Sanskrit and sanskriti as weapons

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Murli Manohar Joshi's promotion of 'spiritualism' as the core of Indian 'culture' and his plan to make Sanskrit compulsory for Classes X to XII are part of Hindutva's elitist, patrician agenda to favour further the already privileged.

WITHIN barely three years of coming to power in a coalition at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party has so purposively pushed through so many changes in the fields of education (especially school education), social science research and culture, that it will take a future secular successor perhaps twice as long to roll them back.

Take the latest - and ugly - controversy over the National Film Awards, leading to the resignation of three members of the jury, including film-maker Pradip Krishen, and sharp criticism of the selection process by some other members, including actors Soumitra Chatte-rjee and Dhritiman Chaterji. This marked a particularly sordid point in the politicisation of such awards through the packing of the jury. True, during the past decade or more, the awards have lost some of the prestige vested in them in the 1960s and the 1970s. But perhaps never before was the jury dominated by such crudely partisan supporters of one narrow, parochial ideology. Some became its members solely by that virtue: the dance-teacher of a Minister's daughter, an MLA innocent of the cinema, the private secretary of member of Parliament, the editor (Tarun Vijay) of an RSS organ.... The process of rating films too was deplorably rigged, with a poor mythological film (Pandavas) being awarded.

Lest it be thought that it was only "normal" for a "journalist" to be on the jury, it bears recalling that Panchajanya is not part of the Fourth Estate- that is., the independent press, separate from the Third Estate comprising Parliament, political parties, and so. It is the propaganda organ of the RSS. Its editors are appointed not on account of their journalistic talents, but on their political loyalty to the Sangh Parivar and the ability to articulate its positions. For instance, Atal Behari Vajpayee edited Panchajanya for years in political apprenticeship of the Jan Sangh. True to type, Tarun Vijay belted out a Hindutva sermon, and shot down a film Split Wide Open for being violative of "Indian" values. (The film, incidentally, deals with paedophilia, but had been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification.) He prevailed.

Even worse, Vijay got extended space in a national daily not just to rationalise his stand on the film awards, but to hold forth on how "Macaulayists and Marx-ists" have conspired to victimise Hindus and Hindutva supporters and to make it impossible "for us to be a writer, journalist or film critic." Vijay compares these new "victims" with the Holocaust Jews, no less. Seeing the Holocaust Museum in New York, he says, "was an eye opener. Shivers went down our spines when we saw how the Nazis marked Jew houses, made them untouchables, spread all sort of rumours against them before getting them killed and maimed. How do you feel about it, I was asked. Shocking but not surprising. We are facing the same situation back home, I replied... believers in Hindutva are branded, hounded out of public forums, mutilated by the left brand of the press and politicians."

No comment is necessary on this extraordinary piece of ranting. But that such raving has become part of "normal" media discourse, that such utterly mindless views are given play in the interest of "balance", bears testimony to the malign influence that Hindutva wields today. And yet, people like Vijay and Organiser's Seshadri Chari have become part of the national seminar circuit, who are sought after by "Establishment" institutions. A professionally irrelevant Panchajanya awards ceremony can now be held at Vigyan Bhavan - without inviting any protest. This "high-level" recognition is precisely what third-grade Hindutva apologists always craved, but never received - until now.

Of a piece with this is the hysterical attack on intellectuals who dare to criticise the Hindutva cultural agenda as the "secular Taliban", and the ultra-cynical "it's-their-turn-now" rationalisation for the packing of research institutions with crude academics. The argument here is that the earlier Congress-dominated "liberal" and "secular" dispensation too ran a patronage system, favoured yes-men in key appointments, and destroyed institutions - the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the secondary education boards, the University Grants Commi-ssion (UGC), the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the Indian Council for Social Science Research, the Indian Council for Historical Research, and so on. The BJP-led regime, the argument runs, is only following that trend - with its own favourites.

THE independent progressive intelligentsia must of course criticise the favouritism and patronage that marked some of these institutions in the past. It must be critical of the role some of its own members or associates played in condoning their decline. It must defend merit and objectivity in personnel selection. But it would be totally mistaken to equate a weakening of these institutions' integrity with the calculated sabotage and destruction of their very purpose, which is what the BJP is attempting. These institutions, like most Indian universities and the academic Establishment as a whole, have had their share of cliques and nepotists, and legacy of incompetent or unprofessional decisions. But it does not follow that there was an ideological motive underlying these inadequacies, or that these institutions were rigged to exclude all others than Left-leaning secular academics.

It is hard to argue that the latter form a "community" with shared interests or behaviour patterns. For the most part, communally minded social scientists are utter philistines who are deeply suspicious of genuine intellectual pursuits. Most would not even qualify in elementary-level pre-selection to respectable academic positions. Thus it would be unpardonable to equate fine historians like Ravinder Kumar and Irfan Habib with Hindutva partisans like B.R. Grover and B.B. Lal, who have no hesitation in straying beyond their limited area of competence. We must not reduce a serious scholar of the arts like Kapila Vatsayan to an L.M. Singhvi or a Sonal Mansingh who can claim no academic distinction, but dominate today's IGNCA and kindred institutions with their unacceptably narrow agendas.

Even worse is the state of institutions directly connected with education like the NCERT, the school boards and the UGC. The UGC is busy trying to make India the world's intellectual backwater and a morass of obscurantism via Vedic astrology and karmakanda, courses. (Frontline, December 24, 1999, and March 17, July 21, November 10 and December 22, 2000; also ''Degrees of pseudo-science'', Frontline, April 13, 2001, pp. 99-100 ). The NCERT's role is even more pernicious. Its curriculum of the 1960s and 1970s may not have spelt out the best combination of learning and skill acquisition appropriate to this society. But at least it talked of equity and social disparities - unlike today's Curriculum Framework, designed to promote rabid nationalism and Hindutva hubris. It is important that a discriminating judgment is brought to bear upon these matters, so that the concerned institutions can be radically reformed, not sordidly politicised and run into the ground.

However, the present public debate is characterised by a lack of such judgment, as well as apathy and cynicism. The media too tends to focus on "star" subjects, for example, institutions like the ICSSR and the ICHR, and on individuals, rather the numerous questionable activities and prejudices sponsored by the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry, or on the far more critical changes being wrought in school-level education. For instance, it barely reports or comments on the alarming fact that Sanskrit teachers in Gujarat, where the language is compulsory, are regularly sent to an RSS-run skill development centre, and that virulently communal textbooks continue to be written.

Week in and week out, the HRD Ministry, and countless bodies under it, hold seminars on "spirituality and science", "consciousness" and "technology", Vedanta and "cultural heritage"- all at public expense - at which all kinds of ill-thought-out and poorly digested ideas are bandied about: for example, on religion and "scriptural" heritage, the essential "unity" of astrology, Vedantic philosophy and modern experimental science, and so on. Little note is taken of all this too.

INDIA'S descent towards obscurantism and irrationalism continues apace in the name of Bharatiya sanskriti. Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi has now launched yet another offensive: make Sanskrit compulsory for students of Class X to XII (which means teaching it from Class VIII onwards, if not earlier). He says the NCERT and the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) are already "preparing the syllabus" for this. Clearly, Joshi is not waiting for a conference of State Education Ministers (earlier scheduled for January, but postponed). His last experience with such a meeting - where he was grilled on making Vande Mataram compulsory - was not an inspiring one. He is undemocratically bypassing the process altogether and directing Central bodies to do his bidding although education is a Concurrent List subject.

The compulsory-Sanskrit proposal is gravely, intrinsically, flawed. It has to be placed in a certain context - Joshi's claim that it is "well established that Sanskrit is the most highly acclaimed international language", and that it is the "mother" of all Indian languages, embodying the highest in Indian culture, and so on. Joshi never tires of exhorting scientists to learn Sanskrit which, according to him, contains great treasures of knowledge, in particular that special blend of science and spirituality that characterises the ancient Indian tradition as he sees it.

Joshi is obsessed with issues like mind-matter "continuum" and claims that today's scientists are discussing questions like "reality", "being", "non-being", and so on., in "almost the same language which the great records of spirituality have perennially done", for example, in the Vedas, Upanishads, and so on. Science, then, is not about cause-and-effect relationships, but about understanding "the convergence of the modern findings and the ancient discoveries of Bhrigu", about anna, prana, manas and (what else!) ananda or Bliss.... All this demands, says Joshi, "the overpassing (sic) of the limitations of Reason, which has so far guided the developments of both rationalism and empiricism, of subjectivism and objectivism, rendering our knowledge inconclusive and therefore unreliable." (Inaugural Address, Indian Philosophical Congress, December 28, 2000).

Now, apart from being incoherent and contradictory - most scientists would call this gibberish - this view is deeply "Orientalist" and reproduces the classical dichotomy in colonial scholarship between the "rationalist" West and the "mystical" or "spiritual" East. It ignores the rational, materialistic, agnostic and atheistic traditions in Indian philosophy (including Buddhist thought), thus degrading that tradition and opening it to communal interpretation.

Sanskrit for Joshi is India's "mother language", just as women are the "mother sex" - a strange Hindutva description of womanhood reduced to child-bearing! (Testimony before the Liberhan Commission, March 22). In reality, as any competent history of ancient India tells us, Sanskrit is not the "mother" of all Indian languages. Each of these evolved through complex, non-linear interaction and exchange between a number of ethnic groups, cultures and linguistic entities. Nor was it the language of the common people, which in its plurality was Prakrit with many versions, scripts and dialects. Sanskrit was once the language of India's ruling elites. Access to Sanskrit scriptures was jealously controlled by Brahmins and barred to the plebeian castes, as stipulated by the Manusmriti. To privilege Sanskrit today as the quintessential, "original" language of Indian culture, and make it compulsory, is to take it straight into Hindutva's terrain.

This means giving an unfair advantage to the minuscule upper-caste minority which is familiar with Sanskrit through its religious rituals and bhadralog discourse. This minority speaks highly Sanskritised AIR-Doordarshan versions of Indian languages. These versions are close to officially recognised "standard" dialects or forms, but exclude the popular-plebeian forms, which do not find written expression or legitimate acceptance. Speakers of most Indian languages are fractured along these lines.

These fault-lines also broadly conform to caste (and to an extent, class) divisions. A Dalit or OBC (Other Backward Classes) child is at a fundamental disadvantage vis-a-vis Sanskrit. Cramming declensions and complex rules of grammar is less a function of intelligence than memory. The quality time or attention this demands from parents or tutors is normally unavailable to underprivileged pupils. Compulsory Sanskrit, then, will act a harmful social filter, protecting elite privileges, and eroding social opportunities available to the underprivileged - without contributing to the enriching of minds. Sanskrit will become just another embellishment or adornment, without functional significance - except, perversely, through school grades which in turn determine access to further education and jobs.

This would make a mockery of the spirit of education. What Jawaharlal Nehru said about universities applies to education too. Education stands for "Humanism, for Tolerance, for Reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever-higher objectives." This government is sowing hatred, prejudice and bigotry in the field of education - in the name of Sanskrit and sanskriti.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×