Special Reports

Legal Notes: Can the State impose the medium of Instruction?

Medium of Instruction at Primary Level

Recently the Supreme Court examined the legality of fixing the medium of instruction at the primary level. In a country, like ours, where mother tongues are innumerable, whether the executive can bind the children to a particular medium of instruction in his primary education either in his mother tongue or in a particular regional language? A five-Judge Bench, speaking through Justice A K Patnaik, had occasion to examine the validity of such regulation where the mother tongue of Kannada language was made mandatory for instruction in all recognized schools in the State of Karnataka failing which consequences had to follow by closing the schools at the level of classes 1 to 4.

The grievance by the concerned parents was that, being guardians of the children, their right of “choice” in relation to education, including the medium of instruction, is hit by such regulation. The logic of the state authorities was that mother tongue gives comfort to the child at that level, probably with intention to give feel a good factor to the child and make him feel at home. The object, that way, may not be doubted as malafide or otherwise but the question remains that as to whether that condition is in conformity with the guaranteed rights to freedom of speech and expression which also would include right to choose medium of speech and expression.

At the same time one must also appreciate that the state governments are empowered to legislate and issue regulatory directions in regard to the medium of instruction in primary and secondary schools. The situation then becomes very contradictory and courts are called upon to resolve the issue by giving harmonious construction of various provisions.

Ultimately the issue comes about the “freedom” of the concerned child to have the medium of instruction of his choice and whether a child could exercise his right of freedom against the comfort of the “mother tongue” having been spoken at home?  If yes, then which language would be ‘mother tongue’ -- the language “one uses the most”, “one started his or her verbal contact”, “one knows the best”, “language at home”, or more than one language of these categories, etc.

In our multilingual country, Konkani, Dhundhari and Sylheti languages are also mother tongues in some regions where at home the language would be one and another used outside the home.

The right to have such freedom is part of Art. 19 of the Constitution and right to have “choice” is also part of Art. 30.  This freedom is a general guarantee to all citizens including different sectors, religions, minorities and tribals etc. Going by the logic of the state and following the regulation, the child wanting to have a medium of instruction of his choice other than the mother tongue, his freedom would be infringed.    

The Court took  the view that such restriction shall not work in our constitutional set up where fundamental rights of the citizens would get infringed and the court  cannot allow to expand the power of the state or restrict a fundamental right of freedom to say mother tongue is the language with which a child is comfortable, and freedom of speech and expression includes the right to be educated, informed and entertained.     

The effect of the judgment is that the state cannot be left with the power to expand or restrict the fundamental right of freedom of expression guaranteed under the chapter of fundamental rights.  As far as the comfort of the child is concerned, the Supreme Court being conscious of the fact that experts had opined that children studying in classes 1 to 4 in primary schools can learn better if they are taught in their mother tongue, but still the state cannot make it mandatory for recognition of a school as to what should be the medium of instruction in the said school, especially the schools of minority character protected under Article 29(1) and 30(1) of the Constitution. The guardian of a child exercises various powers in relation to the child’s welfare and their upbringing, acting as a guard to the child’s fundamental rights and hence the choice of medium of instruction of a child in Primary School would also fall within the said authority of the parents and they must be left to decide the same rather than the state exercising the custodial power by imposing a particular medium of instruction. On the other hand, Article 350A of the Constitution placed the state under a constitutional obligation “to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups” to which most of the states have not paid adequate attention. Where children from minority groups are wishing to adopt their mother tongue at primary level, many states have either not made such provisions or the number of teachers are hardly of any consequence.

The Supreme Court has held that under the grab of Article 350A, the state cannot compel a linguistic minority to choose its mother tongue only as a medium of instructions in primary school.

In the context of India, such an issue also makes impact in view of the fact that a large tribal area of the country has unorganized languages spoken at home in which probably books are not available and hence that cannot be medium of instruction. In that context the State cannot impose a particular language depriving the freedom of choice and compelling him to have a particular medium of instruction.  The child and his parent would like to adopt a medium of instruction other than the local language to enter a medium which is richer in contents of literature, science and humanities.

The author is Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court of India

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 June 2014 on page no. 6

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