India at crossroads over Sanskrit’s worth

sanskritresearchCOMMENT, NEW DELHI: Ever since the Narendra Modi government assumed office about six months ago, it seems to have been embroiled in a series of controversies over allegations of ‘saffronising’ history and the education system of the country.

What does not sit right on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his resolve to push the country ahead are some contentious and regressive moves in the country’s education sector.

Education has always been the RSS’ prime target to “saffronise”, which ranged from moves to “correct” history during the reign of Dr M.M. Joshi as HRD minister and asking the University Grants Commission to fund courses in Vedic astrology.

At this juncture, it is Sanskrit which is yet again being used as the “primary weapon” to paint the nation’s education sector saffron.

Ever since the Narendra Modi government has taken office, about six months ago, it seems to have been embroiled in a series of controversies over allegations of “saffronising” the history and education system of the country.

The latest controversy to have hit the government is the recent order by the Union human resources development ministry to replace teaching of German with Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalayas across the country.

Though the primary focus of the Modi government remains on the economic front, the RSS’ zeal to saffronise education could have its political fallout in the long run.

The Left parties, though marginalised at the national level, have already begun to attack the government over its move to “divide the country through education”.

Claiming that the education sector was being “saffronised”, former CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan said that the country is faced with a “dangerous situation”.

He pointed out that “polarisation is taking place and decisions are being taken on the basis of polarisation”. The Congress has repeatedly been targeting HRD minister Smriti Irani over the issue.

“The HRD ministry is trying to saffronise the education system,” the Congress leaders have been saying.

As for Irani, some feel that her moves to push Sanskrit in a major way is an attempt to get the total backing of the RSS at “critical times”.

Move to drop German slammed

During the recent Cabinet expansion, two ministers of state were inducted in the HRD ministry, including former RSS pracharak R.S. Katheria.

That Irani was not too pleased with the decision became somewhat evident when she skipped the recent swearing-in ceremony for the expansion.

Some feel that Irani is bent on proving that “she’s more saffron than the hardcore saffron.”

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that the government would try to equip all Indians to compete effectively across the world in the 21st century, the HRD ministry went ahead and cancelled the MoU between Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs) and Goethe Institut (Max Mueller Bhawan) for teaching German in KVs.

Irani has stated that the government took the decision in national interest and that “an investigation” had already been launched into the signing of an MoU in 2011 which enabled German being taught as the third language.

The HRD ministry says the MoU was illegal and violated the three-language formula in which schools teach Hindi, English and a modern Indian language.

The decision of the government to replace German also created a diplomatic incident, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel raising the issue on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Australia.

It is understood that Modi assured the German Chancellor that he would look into her concerns. Germany had expressed displeasure at the HRD ministry’s decision to remove German as a third language in over 500 KVs.

However, with the escalation of the row, German ambassador Michael Steiner met leaders of the Sanskrit Shikshak Sangh, where RSS ideologue Dinanath Batra was also present, this week in an effort to reach out to the organisation which had petitioned courts against the teaching of German in KVs.

This is not the first time that the name of Dinanath Batra, national convenor of Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, has cropped up after the induction of new NDA government. It is widely believed that the 84-year-old educationist is behind several moves that are being initiated by the Modi government in the field of education.

He is also believed to be the driving force behind the recent rollback of the HRD ministry of the four-year undergraduate course run by Delhi University.

Saffronising education?

Earlier this year, Batra got publishers, Penguin India to pulp The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger.

Over the past few years Batra has been leading a movement for “nationalist education”.

This is not the first time that the RSS ideologue has batted for overhauling the Indian education system, which he claims continues to suffer from the “hangover of the colonial era”.

He had earlier submitted detailed suggestions on these issue to Irani. Batra has also authored several books on various aspects of education which are prescribed by the Gujarat government and he has also recently been appointed as the Haryana government’s adviser on education.

Meanwhile, the meeting between the German envoy and the Sanskrit Shikshak Sangh ended without any assurances on part of the Sangh while the German side sought more cultural exchanges between German and Sanskrit scholars for closer ties between the two nations to which the Sangh members agreed.

Steiner also proposed a conference for promotion of German and Sanskrit for fostering closer cultural ties.

While Germany is trying to talk to the powers that be in and outside the government, the move to cancel the MoU has come under severe criticism from several quarters, including the Opposition Congress, which says that it was an attempt by the HRD ministry to implement the RSS agenda of “saffronising” education in the country.

The political space in the country has also started to heat up with the replacement of German being widely viewed as an attempt by the NDA government to tow the RSS agenda on education.

The Congress has also accused the government of short-sightedness.

Former HRD minister Kapil Sibal said: “The decision to teach German at KVs was taken in view of the fact that in a globalised world, when we are being slowly but surely integrated into the global economy, our children need to know foreign languages.”

The thought during the Congress regime by promoting German in KVs was that a foreign language could open up a window of opportunity for the future of children, he said.

Misconceptions about Sanskrit

Despite criticism from the “secularist” and the “progressive” section, the government’s move to replace German with Sanskrit has also received support from several quarters.

The foundation of India culture is based on Sanskrit language, this section feels. It says that there is a misconception about Sanskrit that it is a language only for chanting mantras in temples or religious ceremonies.

“That is less than 5 per cent of Sanskrit literature. More than 95 percent of Sanskrit literature has nothing to do with religion, and instead it deals with philosophy, law, science, literature, grammar, phonetics, interpretation,” said former president, National Democratic Teachers’ Front and associate professor, Delhi University, Dr Awanijesh Awasthy.

He stated that the criticism of the government on the issue of teaching Sanskrit in schools is a conspiracy on part of vested interests.

“A section of people wants to link the ancient language with a particular religion. Sanskrit is not just confined to Hindu religious texts.

“The language has a vast treasure of texts on science and technology which are yet to be properly deciphered and implemented,” Prof. Awasthy said.

“While we must understand that learning of foreign languages like German or French may be essential in a globalised economy, we should not forget that Sanskrit has been classified as the most scientific and computer-friendly language,” he said.

More support seems to be pouring in from all quarters of the academia.

Assistant professor at Benaras Hindu University, Dr Satish Kumar Singh, too pointed out that the word Sanskrit means prepared, pure, refined or prefect.

“In fact, Sanskrit was the language of free thinkers and the language of our scientists in ancient India.

“Knowledge of the great scientific achievements of our ancestors and our scientific heritage will give us the encouragement and moral strength to once again take India to the forefront of science in the modern world,” he said.  – Comment by Nitin Mahjan for The Asian Age

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