How The Tussle Between Sanskrit And German Makes Students Lose More Than They Gain

Posted on November 18, 2014 in Education, Politics

By Debamita Samajdar:

“Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said.

– Goethe expressing his admiration for the Sanskrit play ‘Shakuntala’.

One wonders whose side Goethe would have taken had he been witness to the present German-Sanskrit row in India, another controversy kicked off by Smriti Irani, Minister of Human Resources Development.

smriti irani..

With her decision to scrap the ongoing program of teaching German as a 3rd language option in the KV (Kendriya Vidyalaya) Schools across the country, she has naturally invoked the ire of parents and educationists alike who have dubbed the move as ‘retrograde’. Social media as usual is divided over the possible consequences this step will cause in the future. On one hand are the overzealous BJP/NDA loyalists who have embraced this decision – perhaps happy that at least the dream of linguistic purity, if not racial purity, is one step closer to being realised. On the other hand is the collective frenzied secular section (pity it’s just a section) where minds go on an overdrive every time BJP drops these apparently Hindutva bombs, apprehensive of this being yet another part of their radical Nationalistic propaganda.

6 years ago, with the MHRD policy to allow 5 foreign languages to be introduced, many KV schools decided to offer the same. It seems that mostly the willingness of the students and the availability of teachers was the driving force behind this move, as pointed out by a KV principal who declined to be named. The KVs offering German as 3rd language were doing so under a MoU signed on September 2011 with the Goethe Institute, which provided training to teachers and library material, and organized all programmes.

The recent decision comes following the latest Board Meeting of the KV on Oct 27. Chairing the meeting of the Board of Governors of the KV Sangathan was the HRD Minister. Now, the KVs have decided to discontinue with German as a 3rd language option and a Circular dated November 10 that includes the minutes of the Board Meeting was sent to all KVs that stated: “Teaching of the German language as an option to Sanskrit will be discontinued forthwith and the students studying German as an option to Sanskrit in Class 6-8 shall be given an option to study Sanskrit or any other modern Indian language of his or her choice”.

What stands out is the irresponsible nature shown by the Govt. in making a change so abrupt that forces students to make a mid-term jump from one language to another. Having completed at least one summative and one formative assessment, it is next to impossible for the approx 68,000 students to learn the basics of an alien language before the academic year ends in March, notwithstanding the farce of the schools providing “appropriate and adequate” counseling for the students and parents affected by this mid-term policy change.

Even while the German Ambassador Michael Steiner, after his talks with the Indian Govt., hopes for a pragmatic solution and is confident of a ‘win-win’ situation that takes care of the interests of the students concerned, Smriti Irani continues to strongly defend her decision citing how the move is aimed at restoring the 3 language policy under which English and 2 modern Indian languages are taught and how the ongoing program was in violation of it. She, however, didn’t forget to add how German would be continued to be taught as an “additional subject of hobby class” as also how “In a country with 22 scheduled languages, 25 constitutionally recognized languages and 1600 dialects, we have decided on the policy after taking into account India’s diversity”. The row got further diplomatic colour as German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue with Narendra Modi in a meeting on the sidelines of the ongoing G2o summit in Brisbane.

One is tempted to point out the ever declining importance of Sanskrit in modern day India and the intense need to know any Foreign language in order to stay ahead in the race in the global job market. But perhaps the following facts, unearthed with the slightest of investigations, would deter one from doing so.

No doubt that proficiency in German acts as an asset for the students aspiring to go to Germany for higher education or a career (Germany is the 5th most opted destination for Indian Engg.students),but German was introduced into the KV system by a German Govt. campaign – one step towards the larger goal of attracting bright Indian students to Germany’s Science and Tech sector. Max Mueller Bhavan together with KV was aiming for – ‘German in 1,000 schools’ by 2017, the project receiving 1.3 million Euros from the German Govt for 2012-2013 alone. Having covered 300 KVs, 790 more remained on the radar; 700 teachers on the payroll are from the Goethe Institute itself. This aggressive campaign also included an all expenses paid trip to Berlin for the winners of a competition held among the German learning students (the trip included a meet with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of the Indo-German Intergovernmental consultation). So, is it really about the willingness of the students to learn German or is it about the benefits accruing to the institutions enacting the policies?

Nor is the Minister’s decision beyond suspicion as it came in the light following a litigation made by some Sanskrit teachers of the Sanskrit Shikshak Sangh who moved the Delhi High Court against alleged “replacement” of Sanskrit with foreign languages in the KV school system. Thus, the hurried response from the HRD Ministry which in their affidavit mentioned how it had asked KVs to reconsider its decision and bring it in line with the National Education Policy 1968 and National Curriculum Framework 2005, and to not renew the MoU. The ministry also told the bench of Chief Justice G Rohini And Justice R.S.Endlaw that the MoU had not been referred to the HRD Ministry at any stage.

Forcing down an almost dead (I say this with caution) language down the throats of unwilling students or pitting two languages against each other serves no purpose either to the Nation or to Sanskrit. Can the Centre at least try to pretend to care about the national opinion? Was it not wise to arrive at a conclusive decision through a large scale public debate where the scholars, nationalists and nostalgic Indians would have had to fight it out with the glad-to-be-a-consumer generation-next, for whom languages and education hold a mere commercial and utilitarian value.

Even with the most genuine intention of propagating the knowledge of Sanskrit in mind, the Minister, whose own educational qualifications still remain shrouded in mystery, perhaps forgot that even if the geeks and the nerds of this generation somehow make learning Sanskrit a new cool craze that can fast spread among all kids, it is ridiculous to impose the language in the tribal belts or in the South where no thread of history or heritage binds the people to Sanskrit. The PMK Chief Ramadoss has already accused the BJP led Govt. of “cultural invasion”.

I will end this rant with two opposing opinions that quite perfectly capture the essence of the conflict that exists between the two psyches at war.

One is of a student who regards his 3-4 odd years of Sanskrit learning at school an utter waste of time and feels that it should not be considered superior to the 250 languages that India has lost in the last 50 years or so. “I can easily learn a smattering of Marathi or Telegu if faced with the task of adapting to a new city in India, but what the hell happens to me once I’m in Germany or Japan?” – he says, thus putting to question the demand made by many for ‘globalization of one’s own culture’ through regional language learning.

Another is a hardcore communist scholar who regards Jyoti Basu’s decision to teach English only from Class 4 in the erstwhile communist Bengal as the torchbearer to such decisions as the present one. He appreciated the HRD Ministry’s move but also laments the use of Sanskrit as a politicized tool. He is confident of an early Sanskrit education to be the reason for the easy learning of Foreign tongues by him and others of his generations as the rest struggled to grasp even the basics of grammar, reason being that Sanskrit is after all the mother of most Indo -European tongues (even German and Sanskrit grammar are amazingly similar). Compulsory primary Sanskrit education is the need of the hour, he believes. “This ‘idiot’ generation must sit up and take notice of how revered Sanskrit is in the very countries that they are so eager to escape to at the slightest chance. Does the fact that research shows Sanskrit to be the best language to be implemented in Computer Science mean nothing to them? Are you guys really that selfish?”

“No” – prompt comes the answer from the student, “just competitive”.