Recent controversies over Sanskrit, Urdu in educational institutions point to growing communalisation of languages

  • The communalisation of a language has very real consequences for both the language itself, but more importantly, for the people who use it on a regular basis.

  • As a process, it attempts to draw clear lines delineating who can and cannot use a certain language, rewarding transgressions with an open hostility.

  • It goes without saying that the victims of such exclusion and hostility are disproportionately from already marginalised groups.

On 7 November, controversy erupted at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), as students and even some professors protested against the appointment of Feroze Khan as professor of Sanskrit in the Sahitya department of the University’s Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vijnan. Protestors objected to Khan’s Muslim background, alleging he was unfit to teach Hindu students the Sanskrit language — the primary liturgical language of Hinduism — solely because of his faith.

Coverage of the incident in the national media highlighted Khan’s educational background: his academic excellence in Sanskrit, the fact that he was a recipient of the Rajasthan government’s Sanskrit Yuva Prathiba Samman, and most importantly, BHU’s official statement that Khan was chosen for the post over other applicants simply because he was the best candidate for the job.

In addition, BHU’s vice-chancellor issued a statement that Khan’s appointment was made by a qualified selection committee, following standard protocol, in accordance with both UGC guidelines and the BHU Act.

“Merit”, a common enough dog whistle in such matters, was nowhere to be heard in Right-wing camps.

The core demand of the protests goes against Section 4 of the BHU Act, which states that “it shall not be lawful for the University to adopt or impose on any person any test whatsoever of religious belief or profession in order to entitle him to be admitted therein, as a teacher or student.”

 Recent controversies over Sanskrit, Urdu in educational institutions point to growing communalisation of languages

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

A distraught Khan expressed his disbelief at the whole spectacle, telling reporters how he and his family, who have been learning Sanskrit for generations, have never before faced any conflict over his religious identity. Some Twitter users were quick to note that a white person from a non-Hindu background would’ve been showered with appreciation for even showing a superficial interest in the language, as was demonstrated by the social media frenzy stirred up by pop star Lady Gaga’s recent tweet in Sanskrit.

Only one month earlier, Furkan Ali, the headmaster of a government school in Uttar Pradesh's Pilibhit, was suspended for allegedly instructing students to recite an Urdu "prayer" — 'lab pe ātī hai duā' by Mohammed Iqbal — during the morning assembly. The choice of language seemed to suggest an Islamic religious orientation, claimed the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), who instigated Ali’s suspension.

Increasing communalisation

The common thread tying these two otherwise unrelated events together is how they both reflect the politicisation of language, or to be more specific, its communalisation — increased identification with specific religious affiliations. Urdu with Islam, and Sanskrit with Hinduism.

While it’s true that Sanskrit has a certain religious significance in Hinduism, it also boasts of a vast canon of secular literature, including epic poetry, histories, and treatises on grammar and literary aesthetics. This is in addition to religious literature in non-Hindu traditions, including Jainism and Buddhism.

Urdu, as a prominent literary language across much of British Raj-era North India, was initially developed by Muslim writers, before spreading across the region and becoming the language of choice for many local non-Muslim authors, including its finest short story writer, Munshi Premchand.

The communalisation of a language has very real consequences for both the language itself, but more importantly, for the people who use it on a regular basis.

As a process, it attempts to draw clear lines delineating who can and can’t use a certain language, rewarding transgressions with an open hostility. It goes without saying that the victims of such exclusion and hostility are disproportionately from already marginalised groups. In both these cases, for example, the targets were Muslims: Khan was seen as encroaching upon a space that the protestors denied could be equally his; Ali was perceived as imposing his religious identity on children in a public sphere.

Their Muslim identity is what marked them for opposition in both cases, even though from a purely objective perspective Khan was actually placed to contribute to the language, and any resistance to his appointment would have no legal basis to stand on. In both cases, the specifics weren’t what ultimately mattered; it was a question of identity all along.

Exclusionism — and a dying field

For decades, Indian Right-wing leaders have asserted that Sanskrit is essential to the Indian identity, campaigning for it to be made a mandatory subject in education. A common charge levelled against such demands is a reminder that Sanskrit has traditionally been the preserve of Brahmins, and that its history is one of conscious exclusion, a charge that the Right conveniently overlooks. Today, when a member of a community outside traditional networks of Sanskrit usage decides to devote his life to not just studying, but also actively teaching the language, he is unceremoniously met with strident opposition. By invoking dharma, the protestors are at best reinforcing the territorialism that has long plagued the language. The irony of the situation should not be lost on anyone.

On the one hand the Right has long dismissed the controversy surrounding Sanskrit’s past, and on the other, they are clearly unwilling to make it a language with wider acceptance. Worse yet, any attempts to challenge this exclusionism have apparently provoked antagonism rather than fostered acceptance.

An India Today article points out that over 65 percent of posts for Sanskrit teachers in various universities across Uttar Pradesh, the state BHU lies in, are unfilled. The field can scarcely afford to wall itself off any further and reject candidates.

Sanskrit through the centuries

A brief look through Indian history highlights the fact that languages were primarily used for utilitarian purposes, which is also why elite societies were traditionally multilingual — different languages served to achieve different goals. Sanskrit, although chiefly used by Brahmins for ceremonial and religious purposes, was no different. In her book Culture Of Encounters, historian Audrey Truschke explores the patterns and motivations behind the Mughal patronage of Sanskrit. According to one review, the book argues that “engaging with Sanskrit literary cultures formed a crucial dimension of the Mughal state, whether through the sponsoring or translating of Sanskrit texts, or engagements with Sanskrit intellectuals”.

In the medieval Sultanate of Golkonda, an Islamic state that showed a high degree of interaction and dialogue between the Sanskritic, the Persianate, and regional Telugu, some local Sufi saints even wrote religious treatises — Islamic ones — in Sanskrit. Further north, in the Sultanate of Kashmir, Sanskrit “served as the language used both for everyday government administration and for literary expression” for over a century, according to historian Richard Eaton.

In each case, Sanskrit was used for different purposes by Muslim figures. Rulers like the Mughals used it as a tool to further and broaden their own political and intellectual aspirations in an effort to legitimise their rule more strongly, while in Kashmir Sultans used it in continuity with pre-Islamic courtly traditions. Sufis probably used it to communicate to new audiences, using concepts and vocabulary they would be familiar with.

Language, identity — and resisting communalisation

For now, these incidents are seemingly one-off occurrences, and it is too soon to claim that these events form a larger trend. However, in the light of similar instances of communalisation of other markers of identity elsewhere, the outlook is not exactly encouraging. That being said, one can take some reassurance in the fact that trend or not, our languages — and those who love them — resist efforts to reduce them to the mere expression of one’s identity, showing resilience to efforts at communalisation, a resilience that needs to be actively reinforced.

Meanwhile, the Sanskrit department at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), one of Uttar Pradesh's central universities, is almost entirely staffed by Muslim professors — professors whose PhD theses involved years and years of research on various aspects of Sanskrit. The department’s syllabus includes a wide sweep of subjects, from Vedic ślokas, to epic poetry by Māgha and Kālidāsa, to literary theory by Daṇḍin. In short, a comprehensive set of courses, designed to offer the aspiring Sanskrit scholar a firm grounding in the field.

In a recent Times of India article, Muslim faculty members of AMU’s Sanskrit department stated that they had not faced any discrimination for their faith as Sanskrit teachers, nor did they see any contradiction in being Muslim and teaching Sanskrit.

The schedule of the wildly popular Jashn-e-Rekhta, a grand celebration of Urdu poetry, features an almost equal mix of Muslim and non-Muslim names, with the entire first day occupied by an inaguration and a music performance by non-Muslim headliners. Of course, given India’s own religious demographics, it can be safely assumed that most attendees of this festival dedicated to Urdu will be non-Muslims as well.

On 29 November, Professor Khan appeared in an interview for the post of assistant professor of Sanskrit in a different department, the Ayurveda department at BHU’s Institute of Medical Sciences, and is reported to be appearing for an interview for the same post in the Arts faculty. The issue is yet to come to a close.

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

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Updated Date: Dec 06, 2019 08:51:11 IST