Friday, November 21, 2014

The Sanskrit Issue

A fresh storm is rising in the corridors of Delhi and caught in it is the predictable Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, who was increasingly become an embarrassment for the otherwise smooth six months of the Narendra Modi government. The problem is not that she is wrong in any way - in fact she is quite within the letter and spirit of the law that most people prefer not to talk about - the problem is that she has come out looking like a Hindutva despot in all of this.

The central issue here pertains to schools in the KVS umbrella (and that educates a minuscule proportion of students) offering German as a third language, which runs afoul of the Three-Language Formula in the National Education Policy. The formula clearly states that Indian students in government schools will learn three languages - English, Hindi and one modern Indian language, with necessary tweaks for local conditions (a southern language in the North and the mother tongue elsewhere). Therefore, there is no doubt that offering German fell afoul of the policy, which dates back to before the BJP even existed.

The problem with most of the critics is that they are badly out of touch with India itself. India is not a European nation - language has deep political meaning. Language was the central issue on which Bombay State was partitioned and on which the south threatened to secede from the Union. To remain an integrated nation, it is necessary for us to understand each other and communicate with accessory languages (and language implies culture, not just communication). At the same time, every Indian language needs to have its due share of respect. The original conception was to thus have Hindi and a local language, but this led to serious repercussions in Tamil Nadu, ending only with keeping English. And indeed, English has its benefits in giving Indians (the tiny minority in this case) an edge over Asian peers globally.

German distorts the formula. For one, it is not even a global language and is used in only a small number of countries in Europe, which themselves teach English to remain globalized. If the question is learning a foreign language to stay connected with the world, then English fits the bill much better than German and indeed, English is taught as a first language in many schools. The primary goal of Indian education should be to educate Indians about themselves - and that includes learning an Indian language other than your mother tongue. This can be any language, not just Sanskrit. Indeed, India would've been a much better place if Delhiwallas could speak some Tamil along with their bad Hindi and even worse English. Or maybe if they learned some Manipuri they would stop the racial targeting of citizens from the Northeast.

The Three-Language Formula has failed to bring about national integration - as former DMK MP Kanimozhi pointed out, the people who translate Tamil to Hindi are the same people who translate Hindi to Tamil. Haryana chose Telugu as its third language while Andhra Pradesh chose Hindi. How many Haryanavis speak Telugu and how many Telugus speak Hindi? The difference will tell you just how much national integration has failed. This is not about the Americanized youth in glittering malls - they will never need any language except English anyway. It is about people in semi-urban and rural areas, whose need for social mobility can be met by learning an additional Indian language and thus opening up more avenues. For them, German is useless.

Unfortunately, this has fallen down to Sanskrit vs German (as IBN put it), which is a tragedy given the common roots the two share. Smriti Irani needs to better communicate just why her decision was right and not allow extremist groups to hijack the issue. There are many who want everyone to learn Sanskrit, but there is no reason to give them any more value than those who want the same of say, Kannada. One foreign language in the curriculum is enough - learn about your own country first.

Disclaimer: I speak five languages, including two foreign ones, and understand about five more. 

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