Has the BJP Government Hurt Sanskrit?

The timing of the Government’s decision to introduce Sanskrit and the manner in which it has gone about it are poorly conceived, half-baked and ham-handed.

Will Sanskrit and controversy always go hand in hand in India? Will and should the study of and research on Sanskrit be restricted to universities outside the country to ensure that it remains free of controversy and gets the respect and attention it deserves? These are the questions that naturally occur to any lover of Sanskrit each time the language finds itself at the centre of yet another controversy.  

Three brilliant posts have been written in Swarajya, which I strongly recommend reading, on the controversy surrounding the BJP-led NDA Government’s decision to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language for classes VI to VIII in Kendriya Vidyalayas during an academic year. This post is my contribution to the debate (unfortunately, it is never a “discussion” when it comes to Sanskrit), and in the next post I shall draw support for revival of Sanskrit from a German’s take on India and Sanskrit—Friedrich Max Muller.

Before I proceed with my thoughts, let me fairly disclose at the outset that between the BJP and the Congress, I would any day choose the former for multiple reasons, primarily ideological. Therefore, my views are not those of a detractor of the BJP, but those of a conscientious conscience keeper. Having said this, it is my personal opinion that the timing of the Government’s decision to introduce Sanskrit and the manner in which it has gone about it are thoroughly flawed and disappointing. Following are my reasons for holding this opinion.

Of all the things Sanskrit needs, controversy is certainly not one and this much ought to be clear to anyone who understands the acrimonious politics surrounding the language or anything remotely related to it. Surely the BJP knows this, and yet the manner in which it has introduced Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalayas may be mildly described as poorly conceived, half-baked and ham-handed.

The question that must be posed is, did the HRD Ministry truly believe that this was the best time and way to revive interest in this beautiful language? If yes, then surely it is not being helmed by the right people, and if no, what was the true objective behind this move? Was the HRD Ministry finding itself inadequate in formulating creative solutions to address actual issues that beset the education system of the country, and introduction of Sanskrit was its way of puffing up its report card by attempting to score brownie points with its core constituents? If the answer is yes, I think it has misread the priorities of those who voted for this Government.

Revival of Sanskrit and its mainstreaming are issues which are close to the hearts of millions of people like me. But what is important to us at this point of time, is that the Government takes up the cause of Sanskrit after having delivered on those of its electoral promises which are of immediate consequence to the average voter and to the country’s interests. This way the Government would have cemented the people’s faith in its ability to govern (after all, good governance was the primary electoral plank), and would have earned the right to touch hot potatoes like Sanskrit. Execution of a long-term vision on ideological issues needs time and that requires a reservoir of credibility to effectively deliver on bread-and-butter issues.

Six months in power is hardly enough time to take up issues like Sanskrit when until recently the Government did not have a full-time Defence Minister despite the grave security threats the country is faced with in the form of a belligerent Pakistan, an unpredictable China and possible establishment of Al Qaeda and ISIS franchises in India. Also, the Government has a lot more to do to improve the investment climate in India and to ramp up the country’s ability to innovate and manufacture, with the latter needing significant ideation and execution by the HRD Ministry.

The regulation of quality of engineering graduates that the country produces has long been an issue with several chambers of commerce pointing to the serious lack of application skills of our graduates. These require the HRD Ministry’s full-time attention and commitment. How else do we give effect to the “Make in India” project?

With so much on its plate, how does the Government, specifically the HRD Ministry, manage to find the time to come up with a sledgehammer approach to revive interest in Sanskrit and that too in the midst of an academic year? What earth-shattering difference would it have made to the revival of Sanskrit if the Government had sought feedback from schools, parents and students during this academic year after informing them of the possible introduction of Sanskrit in the next year? If symbolism was not the sole objective behind the introduction of Sanskrit, shouldn’t the Government have spent more time and effort in dispelling the racial/ casteist myths and prejudices surrounding Sanskrit and in creating greater awareness of the kind of research being undertaken on the language in reputed institutions around the world before introducing it in schools?

The question according to me is not whether a foreign language must take precedence over Sanskrit. The issue for me is this—when you know that there is a real mental barrier to the learning of Sanskrit which is partly political, partly cultural and partly religious, you have two options. Either keep bickering at all levels to support the adoption of Sanskrit, which comes at the expense of alienating parents and students from the language even more, besides the possible erosion of the Government’s credibility; or highlight the utilitarian value of learning Sanskrit and give people enough incentives to opt for it.

It would be banal to point out that in a country like India, one shouldn’t underestimate the persuasive power of incentivization. The corollary also being that one shouldn’t expect the average Indian student to take up the learning of Sanskrit for ideological reasons or out of a Manoj Kumar-esque love for “desh ki dharti”. In an earlier post of mine titled “De-colonizing the Indian mind”, I had written:

”The other realistic observation by Prof. Paranjape was that it is Utopian to expect Indian students of history and languages to take an active interest in anything related to India without providing adequate incentives (read scholarships/ fellowships) for doing so. After all, study of foreign languages and cultures opens up prestigious and lucrative avenues, which is largely responsible for students taking it up in droves. In other words, according to Prof. Paranjape, it isn’t true that Indian students are completely averse to studying Indian or South Asian history; it is only a question of whether the effort is worth their while.”

Drawing from the above expressed sentiment, if the Government had been less confrontational and more subtle about the issue, one of the things that the Government could have certainly done is to offer Sanskrit and German as a combination to students, given the striking similarities between the languages. Couldn’t the Government have collaborated with the German Government to establish scholarships for a dual Sanskrit-German degree? As part of this initiative, it could have highlighted the history of research in Sanskrit in German institutions and by scholars of German origin like Freidrich Max Muller.

It could have introduced students to works such as Max Muller’s anthology of lectures on India titled India: What can it Teach Us? These lectures, which I shall discuss in my next post, are a must-read for those who wish to understand the umbilical cord that ties India to Sanskrit, and the possible common roots of Sanskrit and European languages.  This way, perhaps Indian students would have enquired on their own, the historical reasons for the similarity between Sanskrit and European languages. After all, the end object is not just revival of interest in Sanskrit as a language, but to rejuvenate interest in the historical and cultural value of Sanskrit.

Alternatively, the very least the Government could have done to facilitate its introduction of Sanskrit in schools is to use this academic year to create a positive environment for Sanskrit by bringing eminent Sanskrit scholars and people like Prof. Manjul Bhargava to speak on the need for learning Sanskrit in the formative years. Imagine the reactions of schools and parents when the winner of a Fields Medal explains his views on the connection between Sanskrit, Indian classical music and mathematics? Imagine the world of good one could have done to the historicity of Sanskrit by pointing to the use of Sanskrit texts in invalidating patents on Basmati, Neem and Turmeric?

Also, it is not necessary for the Government to be directly involved in the promotion of Sanskrit. All it needs to do is to create the right environment for extant private initiatives like Samskrita Bharati whose contribution to the cause of Sanskrit is yeoman. However, one suspects that this is probably a less attractive option if the intention is only to be seen as doing something for the cause of Sanskrit, as opposed to actually doing something lasting for it. The bottom line is that tokenism doesn’t pay in the long run and people do see through it eventually. The HRD Ministry has to only look at the thrashing the Congress received at the hustings to get the point.

Real reforms need real backbreaking effort whereas symbolism needs just glib talk and marketing. The HRD Ministry needs to choose between the two. Importantly, people calling the shots at the HRD Ministry must realize that there is a vast difference between being able to intelligently parry hostile interviewers and governance. Finally, one fervently hopes that the Government’s (mis)handling of the issue has not alienated Sanskrit from the future of India-students.