India: Move to Make Sanskrit Classes Mandatory Raises Ruckus

Jhumur Deb
Guwahati, India
170303-IN-sanskrit-620.jpg Participants attend a Sanskrit class at the Sanskrit Samvadshala on the outskirts of New Delhi. Nov. 25, 2015.

A move to make Sanskrit – a language considered holy in Hinduism – a mandatory subject in schools in northeastern Assam state has provoked controversy with critics calling it a “conspiracy” by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to advance its rightwing ideology.

Lawmakers decided Wednesday to make Sanskrit a compulsory subject until the eighth standard in Assam, which has a population of more than 10 million Muslims or more than 34 percent of the state’s population.

And it is not just Muslim groups protesting this move.

“It is a well orchestrated conspiracy to micro manage and monitor the education system,” Biraj Talukdar, of the influential Asom Jatiyatabadu Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) Hindu student body, told BenarNews.

Within months of sweeping to power in May 2014, the BJP spoke of popularizing Sanskrit. It also mandated a Sanskrit week to celebrate the ancient language in thousands of government-run schools nationwide. The move brought about sharp reactions from the Muslim community, which makes up more than 14 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people.

Sanskrit, mostly relegated to religious ceremonies, is used by less than 1 percent of Indians, according to official figures.

“The decision was taken in haste. The BJP is trying to impose its ideologies, obviously for its own vested interests,” Aminul Islam of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a minority party, told BenarNews.

According to the government, Sanskrit is the “mother of all languages” that encapsulates history, mythology and science.

“Sanskrit is a powerful Indian language. We want Sanskrit to regain its glory,” BJP lawmaker Keshab Mahanta told BenarNews.

Sanskrit is one of 22 languages that the constitution mandates the government to preserve out of more than 1,500 languages spoken in India.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP’s ideological mentor, said it backed the government’s decision.

“Even in London, they are teaching Sanskrit, in Germany there is a school for Sanskrit. In India, the problem is that a few people are trying to destroy the culture and ethos of Indian civilization. So, they are opposing development of the most scientifically advanced language of the world,” Rakesh Sinha, spokesman for the RSS, told BenarNews.

“Language politics” has been one of BJP’s main thrusts to advance its rightwing ideologies, according to analysts.

“The politics of thrusting Hindi or Sanskrit on a majority of the population with such a diverse nature and language is a pointer toward the fact that BJP wants to create its ideological political hegemony and indoctrinate young minds,” Monirul Hussain, a Guwahati-based political observer told BenarNews.

The most recent 2011 census shows 14,000 people in India responded that Sanskrit is their primary language. Of those, nearly none came from northeast India, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat.

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