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Chidambaram's love for English: Is fluency in English a must in India at higher levels?
Union Urban Development Secretary, Sudhir Krishna, has complained against Union Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, that the FM insulted him over the quality of his spoken English language.

Reportedly Krishna wrote to Union Urban Development Minister, Kamal Nath, his boss, saying “As I was trying to explain my point, Chidambaram suddenly started saying that he could not understand my English and that I should speak in Hindi, which his officers would translate for him in English."

Krishna in his complaint added, “He (Chidambaram) repeated the same statement over and over, in a tone and tenor that was expressly humiliating.”

According to Krishna what added to insult was that many officials from different ministries were also present in the meeting. However, Krishna’s colleagues were a bit intrigued by the development, saying they never had any problem with his English while communicating with him. The fact is that Kamal Nath would most likely not do anything even if he could.

So what is the fuss? A very senior politician with Prime Ministerial ambitions said something to a bureaucrat. Why should others poke their nose into the matter? This is because the news was highlighted by regional and national media, both print and electronic. The matter can be easily passed off as routine or if not that then unremarkable. But let’s analyze the matter as it can have regional dimensions, though not very clear. As a matter of clarification, I do not believe in putting regional arguments though to many I may appear contradicting my statement in what follows.

Krishna belongs to Uttar Pradesh but he is a Karnataka cadre IAS officer. To tell all probable readers the truth, Chidambaram is in constant love-and-hate relationship with the North even though Krishna appears by his name to be a hybrid between a North Indian mother and a South Indian father. Therefore, there is not a clear-cut regional argument against him.

But then there is more. Chidambaram as home minister reportedly told the then US ambassador Timothy J Roemer in 2011 that India would have been better off had most of the North and East not part of it. Sure, Chidambaram’s ‘ideal’ India would have included Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir for different reasons.

May be he was seeking investment from the US investors then by trying to please and court Americans. After all, investment by foreigners is beneficial to all constituents of Indian state: the Union, all states, special territories and Union territories, whether it is symmetric and equal regionally or not. I gave him the benefit of doubt then.

And in all honesty he cannot be accused of keeping any special regional biases and should be considered as honest Indian as any of his peers is. His jabbing should be considered in view of Tamil politics, which is very chauvinistic. Earlier last year the then Union Urban Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh, a Tamil Brahmin, suggested building toilets at the disputed site in Ayodhya which should have offended many Northerners.

I know that the former UP Chief Minister Mayawati also keeps similar views on the issue but her party’s politics cannot be compared with that of the Congress. Jayalalithaa Jayaram in nineties when she was the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu said that though the people of the state were Tamils they felt proud to call themselves Indians. Now she harbors dream to become the Prime Minister of the nation.

Sure, Chidambaram is very talented and has exceptionally good command over English. Now let’s come to the core issue of Krishna’s English. In all honesty bureaucrats' not-so-good command over oral English cannot be the issue for any minister, including for Chidambaram. What should matter most is the ability of the officials and recognition of the fact that many big Indian politicians do not speak good English even from Indian standards, leave alone from Harvardian standards.

The list includes Muthuvel Karunanidhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and this is long indeed. But at the same time it should not be forgotten that most of the big and famous Indians speak and write very good English. Knowledge of English matters a lot but I do not think that it should be applied to that precision as Chidambaram may expect from his subordinates.

Again, one can easily pass the matter as normal but let’s consider language issue from regional perspectives. The fact is due to various reasons Indian Southerners know better English as compared to non-Punjabi Indian Northerners. However, not too many should forget that Southerners’ accent is usually worse than that of Northerners. A normal Hindi speaking person if he or she knows English would usually speak it in better accent than his Tamil counterpart assuming that both have same knowledge of the language. Sure, comparisons do not differ much at the highest level where there is normally equality in oral and written skills.

Moreover, if only Southerners’ Brahmin caste’s knowledge of English is considered then their accent is usually far better than that of non-Brahmins in the South and should be considered as equal to that of Northerners. But then Brahmin is a Northern Indian word and is purely a Northern Indian caste. The fact is that Rama exported Brahmin caste and Brahmanism to the South during his excursion to the region.

I must clarify at this point that Southerner Brahmins are Dravidians too, as good as the rest. In the passing remarks I must add that Southerners knowing better English has nothing to do with their Dravidian languages. It is Sanskrit in the past and now Hindi which have some similarity with English. Don’t believe so? Then try to speak in Hindi and English in Northerners’ accents.

The fact is hypersensitivity over English is not a good thing to try in India. And all powerful Indians, be they political or bureaucratic elites or business and military elites, should be tolerant of their fellow citizens’ English. This applies to both spoken and written English. Better if one has excellent understanding of English but having a working knowledge should be considered sufficient, if the person is talented.

It is high time that India tries to find out a solution to its language problem- a more common national language and a more common national script with regional variance should be tried to be developed as early as possible. But in the meantime Hindi and English both matter almost equally at national level. At the same time one should recognize that everyone should love their native languages.

As a matter of fact all concerned Indians should give benefit of doubt once again to Chidambaram. He appears to me a very decent and honest Indian.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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