Photograph of Anil Chawla


Author - Anil Chawla

Indian business schools put great emphasis on proficiency in English for admission tests. This puts Hindi and other vernacular medium students at a disadvantage. Should this be changed? Should Indian B schools become more Indian?

Ask anyone for three biggest names of last century's Indian business and the answer would be G.D. Birla, J.R.D. Tata and Dhirubhai Ambani (the order might differ). Of the three, two were first generation entrepreneurs and JRD Tata was, to a large degree a professional manager and entrepreneur. GD Birla and Dhirubhai Ambani were born in a village and retained a rustic charm in their mannerisms and style throughout their lives. JRD Tata spent his early childhood in France and had a touch of French finesse about him. Till the last day of his life, he counted in French numerals and not in English. GD Birla had a habit of slipping into Marwari dialect and Dhirubhai had no aversion to talking in Gujarati.

None of them was known to possess a particularly good vocabulary of English language. It can be said with a fair degree of certainty that each one of them would have failed to clear the Common Admission Test (CAT) conducted by Indian Institutes of Management. In all probability GD Birla and Dhirubhai Ambani would not have made it even to C-grade business schools.

Dhirubhai, GD Birla and JRD Tata related to the ethos and culture of India and Indian people. Surely, all three of them were proficient in English but still they empathized with the common man of this country. They understood the power structures of India. They understood the relationship equations that are characteristic of India. Can the same be said of the MBA's (or PGDBM's) passing out of the hallowed portals of the IIM's?

Management education, unlike technical education, cannot be divorced from the ground realities, culture and people of a country. Management jargon is not essential for carrying on business. Compared to engineering and technology, it is relatively easy to translate management terms into various languages.

Moreover, knowledge of local language gives an advantage to managers in relating to their stakeholders (customers, consumers, suppliers, workers etc.). No such claim can be made in case of engineers. This point can be illustrated by the example of advertisements. Coca-Cola has been able to get some success in Indian markets only after it has adopted the idiom of Bollywood and has produced ads in Hindi with Amir Khan in lead. Coca-Cola was not successful when its ads featured rock concerts and Remo Fernandez. The problem with Remo was not of language but of the idiom and style of presentation. No such problems occur in case of an engineer designing a shaft or a dam or a high-rise building.

There is no doubt that working knowledge of English is an essential skill for both engineers and managers in the present world. On the other hand it must also be acknowledged that an extraordinary proficiency in English does not make one a better engineer or better manager. Japan, South Korea, Europe and China are full of engineers and managers who have just about bare minimum working knowledge of English. This does not in any way make these professionals second-grade to their counterparts in UK and USA.

Three decades back, Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT's) realized this fact. Till 1973, Joint Entrance Examination to IIT's (JEE) had four subjects - Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and English; and total marks of all the four subjects were added up for calculating the competitive rank. From 1973 onwards, English examination became a non-competitive exam. In other words, a candidate had to just get minimum marks in English to qualify for JEE. This was a major change that altered the entry level profile of IIT's. Hindi and other vernacular medium students started entering IIT's in a big way. IIT's ceased to be extensions of the big fashionable public schools.

A few years later, IIT's scrapped the examination in English. Now, after entry many IIT's conduct a test for proficiency in English and if a student is found lacking, he / she is made to undergo one or two courses in English so that he has a working knowledge of English. It is now possible to appear for the main examination (Physics, Chem., Maths) of JEE in Hindi as well as in regional languages. The lead taken by IIT's has influenced complete technical education of the country. No engineering college or university in the country now has an examination in English as part of its entrance examination.

Indian Institutes of Management (IIM's) have failed to do what the IIT's started doing in 1973. Common Admission Test for IIM's has only two papers - Mathematics and English. Both papers are competitive and the marks are added for deciding rank of a candidate. This is exactly the same as pre-1973 situation of IIT's, albeit with one difference. In pre-1973 JEE, the weightage of English was only 25%, but in present-day IIM's marks of English get a weightage of 50 per cent. This gives a great advantage to students coming from families where English is spoken as a family-language. Students, who have studied in English-medium schools, also get an advantage. Hindi and vernacular medium students have practically no hope of clearing the CAT.

The effect that this has on the profile of students entering IIM's is obvious. IIM's have become no better than premium public schools whose products look down on India and everything Indian with an arrogance that has a distinctly colonial touch to it. At one time IIT's were the same, but they have grown out of that.

In 1975, when I entered IIT Bombay, there was a big clash of cultures going on in the campus. On one side were the sophisticated smart ones, called by the other side "pseuds" (some say it is an abbreviation for pseudo-intellectuals, while others think that the term indicates one who lives a false or pseudo-life denying one's roots and trying to acquire a false external identity); and on the other side were the rustic vernacular speaking students called "non-pseuds". The former looked down on everyone speaking Marathi or Hindi, while the latter spoke Marathi or Hindi as a matter of pride. Both spoke English and studied in English. The difference was in the attitude towards English language. Pseuds looked at English and the literature / theater / films / culture of English as an expression of intellectual achievement, while non-pseuds adopted English to the extent necessary and did not feel ashamed of their love for Marathi / Hindi literature or theater or films or songs.

The pseuds were fighting a losing war at IIT Bombay in early seventies. Their numbers were steadily decreasing from 1973 onwards. In 1976 August, when Hindi and Marathi plays were staged at IIT Bombay for the first time, they disrupted the plays by hectic booing. But in the years to come, pseuds were left with no choice but to accept the new order. The present generation of IITians may not even be aware of this big fight that took place three decades ago, since the pseuds are almost a non-entity now at the IIT's.

The issue of pseuds versus non-pseuds has wider ramifications for the society and education system as a whole. Pitted on one side are people who have their roots in India and on the other side are the neo-colonialists who despise India and look up at everything American. Education at IIT or at IIM is heavily subsidized by the people of India. In spite of the high fees, IIM's are dependent on Government of India for grants. Should the Indian taxpayer be paying for the education of those who have no concern whatsoever for the country and look down upon the country and its languages? The change in 1973 by IIT's created a level playing ground for those with only a working knowledge of English. In contrast, the admission system at IIM's is biased against the people who are the true owners and financers of IIM's - the people of India.

Even from an academic point, the dons at Indian business schools must do some introspection. The astronomical salaries that IIM graduates get are truly mind-boggling, but that cannot be the raison d'etre for IIM's and other business schools of India. Most organizations that offer astronomical salaries are multinationals who need people well tuned to their culture. Unwittingly, IIM's have turned into training grounds for multinationals and have become largely irrelevant for Indian business.

IIM's must evaluate their contribution to the country's industry and business. IIM graduates have generally failed (exceptions aside) as entrepreneurs in India. They make good and efficient tools running businesses for the white masters but are no match for Indian traditional business class and cannot beat the rustic gujarati or punjabi or marwari or marathi who speaks English with that typical 'desi' accent and has an understanding of Indian society in his bones.

IIM's and Indian business schools have ignored the class of people who have struggled against all odds and have made Indian business what it is today. By dethroning English from the place of pride that it enjoys at the moment in their admission test, IIM's (and other business schools of India) will herald a change in the entry profile of their students, which in due course will lead to a complete change in the way discipline of management is understood in the country.

IIM's can take a lead by making examination of English a non-competitive one, which would require only passing marks. In due course, IIM's must follow the example of IIT's and test for analytic skills in the medium of all major languages of the country. If IIM's take the lead, other management institutions will follow and this will lead to a countrywide change. In case IIM's do not take the initiative, Ministry of Human Resources Development and All India Council of Technical Education should act on behalf of the country's people.

Let the business schools of India aim to give rise to more Dhirubhais, JRDs and Birlas, instead of creating efficient 'brown sahibs' who play second fiddle to the white masters and look at 'natives' with an ill-concealed disdain.

Anil Chawla
9 September 2003

The above article has generated a very lively debate. Please read what others have said and send me your comments.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer (and now a lawyer too) by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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