Sanskrit is again in the news, though for different reasons in the north and south of India. In Uttarakhand, Sanskrit received institutional support from the Ministry of Railways. Now, existing Urdu signs will be replaced with those written in Sanskrit.
In Tamil Nadu, by contrast, the use of Sanskrit in the consecration of the Big Temple in Thanjavur was challenged by DMK chief M.K. Stalin. He has demanded that the shlokas be read in Tamil instead of Sanskrit because the temple is a symbol of Dravidian architecture.
Earlier, Stalin had opposed the introduction of philosophy at Anna University, arguing that this would be a proxy for Sanskrit, which according to many Dalit scholars, is associated with Brahmanical hegemony over the low-caste Bahujan-Dalits. Though apparently contradictory, stances towards Sanskrit in Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu show the power of language as a marker of culture and identity.
What is striking about Uttarakhand is that Sanskrit will not supplement the existing languages; it will rather supplant Urdu.
Sanskrit and Urdu could well have co-existed, as is the case in street signs in Delhi, where Hindi, English, Punjabi, and Urdu coexist.
According to chief public relations officer Deepak Kumar, the Railways Manual requires that names of stations be written in Hindi, English, and in the second language of the state. Since the second language of Uttarakhand is Sanskrit, it will replace Urdu.
A careful reading of the 2009 version of the manual, however, gives a different picture. Its section 4.9 deals with signage. It starts with the objectives of the signage and clarifies that the goal is to guide and inform passengers.
Here the Manual rightly focusses on the communicative, rather than symbolic, function of language. Section 126.96.36.199, which stipulates policies regarding language, says, ‘Static or fixed signs will be in English and Hindi.
In certain stations where the local population is predominant in another language the local language will also be included’. According to this, Urdu should continue, as according to the 2011 census, there are 4,25,752 Urdu speakers in Uttarakhand. There is no mention of the second official language at all in the manual. Clearly, the justification offered by the Railways violates the Manual.
At stake here are not simply the procedural inconsistencies. To understand the motivations of the decision, we need to look into history and its ideologisation.
While it is true that Sanskrit no longer has any communicative function, it has not ceased to be a symbol of identity and culture. In the Hindu nationalist ideology, often disguised as Indian and shared across the political divide, Sanskrit has been projected as an icon of India, whereby other languages such as Tamil, Pali, and Urdu, and cultures associated with them, are either subordinated or erased so that the plural linguistic and cultural history of India is reduced to one singular Sanskritic culture.
While discussing the future official language of India, in the constituent assembly, proposals were made to adopt Sanskrit. It was, however, rejected, and instead Hindi was adopted. Notably, non-recognition of Sanskrit as the official language didn’t mean its disappearance. Article 351 of the constitution specified Sanskrit as the primary source for the development of Hindi.
Only a few years after the adoption of the constitution, this ideology of Sanskrit as a synonym of India resurfaced in the reports of the Sanskrit Commission established in 1956. The commission’s task was to examine the status of Sanskrit in India. In its report, the commission expressed disappointment that Sanskrit was rejected by the constituent assembly as the official language of India.
Examining the Commission Report, Sumathy Ramaswamy shows how Sanskrit was equated with the Indian nation as if ‘there was no India outside and beyond the realm of Sanskrit’. A language confined to the upper caste men for ritual purposes in ancient India and to which people of the lower castes were denied access, she further argues, was being presented in independent India as a language for the entire nation, irrespective of differences in caste, class, religion, and region.
Before I may get misunderstood as an opponent of Sanskrit, let me clarify that the works of Sanskrit scholars – for instance, Panini and Bhartrihari – fascinate me as a student of linguistics. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is a canonical work not only for students of Sanskrit but also for general linguists.
Similarly, I admire the linguistic contribution of the theory of Sphota by the grammarian-philosopher Bhartrihari. This theory distinguishes between an abstract meaning-bearing unit and its actual realisation in speech (dhvani). In gratitude to him, poet Muhammad Iqbal placed a versified form of Bhratrihari’s ideas on the second page of his masterpiece Bal-e-Jibreel.
Returning to the ideological mobilisation, let’s now turn to conceptions of Urdu by the Hindu nationalists. It has been viewed as a foreign language of Muslim invaders since the rise of Hindu and Hindi nationalism in the late 19th century.
Members of the Congress party such as Purushottam Lal Tandon and Seth Govind Das argued in the constituent assembly that Urdu represents a foreign culture. Shyama Prasad Mukherji, a member of Nehru’s cabinet, who later left the Congress party to found the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was a champion of Sanskrit and accepted Hindi only as a compromise. He hoped for Sanskrit to “reoccupy an honoured place in the national educations scheme”.
It is this Hindu majoritarian ideology that informs the policies and day-to-day workings of the BJP governments, in the states as well as at the Centre. In Uttarakhand, in 2010, Sanskrit was given the status of a second language during the tenure of the chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, currently the Minister of Human Resource Development at the Centre. He started his career at an RSS-affiliated Saraswati Shishu Mandir.
To claim legitimacy for Sanskrit, at the 2019 convocation ceremony of IIT Mumbai, Pokhriyal claimed, falsely, that NASA has announced that talking computers were possible only because of Sanskrit. The BJP government in Himachal Pradesh is following suit to accord Sanskrit the status of the second official language.
In the last few years of BJP rule at the Centre and the states, Urdu has been targeted on many fronts. First came the renaming of places with Urdu/Muslim names such as Allahabad, and Mughal Sarai Station into Prayagraj and Deendayal Upadhya station respectively. Clearly, the goal was to simultaneously erase Urdu and Muslim identities of the places and Hinduise them.
Urdu was at the receiving end on the floor of the legislative assembly of UP when, on March 29, 2017, its speaker of the house, Fateh Bahadur Singh (from the ruling BJP), quashed the oath taken in Urdu by two Muslim members. This happened despite the fact that Urdu is the second official language in UP.
Paradoxically, a day earlier, fourteen Hindu legislators had taken their oath in Sanskrit, which was considered valid. Later in the same year Musharraf Hussain, a newly elected corporator in the Aligarh Municipal Corporation, was charged with hurting the religious feelings of Hindus because he took his oath of office in Urdu. He was also assaulted by some BJP councillors.
The new move is unlikely to revitalise Sanskrit as it requires a bottom-up approach starting from elementary school; erecting signboards will not serve that purpose. All this will achieve is a symbolic assertion of a political ideology. Given the fact that it is often associated with upper-caste hegemony and discrimination against the Dalits, Sanskrit may not be attractive to them. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, in the past, has openly advocated for the adoption of English.
Whether or not the policy by the Uttarakhand government will breathe life into Sanskrit, what is clear is that it will contribute to the death of a living language Urdu, which has been struggling in Uttar Pradesh since Independence.
This is part of the broader discourse and practice of hate, bigotry, and violence against Muslims that India has seen in the last few years. This will further marginalise Muslims as a community, erase their heritage and identity, and create an exclusionary Hinduised public space.
Rizwan Ahmad is an associate professor of socio-linguistics at the department of English Literature and Linguistics, Qatar University. He tweets at rizwanahmad1.