Minority languages suffer from institutional neglect, biases as Indian govt saves its focus for 'classical languages'

On 2 February, the Union Ministry of Culture released data on Central Government funding, from 2017 to 2020, for the six languages deemed “classical languages” by the Government  — Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Odia. This data was released in response to an unstarred question posed in the Lok Sabha​ by Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena MPs from Maharashtra.

As per the Ministry’s own data, the bulk of this funding, to the tune of ₹643.84 crore since 2017, went to Sanskrit. In comparison, during the same period, Tamil was allotted ₹22.94 crore, 22 times less in comparison. Telugu and Kannada received a paltry ₹3.06 crore each, while Malayalam and Odia received no funds at all.

Most of all this funding went to the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, a government body set up in 1970 for the explicit purpose of ​promoting Sanskrit​.

A few weeks later, on 27 February, Marathi Bhasha Din (Marathi Language Day), the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly passed a resolution ​recommending the Centre​ to award Marathi classical language status as well. Clearly, the Lok Sabha question was intended to gauge what material benefits such a development would grant Marathi.

Classical Language Tag

Although the very label “classical” carries with it a certain cachet, with connotations of antiquity and literary refinement, it means next to nothing, official classification notwithstanding.

The ​criteria used by the Government​ are arbitrary, with no basis in linguistic scholarship. Nor are these claims verified by objective linguistic analysis, with calls for inclusion within the list — the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly’s bizarrely inaccurate claim of Marathi being “older than Sanskrit” for example — preferring empty rhetoric over facts.

Once you account for the hollowness of the label, the seemingly unwarranted attention it has attracted over the years makes more sense. Rather than academic validation, this compulsion to secure classical language status boils down to an attempt to secure to two commodities, one tangible, one less so — money, and linguistic prestige.

 Minority languages suffer from institutional neglect, biases as Indian govt saves its focus for classical languages

Representational image. Via WikiCommons

Classical Language Funding

The question then arises — why do languages that already enjoy state funding, as well as official language status, require Central funds in the first place? What institutional privilege do they lack within their own states that drives them to campaign for a meaningless official label?

Indeed, their respective states fund them readily, use them widely, develop them, and teach them across their districts. Their visibility and usage are mandated by local language policy. Nowhere do they suffer from lack of funding or presence; if anything their reach has greatly expanded since the establishment of linguistic states in 1956. Kannada, being ​made mandatory in non-Kannada speaking parts of newly formed Karnataka, is a great example of this.

The politicisation of classical language status means that only language communities that can mobilise as voter blocs can effectively put pressure on the Centre. Languages that are not already state languages can hardly muster such support; this leaves marginalised languages to fend for themselves and flounder, with obvious consequences for their growth and prestige.

With linguistic prestige, all the tag does is to reinforce the common misconception that an older written tradition grants its language more legitimacy; such a worldview leaves little if any place for non-literary languages that do not enjoy state support, languages that are no less deserving of attention — privileging Central funding for languages that make the cut, so to speak.

Kannada and Tamil are funded by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively, but what of Tulu or Gondi? Why does Sanskrit, one of the most studied Indian languages, deserve extra funding and not Kurux, one of East India’s most marginalised languages?

In addition, most of these minority languages are non-literary, in that while they possess oral literature, they do not have established, robust traditions. Their non-literary character fundamentally disadvantages them in ways written languages don’t have to worry about.

Classical as a label further privileges writing over oral culture, by creating a “high” culture characterised by what is perceived as literariness and tradition, in contrast to a “low” culture that is seen as rustic and unpolished. These perceptions are completely subject, and reflect society’s own biases rather than describing something inherent in the traditions themselves.

Institutional Neglect

Minority languages suffer from institutional neglect since India’s states, founded on the principle of linguistic nationalism, view these languages with suspicion. The Central Government, on the other hand, saves its focus for English and Hindi, the undeserving recipient of nationwide propagation.

According to Census data, there are 121 languages spoken in India with over 10,000 speakers, although the actual figures are higher since the Census groups distinct languages as “dialects”, such as Bhojpuri under Hindi, Badaga under Kannada, and Saurashtra under Gujarati.

This classification of distinct language varieties as dialects of larger, more established varieties reflects the neglect they are subjected to — they are not even given the dignity of being seen as distinct entities by the state.

Most of these languages have a scant online presence, and very little by means of resources. Resources here include linguistic documentation and descriptions, digitized written samples, audio recordings of conversations, audio recordings of oral literature, reference dictionaries, input tools, and more.

While this may seem like a lot, all of this — and much more — exists in abundance for most established languages, including the very languages seeking Central funding.

This effectively leaves minority languages in a vacuum; in lieu of institutional support, the development of their language becomes the community’s cross to bear. Even something as fundamental as preparing a dictionary for speakers to reference would be an uphill task.

Essentially this means non-government bodies are forced to step in and fill this vacuum.

The efforts of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, helmed by Ganesh Devy, have been especially noteworthy for their efforts in documenting and bringing light to minority languages, with a focus on Adivasi languages. Devy himself ​entered this space​ through his study of Adivasi languages, languages that bear the brunt of some of the worst state neglect.

However, as admirable as their endeavours are, why should this vacuum exist in the first place? The sizeable funds earmarked for languages that barely need it could instead be diverted to minority languages.

₹22.94 crore rupees wouldn’t mean much for Tamil, but it would be an absolute game-changer for Tulu or Gondi. Seeing as how Tamil — or any other language deemed “classical” by the government — doesn’t depend on Central funding, it makes more sense to direct that funding elsewhere, to languages more in need of it.

By legitimising such hierarchies, we are essentially funding languages that are already thriving and have large bodies of scholarship, when what we should be focusing on instead is preserving languages that face low linguistic prestige, lack of representation, severe marginalisation, and in some extreme cases actual language death.

Redirecting Funds, Energies

In addition to enforcing usage of state languages through language policy, linguistic nationalism actively places strain on existing minority language networks, forcing them into more marginalisation than before. Community efforts to assert these languages then becomes an attack on the very principle of a linguistic state, leading to further apathy, or worse, open antipathy.

While debates over classical language status might seem far removed from all these issues, they form the most visible manifestation of these disputes over prestige.

As taxpayers, our money would be much better served funding the linguistic heritage of communities that don’t have the privilege to sustain their own languages, as opposed to funding glorified promotional projects for already widely studied and used languages. State funding should support the marginalised, and not exist as a means to reinforce existing privilege through selection criteria that don’t stand up to even basic academic scrutiny.

It’s time we moved beyond these arbitrary categories that prop up existing biases and exclude genuine linguistic research. Instead, we should support marginalised linguistic communities and their heritage, and bring them into public view, into the mainstream.

Karthik Malli is a freelance journalist who writes on the intersection between language, history, and culture

Updated Date: Apr 20, 2020 21:04:29 IST

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