Search for national language: Is Sanskrit the answer?

Rajiv Malhotra’s new book, The Battle for Sanskrit, which is going to be launched soon is a great attempt at rescuing the discourse on Indology and Sanskrit from the clutches of western pay masters, who strictly guard the academic debate on interpretation of Sanskrit texts and have completely boxed out the traditional Indian schools. But while Rajiv Malhotra is busy in dismantling the western hold on Indology, an equally important question that one should ask is about the continued use of English as the national language of India.

The need for national language

What defines a culture, if not its own language. The reason that the national language formed the most controversial topic during Constitution debates, should itself explain the important role of language for national polity. Given the high passions that marked these debates, the constitution assembly agreed to use English for fifteen years and then switch to Hindi. But when the time came for this switch, Lal Bahadur Shastri buckled under the pressure from Southern states.

Given that language evokes raw passions even today and forms an important part of identity, the debate on national language is even more relevant. Since people are so passionate about preserving their local language, it comes as a surprise why there is no outrage against the use of English as national language. English cannot embody the ethos of Indic civilization and is fast eroding native cultures around the world and not just India. Under the onslaught of this nouveau imperialism, doesn’t it make sense to have a national debate on this topic once again and overcome the hurdles faced by our forefathers? One does not have to look very far at the de-racinated class of Indians who were brought up on a staple diet of English in posh neighbourhoods of Indian cities to understand how language imperialism can undermine any culture. It would not be an exaggeration to state that if you lose your language, you lose your culture.

The new language policy

Before starting any debate about national language, one needs to ensure that the existing local languages are given their proper due and the national language is not forced upon people in a top-down fashion. It is funny that people are more than happy to use English, a foreign language, and undermine their culture but use of some other Indian language like Hindi, the language proposed during the constitutional debates, evokes total mayhem. The debate could have been settled long ago if people had seen beyond the short term benefits of using a foreign language, but now everyone is stuck due to a historical blunder and have to start again from scratch.

The current policy that is used in the country is Local language+English i.e. people start with learning their local language and use English for administration and business purpose. But given the difficulty people face to learn a foreign language, the number of people actively using English fluently is still less than 10% of Indian population. Since, English has failed to permeate at local levels and has created a class divide, the policy of using English as national language has completely failed. Although, it is true that thanks to this policy, India was able to capture some of the BPO market in the 90s, but it cannot be boasted as a great achievement as use of English in universities forced many people to drop out or perform at sub-standard levels.

Given that learning outcomes are best in local language, it would be good to stick with local language as the first choice in every region. The new language policy should aim towards (Two Indian languages)+English as the goal for future students. Among the two Indian languages, the first should be the local language and second should be a choice among other Indian languages. The Indian state should stop sponsoring foreign languages like French or German in schools and leave it for private initiative. This will ensure that people would be comfortable in at least two Indian languages and those who want will learn English as third choice. Given the overlap between Indian languages, it would not be difficult for students to learn two Indian languages. And even if India adopts Hindi as a national language, it would still force north Indians to learn one other language, which would decrease bitterness associated with forcing one language on the whole country.

The above formula is easy to implement and will bolster demand for local languages and reduce dependence on English as lingua franca. But it still leaves open the question about which language fits the bill for national language?

Sanskrit as the national language

The one language which best captures the ethos of Indic civilization is Sanskrit. The battle for Sanskrit will reach its definite conclusion only by adoption of Sanskrit as the lingua franca of India and its rejuvenation on national level. But what makes Sanskrit so special?

Apart from the accolades showered on Sanskrit by modern linguistics, Sanskrit forms the bedrock of all Indian languages. It is only Sanskrit which breaches the language divide between North-South India. The impression of Sanskrit on north Indian languages is taken as given but Sanskrit also had a rich tradition of exchange with south Indian languages. Given this background, it would be the easiest for any south Indian to pick up Sanskrit when compared to other north Indian languages.

Giving primacy to one language and imposing it on other regions usually generates hatred and seems imperialistic. But since Sanskrit is not spoken anywhere in India, it resolves this issue by default because unlike Hindi, even north Indians will have to make an effort to learn Sanskrit. This puts to rest the free-riding issue which is usually brought up in these debates.

But the biggest roadblock against any such attempts to use Sanskrit as national language would come from the people who link Sanskrit with Brahmanism and want it dead. While they would blame the Brahmins for not letting others learn Sanskrit in the past, now they would do a u-turn and actively block any opportunities that would make Sanskrit available to everyone. You can expect the Adarsh Liberal crowd to go berserk on this proposition and cry about loss of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb.

What makes this plan for Sanskrit really difficult is the feasibility and implementation since there are few Sanskrit speakers today and everyone else would have to learn it from scratch. There would be a backlash from people who already use English as according to many of them it would be a wastage of effort and energy when everyone else is switching to English in the age of globalization. This argument makes sense from an efficiency point of view but is efficiency a good measure when it comes to preservation of culture and nationhood? Isn’t it unfortunate that even today most of us have to read English translations of the vital texts that define our civilization? No amount of GDP growth can compensate for the loss of culture and treasure trove of wealth that is currently hidden from Indians due to lack of Sanskrit knowledge. Also, revival of Sanskrit is one of the best ways to keep local languages alive due to its overlap with other languages while simultaneously fulfilling the goal of adopting a national language other than English and finally breaking away from colonial legacy. It is only after the adoption of Sanskrit as national language that this battle for Sanskrit would be finally over.

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