They also have few peers in the writing of English even among the English persons and yet the Bengali medium schools produce children who not only speak English hesitatingly, write it jerkily but are unforgivably weak in writing, reading, and speaking the Bengali language. The problem is not with the medium of language, but what is being said, read and culturally produced in that language. And hence the divide between the Bengali medium and the English medium lies not in the medium of instruction, but in what is instructed.
The changeover from the domination of the Bengali medium to the English medium schools has taken place in multiple steps and it is important to follow these in some detail. The process of the change over seems to have taken place since the mid 1950’s and consolidated by the middle of the 1960’s. The most important episodes of this era were the expansion of the public sector large scale industrial giants and the setting up of the IITs and Universities. The local industries which were supported by innovations were now taken over by those dominated by large capita, albeit through public investments. The public institutions for education were also geared to supporting the base of large-scale production as its intellectual superstructure. The agency of the innovator and hence of his milieu lost importance. Therefore not only did the Bengali enterprise suffer so did the Tamil enterprise, the Punjabi enterprise, the Marathi, the Malayalam and so on. As these innovation-based local production declined, the vernacular language that upheld the thoughts and ideas leading us towards this innovation based local production also diminished in significance. It is not Bengali alone, but every language as in the Telugu, Oriya, Gujarati, and others shied away from being vehicles of human thought and learning. The fault lies with centralization, whether of politics, or of capital, or of the public life; the middle of the 1950’s made it sure that India was to be a unity with less space for diversity.
It is in the manner of the above, of through the “Silsila” of centralization that there grew a class division; namely those who had the education and wherewithal to participate in the national life versus those who were left back in their own milieu. This class division was marked by the difference in the medium of instruction; the birth of the English medium schools may be looked in this context. The Bengali medium must be a loser and the English medium a winner because of the forces of centralization and the loss of federalism.