India’s marvellous diversity, which includes many languages and myriad dialects, is mind-boggling. Officially, the country has as many as 22 official languages, each one spoken by more than a million people.
These languages, some of them dating back to antiquity, make for a happy cacophony, that is, until politics gets in the way.
In February 2022, the Government of Maharashtra resurrected a demand to get Marathi declared as a classical language, the eighth state to seek special status for its native tongue. The trouble is, on almost every earlier occasion and possibly on this one too, politicians have used the demand as leverage for electoral gains. While the merits of these demands for classical status are not being argued, it is unfortunate that political agendas usually eclipse all else.
Spearheading the demand for Marathi is senior Shiv Sena leader and Maharashtra Industries Minister Subhash Desai. To coincide with Marathi Bhasha Gaurav Diwas, observed on 27th February every year, more than 6,000 postcards with the demand were sent to President of India, Ram Nath Kovind.
Union Minister of State for Culture, Arjun Ram Meghwal, had informed the Rajya Sabha that the matter is under "active consideration" and that a decision “will be taken “soon”.
This demand puts the spotlight on the Government of India’s policy on ‘Classical Languages of India’, which it formulated in 2004. That was the year Tamil was given classical status, the first language to enjoy this privilege.
A classical language is one that can prove its antiquity; has a body of ancient literature; and an original literary tradition (See below). Over the years, six languages have been given this special status, with demands from three states pending. Being notified as a classical language becomes even more important as it comes with substantial cash support given as grants from the central government.
But a deeper study of the journey of India’s ‘classical’ languages will show that it was not a lofty goal of preserving and promoting a language that has prompted the wave. It has been driven by hard politics.
In India, linguistic politics has a long tradition and goes back to the 1920s and ’30s, when the Indian National Congress actively encouraged the demand for linguistic states as a means to mobilise people against the British Raj.
Following India’s independence, Article 343 Clause (1) of the Indian Constitution declared ‘The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script’. In addition, the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution recognised 22 Indian languages as ‘Scheduled Languages’.
Tamil is first to get ‘classical’ status
When Tamil was declared a classical language on 30th September 2004, it was to placate an important alliance partner for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition of political parties then in power at the Centre. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by M Karunanidhi had demanded classical language status for Tamil. The UPA was under so much pressure that it included the demand in its ‘Common Minimum Programme’, a policy document which outlined the government’s agenda for good governance of the country!
The DMK’s demand was not new. In 1887, Tamil reformist Parithimar Kalaignar had taken a stab at getting Tamil recognised as a classical language before the University of Madras. A century later, in the 1980s, a movement was launched around it. It took more than two decades for the demand to be accepted, which happened only because the DMK enjoyed the requisite political currency at the Centre in 2004.
What are classical languages?
According to the Union Ministry for Culture, the guidelines for declaring a language as ‘Classical’ are as follows:
“(i) High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1,500-2,000 years;
(ii) A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers;
(iii) The literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community;
(iv) The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.”
After Tamil was declared a classical language, questions were raised about what this actually meant. Would it benefit the language itself or those who spoke it, in any way? Some commentators claimed it had ‘raised’ Tamil ‘above’ the rest of the 21 Scheduled Indian Languages and put it at par with Sanskrit.
Benefits of classical languages status
According to government policy, following are the benefits that a language can receive after it is notified as a classical language:
“i) Two major annual international awards for scholars of eminence in classical Indian languages
ii) A Centre of Excellence for studies in Classical Languages is set up
iii) The University Grants Commission is requested to create, to start with, at least in the Central Universities, a certain number of Professional Chairs for the Classical Languages so declared.”
Any hope – or concerns – that Tamil would be granted an exceptional status above all other languages came to naught the next year, when Sanskrit was declared a classical language in 2005. This led to a scramble among the speakers of other languages for the same status. For instance, Telugu and Kannada activists alleged that the cut-off for antiquity had been set at 2,000-1,500 years, rather than 1,000 years, to give Tamil an advantage over other languages.
Kannada and Telugu get into the act
In 2008, activists who had taken up the Kannada and Telugu cause were victorious when both languages were notified as classical languages. Again, this was seen as the result of political manoeuvring by the then ruling UPA.
The state of Andhra Pradesh was due for Assembly elections in 2009.The agitation for a separate state of Telangana to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh was gathering momentum and the UPA was under pressure from pro- and anti-Telangana activists. Granting Telugu classical language status was seen by many as an example of vote-bank politics.
And why was Kannada too notified? Karnataka was then ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa. The BJP had come to power for the first time in Karnataka in May 2008, with the support of Independents. The UPA felt that the state government was unstable and could collapse at any moment.
General elections were also due in 2009, and the UPA hoped to win over the Kannadiga electorate. By notifying Kannada as a classical language, the UPA felt it could speak directly to the people whose votes they so desperately sought.
But, then, things grew messy. The BJP government in the state too had been demanding classical status for Kannada and it accused the central government of stealing its thunder! Preparations were being made for a massive sit-in in Delhi on 5th November 2008, where Yeddyurappa and other political leaders were to take part. But the central government preempted the move and Union Minister for Culture, Ambika Soni, declared Kannada and Telugu classical languages on 1st November 2008. The occasion was ‘Rajyotsav’ (State Formation Day) for Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Interestingly, both Telugu and Kannada are derived from a common source – the ‘Bhattiprolu script’, a variant of Brahmi. The script is named after an inscription found at the Bhattiprolu Stupa in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, and it dates to the 3rd century BCE.
To know more about the Bhattiprolu inscription read: https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/monuments/bhattiprolu-stupa
Malayalam and Odia join the ‘classical’ chorus
With three of the four major South Indian languages – Tamil, Kannada and Telugu – acquiring classical status, the fourth wasn’t about to be left out. Soon, strong demands were made in Kerala on behalf of Malayalam. Early Malayalam literature dates to the 9th century CE, and is almost as old as the literary tradition of Kannada and Telugu. Malayalam was finally declared a classical language in 2013. The following year, Odia was notified as a classical language and became the sixth Indian language to enjoy that status.
But it wasn’t all that simple, and, once again, the decision reeked of politics. Just as it was for Tamil, Kannada and Telugu, the decision to give classical language status to Malayalam in May 2013 and to Odia in March 2014 was underpinned by vote-bank politics.
The Manmoham Singh-led UPA government was to complete its second term in May 2014 and general elections were due. The UPA hoped that these decisions would get them votes in Kerala and Odisha, where they were facing challenges from the Left and the Biju Janata Dal.
Pushback from Tamil
But Tamil activists weren’t going to sit back and watch its position get diluted. Pushback came in 2009, in the form of a petition filed in the Madras High Court demanding that only Tamil and Sanskrit be accorded ‘classical’ status. It was argued that any attempt to give this status to Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Odia would be to the detriment of Tamil.
The Madras High Court had ordered a stay, which meant that the Rs 100-crore grant , which the Central Govt had promised to each Classical language, could not be made to other languages. Each state made its representation before the High Court, arguing the antiquity of their respective languages, and it was only after a seven-year legal battle that, in 2016, the Madras High Court delivered its judgement, declining to interfere with government policy. With this, the classical status of all six languages was legally sanctioned, paving the way for the grant of central government funds.
Marathi makes its pitch
Now there are demands from Maharashtra in favour of Marathi being declared a classical language. Marathi is believed to have evolved 1,300 years ago as a derivation of ‘Maharashtri Prakrit’, which was spoken in the region in ancient times. With a rich and ancient literary tradition, the claims of Marathi are as strong as that of Telugu, Tamil and Odia.
On 10th January 2012, the Government of Maharashtra constituted a committee chaired by Prof Ranganath Pathare to make a watertight case for Marathi. The committee submitted its report to the central government in November 2013, but no action was taken. It was hoped that Marathi would be declared the sixth classical language, before Odia, but the central government did not act on the report.
So why resurrect the demand now?
Again, vote-bank appears to be driving the pro-Marathi campaign. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the richest municipal body in India, is due for elections in April 2022 and polarising the electorate along linguistic lines will benefit all political parties. The demand has been impeccably timed.
Bangla and Kashmiri too speak up
There are two other states that have made a similar case for languages spoken in their regions. These are West Bengal for Bangla and Jammu & Kashmir for the Koshur (Kashmiri) language. Mamta Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, has been leading the campaign for Bangla, a demand that has been raised several times by Member of Parliament Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary in the Rajya Sabha.
Koshur or Kashmiri is one of the oldest languages in India, derived from ‘Paishachi’ ,a dialect of Prakrit, in the 3rd century CE.
It is likely that the demand for classical language status for Marathi will encourage other states to jump onto the bandwagon. For instance, Konkani, which is also a derivation of Prakrit and probably as old as Marathi, will probably make a pitch for itself.
Electoral politics or not, it must be said that the intention of the government to promote scholarship in Indian languages and literature is a laudable goal. But all Indian languages, classical or not, deserve this privilege.