A day before Union home minister Amit Shah publicly advocated the teaching of even engineering, medicine and law in regional languages, the BJP-led Assam government had taken quite a contrary decision on July 28, making it compulsory for all government schools to teach Mathematics and science in English instead of Assamese or other vernacular languages from class 3 to class 12. The government also announced that 5-10 schools in each district would have English as a medium of instruction in all subjects, parallel to Assamese, Bodo and Bengali, with students choosing the language they would be taught in from class 6 to class 12.
The decision has stirred a controversy as it goes against the Essence of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which lays much stress on regional language as the medium of instruction. A section titled ‘Multilingualism and the power language’ reads: “[…] young children learn and grasp nontrivial concepts more quickly in their home language/mother tongue Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably until Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language.” Senior officials in the Union ministry of education agree that the decision is not in sync with the NEP. “It makes sense to teach in the mother tongue at the lower primary stage, and even afterwards wherever teachers are available,” says an official.
By that logic, all CBSE-affiliated schools violate the NEP, as English is the medium of instruction. We are not abolishing Assamese as the medium of instruction in our schools, just teaching two subjects in English only to help students in their future endeavors
– Himanta Biswa Sarma, Chief Minister, Assam
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had earlier professed support for teaching medicine and engineering in Assamese in the state, and 10 states have already accepted Indian languages such as Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali as the medium of instruction for engineering courses . So, while Sarma’s government wants school students to learn science and mathematics in English, they may eventually end up in institutions where engineering or medicine is taught in regional languages.
Sarma says the decision was driven by a growing demand from students of Assamese medium schools who find it tough to crack engineering and medical entrance tests because “these examinations are conducted in English”, though he did not cite any such survey. The National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) for medical courses and the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for engineering courses, however, are conducted in multiple regional languages, including Assamese.
Dismissing the inference that his government’s decision goes against the NEP, Sarma says, “By that logic, all CBSE-affiliated schools violate the NEP, as English is the medium of instruction. We are not abolishing Assamese as the medium of instruction in our schools, just teaching two subjects in English only to help students in their future endeavours.” He adds that the decision is based on a suggestion by a high-level committee formed by the Assam government to Usher in the implementation of the NEP. The principal secretary of the education department heads the 40-member committee.
Critics of the government’s decision claim it will undermine the relevance of regional languages in Assam. The state’s premier literary bodies such as Asam Sahitya Sabha and Bodo Sahitya Sabha and influential students’ bodies such as the All Assam Students Union and All Bodo Students Union have also criticized the decision. Many have also questioned the urgency of taking such a decision instead of focusing on filling up vacancies. By the government’s own admission, about 8,000 posts of school teachers are lying vacant across the state and the state cabinet recently approved a proposal of appointing guest teachers as a stop-gap arrangement. Moreover, teachers used to teaching in regional languages will need to be trained for shifting to English.