Making Sanskrit Compulsory in Assam schools: a boon or a burden?

CHANDAN KUMAR SHARMA analyses how imposing Sanskrit might overburden an already struggling government school system in Assam

The decision of the Government of Assam (GoA) in its cabinet meeting on 1 March making Sanskrit a compulsory subject till Class VIII in the government schools of Assam has come as a most unexpected move. The decision immediately sparked off state-wide protest. Literary bodies, students’ organizations and various ethnic outfits of the state immediately condemned the decision. Even leaders from Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), allies of the BJP-led state government, opposed the move.

It’s baffling how GoA intends to make Sanskrit a compulsory subject for students from Class VI to Class VIII. The ‘Three Language Formula’ (TLF) of the National Education Policy (NEP) 1968 of the Government of India (GoI) only allows three languages to be taught up to class VIII: Hindi, English and Mother tongue or the Regional Language. Within the current framework, therefore, it appears that for making Sanskrit compulsory one of the above languages has to be dropped.

Here, it is worthwhile to take note of the view of NEP 2016 on the subject. Highlighting the importance of Sanskrit education, NEP states that the language is “still inextricably linked with the life, rituals, ceremonies and festivals of the people and is a window to the rich cultural, philosophical, artistic and scientific heritage of India”. However, while its great heritage is universally acknowledged, the claim that the language encompasses every people and culture of India is an exaggeration. The vast population of tribes, Dalits, Muslims or Christians does not have much to do with either the Sanskrit language or the Sanskritic culture, although some linkages between them cannot be altogether discounted. NEP 2016 emphasizing the possibility of introducing Sanskrit in schools further mentions that as the language is “already being taught as a compulsory subject from Class VI to VIII in some states…it may be introduced as an independent subject at a suitable point of the primary or the upper primary stage.” However, it is to be noted that these states are the Hindi-speaking states from northern India where unlike other Indian states, no other modern Indian language (MIL), barring Hindi, is taught.

In fact, NEP 2016 too reiterates this point when it admits that the TLF has not been uniformly implemented in several states (evidently the Hindi-speaking states of northern India) where the TLF is often interpreted as providing for the study of Sanskrit in place of any other MIL which is contrary to the spirit of TLF. Thus, TLF in these states includes teaching of Hindi (as mother tongue or regional language), English and Sanskrit (the other MIL). This will entail a bigger burden of language learning for students of non-Hindi speaking states, if Sanskrit is made compulsory. In fact, successive NEPs, including the latest one, have emphasized the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. Sanskrit has indeed been recommended as a subject to be taught in schools, but the spirit of the recommendation seems to be more optional rather than compulsory.

There is no doubt that Sanskrit is a beautiful language with a great heritage. Knowledge of the language could definitely provide better access to this heritage. Creative engagement with this language has helped our writers and scholars alike in enriching the repertoire of Assamese vocabulary (which is true for any Indo-European language). Its knowledge is essential in the understanding of ancient texts and inscriptions of India which are critical sources of ancient Indian history. This is also true for Assam. However, this was possible even if the language was kept as an optional subject (preferably, along with some other Tibeto-Burman languages of the state) from Class IX to Class X as is the case now. Besides, when history as a subject itself has been withdrawn from our school curriculum, Sanskrit’s use as a tool to understand our historical past also becomes redundant.

What could be the reason for adding an unnecessary burden to our students when there is neither any public demand nor any practical livelihood need for the subject? It is true that immediate livelihood concern is not always the main rationale for including a subject in educational curriculum. There are also long-term social and philosophical goals behind such decisions. In that context, it may be mentioned that there has been a protracted public demand for including Assam history and geography in the school curriculum of the state which have only fallen on deaf ears.

Further, even if the government decision is implemented, considering the need of huge number of teachers for this, question arises as to where the teachers would come from? Who would bear the financial burden of these teachers? These are pertinent questions. It may be noted that to be appointed as a school teacher in a state (including Assam), one must be a permanent resident of the concerned state who will also have to quality the Teacher’s Eligibility Test (TET) of that state.  

However, in view of the public protests against making Sanskrit compulsory, the Education Minister of the state himself has expressed reservation about the cabinet decision to this effect on 8 March. He maintained that the decision was taken when he was away from the state. However, the next day he added that though in principle he was in favour of the cabinet decision, a final call on this would be taken only after a broad public debate.

The discourses around the issue – its suddenness and lack of any context – only points out to some external pressure on the government on this. It may be recalled that in December 2008 a similar situation occurred when GoA sought to make Hindi a compulsory language from class VIII to X, following a proposal from the UPA-led GoI without any public debate. There was widespread protest against that and the government shelved the proposal. There is no doubt that such imposition of Sanskrit in a multi-cultural state where a large segment of the population does not feel any cultural affinity with the language will further complicate the situation for the already struggling government school system in the state, not to talk about giving unwanted fillip to the sectarian rhetoric around the issue which has been witnessed recently.

Chandan Kumar Sharma is Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, Tezpur University, Assam. He is Coordinator, Maulana Azad Centre for Research on Northeast India, Tezpur University.