Old wounds: A look at history as 'Sanskrit vs Tamil' debate revives in Parliament

"Sanskrit is the mother of all languages, including Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam"


Members of the BJP and the DMK engaged in a war of words in Lok Sabha on the evolution of the languages Sanskrit and Tamil, a point of contention since the republic first took birth. Moving the Central Sanskrit Universities Bill, 2019 for consideration and passage, Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' said Sanskrit is the greatest language and "soul of the country". "Sanskrit is the oldest language. India was a world leader [vishwaguru] and Sanskrit was its important element," he said.

Taking strong exception to his statement, DMK member K. Kanimozhi asked whether the minister was a linguist to make such a claim. Participating in a discussion on the bill, BJP member Satyapal Singh said all languages in the world have their origins in Sanskrit, which he described as an "eternal" language. He said Sanskrit is the mother of all languages, including Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.

Responding to his comments, DMK member A. Raja said they do not accept that Tamil came from Sanskrit. Tamil is older than Sanskrit and there is record of 'Tamil Sangam' dating back 4,500 years, he said. Raja also alleged there was a "hidden agenda" of the government behind reviving a "dying or a dead language". The DMK member said he was not against Sanskrit language but was against imposing any language on people. Dravidian culture is not based on Sanskrit language, he asserted.

Linguistic debate in Constituent Assembly

This was a debate as early as in 1949, in the Constituent Assembly. "We have been priding ourselves that we have had nothing to do with Sanskrit," T.A. Ramalingam Chettiar, representing Madras, told the Constituent Assembly on September 13, 1949 (Volume IX, Constituent Assembly Debates). "We do not claim that Tamil is derived from Sanskrit or is based on Sanskrit in any way. We have been trying to keep our vocabulary as pure as possible without the admixture of Sanskrit."

Participating in the debate on the questions of national, official languages chaired by Rajendra Prasad, Chettiar said the question of language was very important. "It is much more important than even the question of capital....If you are going to impose...It will lead to very bitter results," Chettiar said, the substance of which continues to be raked up even now. Maintaining that "we have accepted Hindi in Nagari script as the official language," he told the Constituent Assembly that "you cannot use the word national language, because Hindi is no more national to us than English or any other language. We have got our own national languages."

Interestingly, Chettiar made these observations after Lakshminarayan Sahu (Odisha), who spoke, said, "then there is the question of accepting Sanskrit as the national language. If all the South Indian friends and others accept Sanskrit, I would have no objection and would accept it."

Some of Sahu's remarks also provide insights about how the adoption of national lauguage had proved ticklish in the face of competing claims.

Referring to an amendment seeking national language status for Bengali, Sahu then said, "I can also claim the same status for Oriya, which is far more ancient than Bengali...The latter was not born when Oriya had taken shape as a language." Stating that "friends from the South" would claim that "their language was very ancient," the leader from Odisha said this was not a right approach.

The debate spills over into anti-Hindi imposition

Starting with the anti-Hindi imposition agitations in the late 1930s, against decision to introduce 'compulsory Hindi' in Madras presidency, to the most recent 2019 protests against National Education Policy draft, which required students in non-Hindi-speaking states to study Hindi and English along with their regional language, Tamil Nadu has been at the forefront of the linguistic debate. There was active resistance from medieval Tamil authors against the 'Sanskritisation', and the Tanittamil Iyakkam (Pure Tamil movement) had taken form in the 20th century. 

In February 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Tamil, as a language, was older than Sanskrit. Modi even suggested that Tamil be made one of the administrative languages of the Centre. "Tamil is the oldest language. It is older than Sanskrit and is beautiful," the prime minister told school students in New Delhi on Friday during his 'Pariksha Pe Charcha'. DMK working president M.K. Stalin had then demanded allocation of funds on par with Sanskrit for the growth of Tamil. He further urged Modi to declare Thirukkural, a masterpiece of saint poet Thiruvalluvar, as a national book.

In August 2019, the Tamil Nadu State Council for Educational Research and Training (TNSCERT) scrapped a chapter ‘The Status of Tamil as a Classical Language’ from the 12th standard English textbook, after a reported statement that Tamil was younger than Sanskrit. According to Edex, the chapter mapped the origin of the Tamil language to 300 BCE, while Sanskrit’s origin was mentioned as 2,000 BCE, raising criticism from political leaders. 

The debate had taken on fresh dimensions after 2019 Keeladi archaeological excavations in Tamil Nadu. The findings pushed back the date of Tamil-Brahmi to another century—6th century BCE. Literacy or learned the art of writing as early as 6th century BCE; in short, the Sangam era, which marked the largest social and cultural developments in Tamil Nadu, could be much earlier than 300 BCE when it was assumed to have commenced. The findings by the Tamil Nadu archaeological department buttressed that long-held belief of the Dravidian parties that the Indus Valley Civilisation script was proto-Dravidian, related to Tamil, as opposed to Sanskrit (Prakrit) as some studies put it. To put it simplistically, this is the very essence of the Dravidian-Aryan debate in India.

There was also a 2018 study (possibly the one quoted by A. Raja in Parliament yesterday), which claimed the Dravidian language family originated about 4,500 years ago. The Dravidian language family’s four largest languages—Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu—have literary traditions spanning centuries, of which Tamil reaches back the furthest, the study had claimed.

-Inputs from PTI