How about Kathiyawadi as a classical language?

Politics of parochialism is driving the official language policy of our times – at the cost of the really needy

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Ashish Mehta | May 27, 2013



Linguists usually don’t use the term ‘dialect’. Each language is just a language, a variety of some language. Because there are no scientific criteria to distinguish a ‘standard’ language from a ‘dialect’. Gujarati as spoken in Ahmedabad is a standard language, used in government, education, media and so on, but a version called Kathiyawadi spoken in Bhavnagar is poor dialect. The difference is not scientific, it is about socio-political influence of speakers. That is why, an old joke in linguistics is that a language is a dialect with an army.

Similarly, what is a classical language? Again, going by science of language, there are no criteria. But a classical language is a language with a vote-bank.

That is the definition our government seems to be working with, as the cabinet Thursday decided to grant this much-in-demand status to the only remaining major Dravidian language, Malayalam. Tamil got it right at the start of UPA 1, in September 2004. Not to be left behind in the culture wars, Kannada and Telugu demanded the same, and got it. Now, all four major languages in the south are classical.

At one level there is a matter of parochial pride, on which many acrimonious debates are on in the blogosphere, on the lines of my-language-is-older-than-yours. In fact, a writ petition is pending before the Madras high court, challenging the decision to grant the classical status to languages other than Sanskrit and Tamil. The petition has invited counter interventions from proud speakers of Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Strange to note that Hindi heartland has not woken up. Should we thank god for it, or is it just a matter of time before Lok Dal politicians take delegations to the president seeking classical status for Haryanvi and a Congress conspiracy is unearthed to deny classical status to Gujarati?

Anyway, beyond the status tag and pride, there are tangible benefits involved in going classical. According to an official note, they are:

(i) Two major annual international awards for scholars of eminence in classical Indian languages.
ii) A ‘Centre of Excellence for Studies in Classical Languages’ be set up.
iii) The University Grants Commission be requested to create, to start with at least in the Central Universities, a certain number of Professional Chairs for Classical Languages for scholars of eminence in classical Indian languages.

And then there is money. It first went to Karunanidhi’s state.

UPA gave Rs 3.32 crore between July 2005 and March 2007 (during the 10th five-year plan) for the Central Plan Scheme for Classical Tamil. Then a Central Institute of Classical Tamil (CICT) was set up in Chennai, which got Rs 64.00 crore during the 11th five-year plan. Then there are scholarships and Tamil-focused funding of institutions like Sangeet Natak Akademy and the National Archives.

In the four years from 2008-09, grants worth Rs 26.24 crore went out to Chennai “for development and propagation” of classical Tamil, according to a reply in Rajya Sabha by the MoS of the HRD ministry.

It would bore the reader to give details of similar funds that went to the CMs of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which did not stop them from reminding the centre repeatedly why some funds were still pending. It did not stop local scholars from complaining that the ones already received were not put to good use either.

In short, there’s money and with all those ‘centres of excellence’ and awards and world conferences, a system of patronage is being created. All that, in the name of language and culture. Without debating the criteria for the classical status. The official criteria, according to minister for culture Kumari Selja’s reply in the Lok Sabha on August 21 last year, are:

(i) High antiquity of its [the language’s] 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 should 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.

If your language still can’t make it, then the government would constitute a committee of unnamed experts to fix the case, as it happened with Malayalam. But look at the criteria: aren’t they the descriptions of Sanskrit, Tamil etc? In other words, A Santhali language might be older than the Indo-Aryan languages and yet in the absence of “texts/recorded history” it won’t make the cut. All tribal languages are out, then.

And here is the crux of the whole language policy of our times. Taxpayers’ money is going to those languages which are in robust condition, have worldwide presence (think of Rajanikant’s popularity in Japan) and do not need any state support. On the other hand are the languages that are dying out (196 total, 35 of them critical), taking with them rich knowledge systems (flora, fauna, biodiversity, medicinal properties of forest produce). These languages are the ones that need state support – to survive, not those ones – to prosper more. And there are no funds for the dying languages of the Andamans and elsewhere while crores are spent on ‘world conference’ tamashas like the one Karunanidhi presided over in 2010.

A clarification, if the message is lost in the jumble: what is criticised here is the state policy, and not the respective language’s rich heritage (which by the way is true for every human language and at least one manmade language too).

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