Education Minister Smriti Irani has decreed that Kendriya Vidyalayas (schools for children of government officials) cannot teach German as a third language (in addition to Hindi and English), and must teach Sanskrit instead.
RSS groups like Sanskrit Bharati want Sanskrit made compulsory in all schools. This will evoke strong opposition, especially in parts of the South that associate Sanskrit with north Indian imperialism.
Irani acknowledges that India’s three-language formula leaves the choice of a third language to each state, so Sanskrit cannot be imposed on any state. Yet this is demanded by Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He says: “Sanskrit is the language of this country. Everything was written in Sanskrit thousands of years ago. If you want to eliminate it, you will eliminate this country.”
History books have long said that Sanskrit was brought in by Aryan invaders who wiped out the languages of the original Indus Valley civilization. Recent genetic research has cast doubt on this invasion narrative, but the Aryan-Dravidian divide remains embedded in the consciousness of most Indians, and influences their world views. Whether or not there was an invasion there was certainly movement: West Asia and Europe have unmistakable Aryan and Sanskrit roots too.
Most Indian languages have Sanskrit roots, though not Tamil. Tribals across large parts of India have never heard of Sanskrit. Gujarati, Bengali and other languages may have Sanskrit associations, but Bengali and Gujarati speakers are in no way diminished if they never learn Sanskrit. That’s the case in Europe too, where Latin is the root of most languages, but no European is diminished by not knowing Latin.
Pure Sanskrit was the language of the Brahminical elites, not of the masses (like Latin in Europe). The use of both languages died out, probably because of the change in the power of religious elites. Some people dislike calling these dead languages. But if not dead, they are at best marginal languages, relevant mainly for scholars and priests.
This must not be construed as criticism of Sanskrit or Latin. Both are great historical languages that produced great literature. But that is irrelevant to a modern school curriculum. There is no more reason to make Sanskrit compulsory in India than Latin in Europe. Sanskrit is surely worthy of scholarship. But many of the best Sanskrit scholars have long come from Europe, not India. This drives home the fact that Sanskrit is not an Indian language but an international language once used by elites across Europe and West Asia. Hitler gloried in being Aryan. So did the Shah of Iran.
Chauvinists like Singhal see Hindi and Sanskrit as necessary to bind India together. But many in the South view Hindi and Sanskrit as a form of North Indian imperialism that can split India apart. Back in 1965, Tamil Nadu rebelled against the attempt of New Delhi to abolish the use of English and make all states use Hindi instead. Violent anti-Hindi riots cost hundreds of lives, and New Delhi had to back down. This propelled the DMK to power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, and the Congress Party could never bounce back. The BJP is not the only source of linguistic chauvinism: the Congress and many regional parties have chauvinists too.
The three-language formula was supposed to bind India together by making people in every state familiar with the languages of other states. But Sanskrit was used by the north to sabotage this ideal. States in the south, west and east all taught Hindi, the language of the north. But most northern states refused to teach the languages of other regions, and opted for Sanskrit instead. This destroyed the original aim of binding regions through language. Why did this not cause a nation-destroying linguistic crisis?
Why did other regions agree to use Hindi when the north refused to use their languages? The answer lies, above all, in the contribution of Bollywood.
South India boiled over with rage in the anti-Hindi riots of 1965. But Bollywood wooed and won them over with films and music. Hindi came to be accepted across India not because of politicians but because of the likes of Raj Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar and Shah Rukh Khan. Bollywood welcomed people from all regions, including Tamilians like Hema Malini, Sridevi, Kamalahasan and Rajnikant.
Bollywood films have always used Hindustani, the hybrid language of the streets, rather than Hindi. Official promoters of Hindi seek to Sanskritise the language, eliminating words from other languages. Bollywood has gone in the opposite direction. That has helped save the unity of India, even as the Ashok Singhals try to destroy it.