An 'English goddess' for India's down-trodden

Dr Chandra Bhan Prasad with the statue of the English goddess The Goddess of English is a symbol of renaissance for the Dalits of Banka

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A new goddess has recently been born in India. She's the Dalit Goddess of English.

The Dalit (formerly untouchable) community is building a temple in Banka village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to worship the Goddess of the English language, which they believe will help them climb up the social and economic ladder.

About two feet tall, the bronze statue of the goddess is modelled after the Statue of Liberty.

"She is the symbol of Dalit renaissance," says Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer who came up with the idea of the Goddess of English.

"She holds a pen in her right hand which shows she is literate. She is dressed well and sports a huge hat - it's a symbol of defiance that she is rejecting the old traditional dress code.

"In her left hand, she holds a book which is the constitution of India which gave Dalits equal rights. She stands on top of a computer which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free for ever."

Considered to be at the bottom of the traditional Hindu caste system, the Dalits have been oppressed and discriminated against for centuries.

'Unclean'

Although the caste system was abolished when India gained independence in 1947, prejudices still remain, keeping the Dalits marginalised.

Farmer Sanjay Kumar with daughter Naina Sanjay Kumar: 'To live in a city, you cannot survive without English.'

The 200-million-strong community was traditionally engaged in menial jobs which the other higher castes consider "unclean". And the trend continues even today.

The discrimination extended to education too with the school system dominated by the higher castes. Even today in many rural schools, campaigners say Dalit children are not welcome - they are often made to sit and eat separately.

And this is reflected in the literacy rate for the community which at below 55% is almost 10% lower than average Indian literacy rates.

Mr Prasad says that in the cities, people know the importance of English. In smaller towns, there is some knowledge of its importance. But in villages, there is no awareness that you need English to get ahead.

"In 20 years," he says, "no jobs would go to anyone in India who doesn't know English. If we don't do something now, the Dalits would not be job worthy."

With the temple to Goddess English, he hopes to attract the villagers to language and learning.

The plan, however, has run into trouble with the authorities.

"The administration said we needed permission to build the temple. We've applied for it now, we hope to get it soon," Mr Prasad says.

The foundation stone was laid in April last year and when I recently visited the Nalanda Public Shiksha Niketan School in Banka, I could see the temple walls had already been built.

Dalits make up nearly 47% of the population of Banka which is estimated to be between 7,000 and 8,000. And the English goddess has generated a lot of excitement - women here can be heard singing Jai Angrezi Devi Maiyaa Ki (Long Live the Mother Goddess of English).

"The stoppage of work on the temple has affected morale," says Nalanda school principal Shiv Shankar Lal Nigam.

He says the importance of English cannot be overstated in today's India.

"It's not possible to get by in today's world without English. Even to communicate with people in other Indian states, you need to know either the local language or English. Since you cannot learn multiple Indian languages, English has to be used as the link language."

English, he believes, will increase the Dalit youths' chances of getting into institutes of higher education and improve their employment prospects.

Roar of ambition

For Satinder Kumar, a Dalit student in the 11th grade, English is the magic key. He believes it will open the door to a better future.

Students outside the Nalanda Public Shiksha Niketan School in Banka The community believes English is the key to future success

"I want to study English and then I want to be an English teacher," he tells me. "The language will help me communicate better with other people."

For the Dalits of Banka village, English is the only means their children have for escaping grinding poverty.

Farmer Sanjay Kumar knows no English, but he dreams that his one-year-old daughter Naina will learn the language and have a better life.

"It's very important to know English," he tells me. "If you want to be a doctor or an engineer or a teacher, you must know English. If you want to live in a city, you cannot survive without English."

Farm worker Om Prakash agrees. "They say Hindi is our national language, but all official work is done in English. If you don't know English, you are a failure."

According to labourer Sarvesh Kumar, Dalits were never respected and "whatever little we have gained is because of the efforts of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar [Dalit thinker and architect of the Indian constitution]".

"Ambedkar said English was the milk of a lioness, he said only those who drink it will roar," Chandra Bhan Prasad says.

He says with the blessings of Goddess English, Dalit children will not grow to serve landlords or skin dead animals or clean drains or raise pigs and buffaloes.

They will grow into adjudicators and become employers and benefactors.

Then the roar of the Dalits, he says, will be heard by one and all.

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