Mother Tongue: Supreme Court's Last Word

By Cleofato A Coutinho
14 May 2014 22:19 IST

Karnataka’s attempt to impose Medium of Instruction in Kannada/mother tongue got the final reversal from the Supreme Court. It was expected that the Supreme Court Judgement would also lay to rest the Goa debate on grants to English medium schools. A very emotive issue on cultural front, it probably brought down the previous congress government but politics and pragmatism has kept the same policy in place with cosmetic changes under the Parivartan government.  

After the Supreme Court judgement, the protagonists of regional languages now seem to make the distinction of the Karnataka case over the imposition of mother tongue/Kannada and the case of release of grants for schools imparting instruction in English at primary level in Goa. Though the issue in Karnataka arose out of imposition of instruction in mother tongue/Kannada medium at primary level, taking into account the importance of the a broader issue a regular bench of the Supreme Court framed five questions for consideration of the Supreme Court’s  Constitution bench.

The five questions for consideration before the constitution bench were neither restricted to imposition of Kannada/mother tongue or release of grants to English medium at primary level. They were of universal character certainly applicable to the entire country.

Here in Goa unwarranted communal colour was brought to a socio-economic matter fired by aspirational parents of ambitions children who saw the elite take up primary education in English. They felt that their future lies in following the upper sections of society which patronized the private unaided English schools. That created a stress on the Diocesan Society of Education which then imparted primary education in Konkani based upon the grants policy.

It is imperative to place on record that the Diocesan Society of Education did not seek grants on the basis of minority character, though it was their legitimate constitutional guaranteed right to establish and administer educational institutions of their ‘choice’ which would also include choice of language. The Supreme Court has now clearly ruled that the ‘choice’ of the minority community under Article 30(1) need not be limited to imparting education in the language of the minority community.

Of the five issues framed for resolution and the conclusion of the constitution bench only three concern us in Goa:

1. What does mother tongue means? If it referred to as the language in which the child is comfortable with, then who will decide the same?

2. Whether a student or a parent or a citizen has a right to choose a medium of instruction at primary stage?

3. Does the imposition of mother tongue in any way affect the fundamental rights under Article 14, 19, 29 and 30 of the constitution?


Rejecting all arguments of the Karnataka government on regulating the primary education, the Supreme Court ruled it is “the parent or the guardian of the child who will decide what the mother tongue of the child is”. The constitution nowhere provides that the mother tongue is the language the child is comfortable with and power of the state cannot be expanded to restrict a fundamental right by saying that mother tongue is a language which the child is comfortable with.

The right to choose the medium of instruction at the primary school stage shall remain with the child and/or parent and not the state, the Supreme Court ruled.  In fact the Court has placed the right of a child to be educated in the medium of instruction of his choice within the four corners of freedom of speech and expression. 

The most significant pronouncement is “that imposition of mother tongue affects the fundamental rights under Arts. 19, 29 and 30 of the constitution”. The verdict is loud and clear. There is no room for debate at least at this stage. The debate whether the Supreme Court was correct in its interpretation can go on. But as a student of law, I believe, Supreme Court is ordained to have the last word and that last word is the law of the land. 

The Supreme Court has also recorded that the experts have opined that children study better if they are taught in their mother tongue.  Even then the state cannot impose controls on choice of the parents just because it thinks that it will be more beneficial for the child if he is taught in the primary stage at school in his mother tongue. In Karnataka it is a issue of imposition of Kannada on a sections which are resisting that imposition while in Goa it is a matter of hope for the sections resisting the imposition of regional language to get grants in much the same way as Dalits see hope in the English language in the Hindi heartland of India.

While accepting that the medium of instruction at the primary stage would be chosen by the child/parent, the Hon’ble Supreme Court acknowledges John Stuart Mill who propounded that “each individual must in certain matter left only to frame the plan of his life to suit his own character and to do as he likes without any impediment and even if he decides to act foolishly in such matters, society or on its behalf the state should not interfere with the choice of the individual”. When the rich and the neo-rich overwhelming opts for English medium of instruction, it is sheer arrogance on the part of those who believe that the underprivileged act ‘foolishly’ in seeking a hope for their next generation. It is here that the issue of release of grants for English medium primary schools come to the fore as the aided schools are normally pratronized by the under privileged.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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Previous Comments

Is there any Indian language, or for that matter Oriental language (e.g. Chinese, Arabic, whatever), that is written in Roman script? Thanks for your response.

- Bernardo de Sousa, Switzerland | 27 th May 2014 13:41


Goa Government Has Discriminated Goa Christians By Not Making Goa’s Official Language Konkani Into Roman Script. Making One Section Happy Is Not Good For Goans Unity. Goa Government Must Rectify Its Mistake And Make Goa’s Official Language Konkani In Both Scripts (Roman & Devnagri).

- Jose Rod, Goa | 22 nd May 2014 13:24


MoI Must Be In English And Only One Subject Konkani In Devnagri Or Roman Script.

- Jose Rod, Goa | 18 th May 2014 13:21


The main problem lies with emotionalism vested in the word 'mother' tongue. This problem has been studied a bit by scientists using a new research tool fMRI which allows study of different regions of brain linking it to physical activities and thought processes. Scientists also did away with the above emotional terminology and simply called it primary languages. They found that up to the age of about 6 child can absorb, and be good in about 5 or 6 languages comparatively strange languages. For these languages their brain forms a 'primary' center whereas for the languages learnt after the ages of 10 they have secondary center formed in their brains. Obviouslt these secondary languages are not as well assimilated as primary languages, which we call mother tongue. Do you see the scientific difference in what adjective we attach to language?

At the end it is very immature, idiotic and childish to force the govt to deny other group what the want since you have full right only to desire for your self not deny other equal rights.

- Kalidas Sawkar, Panaji Goa | 15 th May 2014 19:58


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