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September 22, 2000


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Language as a mask of conquest -- II

The garden-variety Hindi that seems to be in vogue in the North has another major problem: that a significant portion of its vocabulary is borrowed from Urdu, and thence from Persian and Arabic. These languages are completely alien to the South Indian -- the words might as well be from Swahili. Whereas, and this is a point of agreement I might have with the Hindi-chauvinists, if it were a Sanskrit-heavy Hindi, Southerners could relate to it, for the Sanskrit vocabulary exists in our languages, except perhaps in Tamil.

Thus, for a Malayali, the word for 'eye' would naturally be chaste Sanskrit, nayanam or netram; the word musafir is meaningless, but yatri is instantly recognisable. Literary Malayalam, for instance, has far more Sanskrit in it (some 80 per cent of the vocabulary) than Hindi does; similarly for Kannada and Telugu. To us, Sanskrit is not alien; and our languages have precise analogs for Devanagari, so that Sanskrit can be written exactly and correctly in Malayalam, Kannada or Telugu scripts.

Therefore, and because all our classical literatures were heavily influenced by Sanskrit, I think none of the Southern states (except Tamil Nadu) would have objected to the selection of Sanskrit as India's national language. As the Israelis have done with Hebrew, we could easily have revived Sanskrit, modernised it and discovered our own culture; and perhaps some self-respect too. But we didn't.

However, I am glad there is some effort to revitalise Sanskrit. This is the most scientifically designed natural language ever created -- Panini articulated the idea of context-free grammars 2,500 years before Backus and Naur rediscovered this for computer languages in the 1950s. It also has very likely the world's largest ancient literature. And it has tremendous liturgical importance for Hindus. We still could make it India's national language. It is the only one that makes any sense, for all the right reasons: lingua franca, literature, liturgy, culture.

Nehruvian Stalinists disdained Sanskrit -- and the reason is quite plain: supporting Sanskrit would not fit into their master-plan to eradicate Indic tradition. You think I joke: but let me ask you the question -- what are the three classical languages of India? You will be surprised to hear the answer, according to the Indian Council for Historical Research (or is it the Indian Cabal of High-handed Revisionists, I wonder). See below.

Nehruvian Stalinists, caught up in their vision of a Marxian utopia, felt that they needed to overturn Indic traditions in order to bring about the communist millennium. Therefore, they proceeded to denigrate Sanskrit and de-emphasise it. They have succeeded. Today, it is extremely difficult for the average person to learn Sanskrit. It is also hard for the average Hindu to find his sacred texts in the original Sanskrit.

These tactics used by the Marxists are exactly the same as those used by semites to destroy the cultures of lands they conquered. Create a vacuum, and then fill it with their own dogma. Christians in Europe demonised the Druidic religion they had overcome; they also destroyed whatever they could find of the sacred Druidic literatures. As they did in the Aztec, Mayan and Inca lands in Latin America.

This idea of language and culture for conquest, so pithily summarised in 'Macaulay's Minute', is also behind a most interesting experiment. Question for the reader: Where and when was English literature first studied as a subject? This is the question that underlies Gauri Visvanathan's brilliant Columbia PhD thesis, later published as the book Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, (Columbia University Press, 1989).

If you guessed Oxford or Cambridge, you are wrong: because it was in Madras University in the early 1800s that English was first studied as a literary subject! English, which was considered unworthy of serious study (Oxbridge only studied Latin/Greek), was brought to India as part of a colonial plan -- the intent was to demonstrate to the 'natives' that everything British was superior. Macaulay, full of imperial swagger, suggested that the entire classical canon in Sanskrit was not worth as much a shelf-full of books in any schoolboy's library in Britain!

J Farish, in a chilling minute from the Bombay Presidency suggested, "The Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possibly have." In other words, it was for pure propaganda purposes.

English, therefore, was a tool for brainwashing the Indian. After the introduction of English into Madras University, the imperialists then decided to use it -- alas, with less success -- in Ireland and other colonies too. Sweet irony, then, that the Empire is now striking back, and that with our English, Indians may dominate intellectual property in certain fields! One of these days, India may also 'own' English to a greater extent than Britain itself, by sheer weight of numbers.

The Nehruvian Stalinist use of language was a similar effort at cultural eradication. Fortunately, it has not succeeded, at least not fully. For the foreseeable future, despite the Hindi juggernaut, I think the many larger languages in India will survive and thrive; as India becomes more self-confident, Sanskrit will make a comeback, too.

Many tears have been shed over the alleged demise of Urdu. I find this bemusing: for one, there is a whole country, Pakistan, that has Urdu as its language; and there, it is overwhelming the regional languages such as Pushto, Baluchi and Punjabi just as Hindi is doing in India. Besides, Urdu has become the lingua franca of Bollywood film songs, after all. So don't cry for Urdu, Argentina!

I have continually been surprised at the great reverence certain Indians have for Urdu: the same metaphor of 'masks of conquest' applies to it too. When Muslim rulers, say in Delhi or Lucknow, preferred Persian motifs and Arabic words, it had overtones of conquest. And it made a certain sense for their subjects to kowtow to them. Three hundred years ago, it made sense to genuflect to Urdu; not today. Today, with a non-religious Indian state (except I guess when Nehruvian Stalinists run the place), it is time to view Urdu critically, on its own merits.

While I do sympathise with those who feel their culture is tied inexorably to Urdu, I fail to understand why India needs to give the language of its most bitter enemy, Pakistan, any great respect. And I also fail to see why the use of Persian or Arabic words is a sign of great scholarship or great artistic sensitivity.

People tell me Urdu just sounds more beautiful than Hindi. I think this is a very subjective claim. My friend Reeta Sinha went to some trouble to explain the words to the songs in the film Taal and how they were apparently sufi qawwalis or some such. Very nice, I'm sure, but I still fail to see why the Urdu word ishq is any prettier than the word prem in Hindi. It's just different. Maybe all they are saying is vive la difference!"

To summarise, the plethora of languages in India will probably continue into the near future; much as certain Northerners might like to push their idea of a 'Bharat' which is Hindi-only (I keep getting mail from reader Mohan suggesting this), I think they will not succeed. And this is a good thing too. Let a hundred flowers bloom! Let the marketplace decide which will thrive. Let the state get out of this business, just as it is getting out of the mammoth public sector white elephants.

But there is one exception: Sanskrit should be declared the national language and a vigorous programme put in place to explore its tremendous riches. We need to reverse 50 years of neglect. We must put a lot of effort into deciphering the Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilisation's language. My suspicion is that it will show that there was no 'Aryan' invasion, no 'Dravidian' race: our early civilisation,was possibly the oldest in the world with the city-site in Mehrgarh, Pakistan going back to 6000 BCE, earlier than Sumeria, earlier than Babylon, earlier than Mesopotamia.

I suspect we will find that the Sarasvati language was indeed both proto-Sanskrit and proto-Tamil, thus demonstrating once and for all the total and historical cultural unity of Indian civilisation. No more separate identities: just migrations from that riverine cradle of civilisation in the Sarasvati flood-plain to other parts of the Indian subcontinent.

India's "classical languages"

According to the ICHR, if I am not greatly mistaken, India's classical languages are: Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic! Only in Nehruvian India would such a travesty be acceptable. I agree that Persian and Arabic are classical languages -- for Persia and Arabia, respectively, not for India. Why English is not a classical language in India according to the esteemed ICHR, by the same token, is not clear to me.

In my opinion, India's classical languages are Sanskrit, Pali/Prakrit and Tamil. These form the true literatures of the Indic tradition -- Vedic Hindu, Buddhist/Jaina, and non-Vedic Hindu. Naturally, the Nehruvian Stalinists were eager to condemn all three of these as part of their enterprise of destroying Indic civilisation.


I have become quite addicted to and its Newshopper, wherein I have been getting my daily dose of India-related news, culled from various publications and presented with a helpful short summary.

For the first time in recent memory, a Hong-Kong based magazine ran an extremely positive cover story on India. Asiaweek suggested that India may overtake China as the dynamic Asian economy. Interestingly enough, the reporter had a non-Indian name. Normally, for two reasons, magazines such as Asiaweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review tend to be dismissive towards India. First reason, they are managed by Americans who are in awe of China.

Second reason, the Indian staff who work for them are convinced that they must be Uncle Toms, belittling themselves and India, just so that their white massas will give them little pats on the head. They are wrong. Americans (and most self-respecting people) have no time for those who abuse themselves and their kind. The Indian reporters might find they get a lot more respect if they were to stop groveling and brown-nosing.

An excellent example of this misguided type is one Aparisim Ghosh, whose 'Subcontinental Drift' in Time Asia is so full of ritual self-flagellation that one can practically hear the mea culpas and the slap of the whip. I do wish such characters would grow up.

Language as a mask of conquest -- I

Rajeev Srinivasan

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