Madras High Court bats for classical languages

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Madras High Court 1
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In an outstanding judgment, the Madras High Court has said that Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Odia are classical languages, just like Tamil, bringing an end to a needless controversy

By Ramasubramanian in Chennai    

In a sterling judgment, a bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and R Mahadevan of the Madras High Court upheld the status of classical language accorded to Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Odia by the Union government. 

In an order issued in 2008, the central government had granted classical language status to Telugu and Kannada. This was challenged by a Chennai-based senior advocate, R Gandhi, in the Madras High Court the same year. Incidentally, in 2015, classical status was accorded to Malayalam and Odia.

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Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul (left) and Justice R Mahadevan reasoned that granting classical status to one language doesn’t negate the importance of another.

After seven years of petitions filed in this regard, the bench, in an important ruling on August 8, 2016, said: “From the records it is evident that the expert body was satisfied that the languages comply with the eligibility criteria. Therefore, this court cannot go into the opinion and finding of the expert body. The facts which made the expert body recommend the promulgation of such declaration have been placed before us and a copy has also been furnished to the petitioner. As such we do not find any reason to interfere with the impugned declaration. This court cannot convert itself into a forum for debate on such matter.”

LANGUAGE STIR

It was on October 12, 2004, that classical language status was granted to Sanskrit and on November 25, 2005, to Tamil by the center through a home ministry notification. This was done on the basis of recommendations by the Dr Gopi Chand Naren Committee which was established exclusively to look into this issue. In fact, the decision to grant this status to Tamil was agreed in principle by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in early 2004 when the DMK was a constituent of the NDA government.

But trouble broke out when the center decided to grant classical language status to Kannada and Telugu in 2008. There were murmurs and protests in Tamil Nadu at that time, the grouse of Tamil activists being that the center’s decision was being done due to political considerations and despite the absence of necessary ingredients as laid down in the guidelines. When Gandhi submitted these points both in his petitions and oral arguments, the bench strongly rejected them and asked the petitioner to approach the authorities concerned. It added that the petitioner could also give his suggestions for determination of the type of literature that could be the benchmark for qualification of “classical language”.

The 39-page short order was at its best when it countered Gandhi’s arguments that Tamil would lose its prominence if these four languages were accorded classical language status with the following words: “Prominence of a language would not depend on the development or fall of other languages. Rather the growth and importance can be attributed only to the usage of the language and creative contribution in the forms of arts and literature. Undisputedly Tamil has a history and literature which are ancient.”  

WHO IS SUPERIOR?

The bench was equally firm in rejecting the claim of the governments of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Odisha that their respective languages were superior to others. “Being a sensitive subject it would have been wise for the respondents to restrict themselves for justification of the declaration of their language as ‘classical’ rather than a debate over the superiority of one language over the other,” the bench said.

American author Oliver Wendell Homes
American author Oliver Wendell Homes

It said the whole issue started with the National Common Minimum Program of the UPA alliance for setting up a committee to examine the question of declaring all languages in the 8th Schedule of the constitution as official languages. In addition, Tamil was to be declared as a classical language. The Sahitya Academy was consulted and the opinion was that there was no doubt about the classical status of Tamil. But it may not be the government’s job to declare any language as classical, as it was more of a critical concept than a matter of official policy. 

ANTIQUITY CRITERIA

As there was no procedure to declare any language a classical language, the union home ministry was assigned the job of roping in the ministries of culture and other relevant ministries to work out the modalities. Thereafter, a meeting of experts was organized by the Sahitya Academy. It was noted that there was apparently no defined criteria in existence for a classical language. A cabinet decision was taken on submission of the consultative report by this set of experts. 

The bench also mentioned that there was a submission from a Tamil minister in the union government that unless a language was more than 2,000 years old and fulfilled all other prerequisites, classical language status should not be given. Basically, the antiquity criteria of 1,000 years was sought to be enhanced for which discussions took place. It was also opined that to raise the bar to 2,000 years would mean exclusion of many other languages. Finally, it was agreed to limit it to 1,500-2,000 years.

The judgment quoted American author Oliver Wendell Homes’s wisdom that every language is a temple, in which the soul of those who speak it is enshrined.

The bench further mentioned that this parameter was fixed only to authenticate the existence of texts/recorded history of the language and not the existence of the literature. What is acceptable as literature has to be determined by the expert body and not by this court, it said.

The bench indicated that grant of classical language status has a lot to do with central funds grant for development of that particular language. “The significant aspect is that once a language is declared a classical language, funding is made available to establish a centre of excellence for studying and creation of boards to look to measures to promote and protect the language. Awards are given for excellence in the language.  Thus it is really financial assistance for measures to protect and promote the growth of the language.”

ALLOCATION OF FUNDS

But the bench cautioned that the status of classical language is not an end in itself: “It was not necessary that for promotion of a language it must be declared a classical language. The Central as well as state governments are well within their rights to promote the languages and cultures of this country by allocating funds which is actually in practice by all the states.”

American Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock
American Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock

In the penultimate paragraph of the judgment, the bench said: “It is for the experts to verify whether languages satisfy the norms and recommend for the declaration. Having satisfied, they have recommended for the declaration of the languages in consideration to be ‘classical’. The facts which made the expert body recommend the promulgation of such declaration has also been placed before us and a copy has also been furnished to the petitioner. As such we do not find any reason to interfere in the impugned declaration. This court cannot convert itself into a forum for debate on such matters.”

American Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock says if the award of classical status is a means to ensure serious scholarship, then there are a dozen or more languages in India that are in need of this recognition.

It concluded the judgment with an apt quote by American author Oliver Wendell Homes: “Every language is a temple, in which the soul of those who speak it is enshrined.”

There was no reaction either from Tamil activists or any political party in the state to this judgment. But some sane voices welcomed this judgment. “The argument that granting classical language status to other languages will result in the loss of prominence to Tamil is absurd.  What’s happening in Tamil Nadu in the name of language is nothing but pure politics…. Those politicians who are crying foul about Tamil being not given proper status have failed to allot adequate funds for the development of the language. A classic example is the poor status of Tamil University in Thanjavur which is crying for proper funds,” said A Marx, a Tamil writer and social activist. 

Sheldon Pollock, an American Sanskrit scholar in Columbia University, had this to say about the dire straits of Indian classical languages: “I have been observing with extreme bemusement the debate over the classical status of Indian languages, since the issue was first raised in 2006 in the case of Kannada. Yes of course it is dangerous to introduce invidious distinctions among languages and yes of course, the scholarship upon which these distinctions are founded is often empirically thin and theoretically weak…. I am reminded of what great poet Bhartrihari said: One should not wait until the house is burning to dig a well. And the house of Indian classical language study is not only burning, it lies almost in ashes. Who cares if language X, Y or Z is given ‘classical’ status if there is no one who can read it? And if the award of classical status is a means to ensure serious scholarship, then there are a dozen or more languages in India—indeed the entire pre-modern literary past—that is in desperate need of this recognition.”

How apt.

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