4th June 2000

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A medium of contention

By Asha Krishnakumar

On April 20, the Madras High Court quashed a Tamil Nadu Government Order (G. O.) of November 19, 1999 making Tamil/mother tongue the medium of instruction up to Standard V in all State government-controlled schools.

The judgment said the Government order was "vague, arbitrary, irrational" and violative of Article 14 (equality before law) of the Constitution and the fundamental right to education.

The Full Bench comprising Justices A.S. Venkatachalamurthy, S. Jagadeesan and N. Dhinakar disposed of a batch of over 50 petitions challenging the G.O., and also writ appeals challenging an Order of Justice, P. Shanmugam that upheld a January 1999 G.O., stipulating that nursery and primary schools in the State teach in Tamil any two of three subjects (Mathematics, Science and Social Studies).

The two crucial aspects of the 182-page verdict of April 20 are that it upholds the "absolute and exclusive rights of the parents to choose the medium in which the child should study" and the "absolute right of the minority institutions under Article 30(1) of the Constitution", including the right to choose the medium of instruction.

The Full Bench based its conclusion on six major points:

* The G.O. was irrelevant and vague.

* It was arbitrary insofar as it insisted that students in matriculation schools studied only in Tamil/mother tongue, whereas students whose mother tongue was not English could still study in the English Medium in Anglo-Indian Schools and Schools that came under the Central Board of Secondary Education, which were not controlled by the State government.

* It violated the principle of legitimate expectation as the "petitioners/managements were not given the opportunity of being heard", before the G.O. was issued.

* The G.O. was issued by virtue of powers conferred under Article 162 of the Constitution. But under Article 26(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Convention on the Rights of Students), "parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that should be given to their children and that has the force of law by virtue of the Government of India's accepting the Convention on December 11, 1992." Thus, "the orders passed under Article 162 could not have the force of law. In the absence of any local law contrary to the Convention, Article 26(3) of the Convention alone prevails."

* It infringes on the fundamental right to education, which includes the parents' right to choose the medium of instruction for their children.

* The G.O. also "infringes on the rights of the minorities conferred under Article 30(1) of the Constitution, as it imposes restrictions on their choice of... the medium of instruction.

There has been a long-standing demand to introduce Tamil as the medium of instruction in schools. However, matters came to a head on April 25, 1999, when over 100 people belonging to 41 Tamil organisations went on a fast-unto-death in support of their demands, the most important of which was that the State government make Tamil the medium of instruction in schools.

On May 3, 1999, the government set up a five-member committee to examine the issue of making Tamil the medium of instruction in all schools under its control (government and government-aided, matriculation, primary and nursery schools).

Based on the committee's recommendations, a G.O. (No. 324) was issued in November 1999, making Tamil the medium of instruction up to Standard V in all nursery, primary and matriculation schools under the State government's control.

Terming it an unreasonable and impractical move, the Association of Managements and Principals of Matriculation Schools in the State challenged the G.O. in the High Court. A spate of writ petitions challenging the G.O. were subsequently filed by private schools.

According to the writ petition filed by the managements of nursery, primary, matriculation and higher secondary schools, when matriculation schools were brought under the State Board instead of under Madras University in 1976 they were assured that their distinct identity would be maintained and that the medium of instruction would continue to be English.

These schools are privately managed and receive no government aid. It would, thus, be an undemocratic and a retrograde step to force them to change their medium of instruction to Tamil, the petition argued.

The High Court quashed the G.O. and ruled that the matriculation and other private schools could continue with English as the medium of instruction.

The judgment addressed a number of other issues, including the composition of the committee which, it said, was biased in favour of Tamil scholars (who participated in the fast-unto-death in April 1999); it further noted that school managements and linguistic and religious minorities found no representation on the committee.

S. Senthilnathan, advocate, and president, Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers' Association, said: "The committee was partisan in its composition, but it is justified as its terms of reference were to find ways of making Tamil the medium of instruction." In any case, he said, school managements and parents had the opportunity to depose before the committee.

The judgment raised the question of how the "mother tongue" could be established in the case of children born to parents with different mother tongues, and those studying in minority institutions. Muslims, for example, could have Urdu, Gujarati, Tamil or Hindi as the mother tongue. What would a minority institution do? The G.O. dealt with such a complex issue rather simplistically, the judgment said.

The judgment further said that in the era of globalisation, introducing Tamil as the medium of instruction would restrict students' career opportunities. In response to the argument that it was necessary to make Tamil the medium of instruction in order to protect Tamil cultural roots, the judgment said culture was determined not just by language but by the fine arts and by the value systems of morality, honesty and integrity.

Parents, representatives of associations of schools said the judgment had reaffirmed their faith in the judiciary. According to J. Raviraj, general secretary of the Chennai Schools Parents Federation (which was formed recently to represent parents who were concerned over the G.O.), India being a pluralistic society with a multi-lingual and multi-religious culture, the issue of language has complex dimensions.

It is in this context, says Habibullah Badsha, that English was used as a link language under the Official Languages Act, 1963, and under Article 348 of the Constitution used in all government and official transactions, including in the High Courts, the Supreme Court and Parliament.

According to Raviraj, countries such as Japan and South Korea, where the educational systems traditionally preferred learning in the national language over English, were increasingly switching to English. Says Habibullah Badsha: "Even West Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra, which had been pushing for according primacy to the local language, have diluted their stance and are emphasising English in schools."

Senthilnathan, however, argues that only the middle class and the elite sections benefit from the opportunities offered in a globalised world, not people in the rural areas, where English is in any case not taught properly.

Language was a defining theme in Tamil Nadu's political history in the 1960s, and the roots of today's wranglings over language can be traced to the anti-Hindi agitation of that period. As part of a policy of boycotting Hindi, the State introduced a two-language system in schools; all other States follow a three-language policy. In Tamil Nadu, until 1967 English was taught only from Standard VI, but after a 1967 G.O. allowed institutions to offer English as a medium of instruction in the higher classes, nursery and primary schools mushroomed.

The crux of the issue, according to Senthilnathan, is that many students complete their education in Tamil Nadu without learning Tamil at all. "

Had the anti-Hindi agitation not led to the extreme step of introducing the two-language system, most of these problems would not have arisen," he says.

Supporters of Tamil saw the April 20 judgment as a setback to the cause of the advancement of Tamil. Protests were staged in many parts of the State, and copies of the judgment were burnt in public.

Senthilnathan says the government can still act to make Tamil the medium of instruction. "It can go in appeal to the Supreme Court or introduce a Bill in the Assembly, making Tamil the medium of instruction," he said. Those who oppose the proposal are also gearing up to respond to the government's next move.

- Courtesy Frontrline

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