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Sanskrit compulsory in Assam schools: When a ‘dead’ language deadens sense and sensibility

Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw once famously said that 'England and America are two countries separated by a common language'. Apart from his sterling literary achievements, including a Nobel Prize for literature, Shaw was equally well-known for his splendid gift of repartee. Currently, Assam is witnessing many protests and rallies by different powerful groups over a language. That language happens to be Sanskrit.

The state has been on the boil in last few days after its education minister, Dr Himanta Biswa Sarmah, announced the government's decision to make Sanskrit a compulsory subject for all students up to class VIII in government run schools. With this announcement, the spectre of Sanskrit suddenly appears to be haunting almost everyone in Assam.

Apparently, it seems to be an isolated decision taken by an overenthusiastic government to please their ideological bosses, who seem to be pulling the strings from that famous address of Nagpur. But with a strong NDA government at the Centre, there is a possibility that many other BJP ruled states may also get swayed by this syndrome, leading to an educationally suffocating atmosphere in the country in the name of showing reverence to a language. It is in this backdrop that the imposition of the language has to be examined dispassionately.

File image of Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. PTI

File image of Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. PTI

Readers would recall the outbreak of the furore in India when former HRD Minister Smriti Irani ordered the teaching of Sanskrit as a third language (in addition to English and Hindi) in all Kendriya Vidyalayas instead of German. Her order was in line with the desire of RSS groups like Sanskrit Bharati, which wanted Sanskrit to be made compulsory in all schools.

Subsequently, however, under the current HRD minister Prakash Javadekar, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has expressed the desire to implement the three language formula up to Class X. Javadekar also assured that no language would be imposed in the school.

The three-language formula, envisaged under the National Education Policy, means that students in Hindi-speaking states should learn a modern Indian language, apart from Hindi and English and, in non-Hindi-speaking states, they should learn Hindi along with the regional language and English. This system has been found to be more or less acceptable by the majority of the academics and educationists working in this field.

But the Assam government is moving on a completely different trajectory, effectively turning students of the state run schools into laboratory guinea pigs. In addition to opposition parties, BJP’s alliance partners like Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) also demanded revoking of this decision in the larger interest of the students.

Three powerful non-political organisations – All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) – also registered their strong protests against this move.

Only RSS-affiliated right-wing student association Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), along with one little-known organisation representing a section of the state’s Brahmin population, welcomed the decision.

It is interesting to note that after observing the sharp reaction of the people, BPF leader and state forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma faintly hinted that although the decision was earlier ratified by the state cabinet, it could still be open to review if the situation so warrants.

Some analysts are of the opinion that Brahma’s volte face may be due to the demand made by the banned anti-talks ULFA-I to make the Bodo language compulsory instead of Sanskrit. The Bodos are numerically the largest indigenous tribal people of Assam and they are endowed with a glorious socio-cultural and literary heritage. Pramila Rani Brahma happens to be a senior Bodo leader.

Asom Sahitya Sabha, the hundred-year-old prestigious literary organisation of the state along with many leading Assamese intellectuals opposed the move of the government. They feel that instead of Sanskrit, the teaching of history and geography is far more important.

In this context, one question becomes pertinent: Why a major part of Assam, especially the Brahmaputra valley, is so strongly resisting the government decision? Does the Assamese language not owe anything to Sanskrit?

The majority of the educated and enlightened Assamese do not harbour any ill feeling towards the Sanskrit language. Rather, they have high regards for its ancient glory and intrinsic beauty. No one denies the positive influence of Sanskrit on the development of Assamese as a wonderful modern Indian language, dear to the heart of millions of people. Barring Tamil and some other tribal dialects, all other Indian languages have some roots in Sanskrit, making it their mother language.

But at the same time, there is no denying the fact that it is a 'dead' language. Some people find this nomenclature offensive. Sanskrit in India now is like Latin in Europe. Its modern use is extremely limited, especially among some scholars and priests. It had become a peripheral language long back.

A leaf from Sanskrit Mahabharata. Source: Wikimedia commons

A leaf from Sanskrit Mahabharata. Source: Wikimedia commons

As its use was shackled by a deeply exclusivist bias of Brahminical elitism, Buddha, Mahavira and Asoka also used Pali and Prakrit languages in ancient India to reach to the people. That is why, despite being grammatically sound and linguistically elegant, Sanskrit never resonated on the lips of the common people.

As time progressed, gradually, a perception also developed that Sanskrit is mainly associated with Hindu religion which further diminished its appeal among many people. Actually, that perception is wrong as it has a huge body of wonderful secular literature. But secular literature has always been overshadowed by the religious underpinnings of the language.

These are the reasons why people are opposing the move to make it compulsory. No one demanded removal of the subject as an optional one for students. Many educationists have in fact been telling the government to improve the infrastructure of the Sanskrit Tol (state run schools where mainly ancient scriptures are taught) and the Sanskrit University established a few years ago.

It is ironical that at a time when the government is trying to get some brownie points in the eyes of RSS by their recent decision, they have become quite apathetic to those genuine demands. This proves that the recent decision has been taken solely on the consideration of political expediency.

Second, the decision is discriminatory in nature as it is biased against the interest of the economically underdeveloped section of the population. As per the directive, students of state run schools have to compulsorily study Sanskrit up to class VIII. But the children of ministers, bureaucrats and other affluent people of the society hardly go these schools. So they would be exempted.

Whether Sanskrit should be called a 'dead' language or a peripheral one could be a part of a wider academic debate. But if the Assam government persists with its decision, the resistance is bound to intensify in the coming days. And it would not be a peripheral resistance. Hope the government would reclaim its sense and sensibility soon in understanding that mood correctly.

The author, an eminent writer, tweets @mayurbora07

Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 17:59 PM

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