Sanskrit, English and Dalits

EPW Commentary
July 24-30, 1999
S Anand

THE BJP-led hindutva dispensation, which always seemed to have one foot in the grave and one in its mouth, has been given a burial. But despite the uncertainty that surrounded the government’s last days in power, it did go ahead with things which were very dear to its unhidden agenda. Or rather, since the end seemed inevitable, there was a certain indecent haste in pushing some last- minute policy initiatives. And this remained unnoticed in the mainstream media which was more worried about the continuance of the right-wing regime. For instance, despite the Vajpayee regime’s ides of March having begun (literally), the union human resources development minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, announced that 1999 would be the ‘Year of Sanskrit’. And it was declared that the “focus of the year-long celebration would not only be the popularisation of Sanskrit among the general public but also such programmes that would lead to the long-term and permanent development of Sanskrit” (The Hindu March 14, 1999).

The report mentioned plans such as Sanskrit academies in states, children’s literature in Sanskrit, Sanskrit conversation camps and seminars on ‘Sanskrit and science’ in schools and colleges. This is in keeping with BJP’s zeal to put Sanskrit high on the HRD ministry’s agenda. The ‘saffronisation’ of education that was sought to be pushed earlier and the compulsory ‘Saraswati Vandana’ that still continues in Uttar Pradesh have not gone unprotested. However, the declaration of 1999 as the ‘Year of Sanskrit’ has slipped by almost unnoticed.

In the context of such keenness to promote the study of Sanskrit, it would be relevant to see what this classical language had connoted and stood for when it was supposed to have been in its peak (in the Gupta period), and how it is English that largely plays such a role today.

Very often the status of English in modern-day India has been compared to that of Sanskrit and Persian of the classical period. Personalities as various as Jawaharlal Nehru, P Lal (a pioneering publisher who promoted Indian writing in English with a missionary zeal) and A K Ramanujan (eminent linguist, translator, social anthropologist and poet) had suggested (each for different reasons though) that the position of Sanskrit in the Gupta period – it being the language of the court, the ruling elite – compares favourably with that of English today.

True, the brahmanical elite during the nationalist movement and in the immediate post-independence phase held a tight English leash over the institutions of power/ knowledge. But one has to acknowledge the fact that (western/ colonial) ‘modernity’ that comes with English in something that is not inaccessible to the ‘untouchables’ – the dalits and bahujans whose marginalisation has been justified over centuries by dominant varieties of Hinduism. Today, English is a language dalit-bahujans can aspire to, unlike classical Sanskrit which they were kept away from. That the Sanskritic vedas were not supposed to be read (or even heard) by the sudras, ati-sudras and women is something that is upheld by authorities like the Manusmriti and the Gita.

There is no record of Sanskrit (‘dev bhasha’, language of the (Aryan) gods, as it is exclusively called) ever being a democratic language that was accessible to the masses. It was never the mother tongue, always the father tongue, as Ramanujan reminds us when commenting the poetry of the bhakti movement, which for the first time, after the Buddha’s deliberate recourse to Pali, spoke in a mother tongue and forged a literature of and for the masses. The point simply is that there was a sanction against Sanskrit being acquired by the dalit-bahujans. Lack of access to Sanskrit (and hence to the ‘agrahara’ and court) meant lack of space in what the ‘varna-dharmic’ forces upheld and celebrated as culture, knowledge, power. In fact, an adjectival form of the very word Sanskrit comes to connote ‘culture’ (‘sankritiya’). This meant that Prakritic expressions were not recorded in official histories as amounting to culture; or sometimes, like bhakti literature, were co-opted into an all-devouring Hindu mainstream.

Sanskrit, in the ‘glorious, classical’ period worked like a secret code language, access to which was determined by one’s birth into a certain caste and gender. It was the high language in which all the rules of society (Manu), grammar (Panini), state-craft (Kautilya), mathematics (Aryabhatta), performing arts (Natyashastra), etc, were written. Exclusivity was its essence. It was never the day-to-day language of emotions even for those who used it for specific purposes. It was the language of metaphysics. One did not, does not make casual conversation in it. It was the language of the intellect, of the intellectuals, of the sacral literati. Why bahujans, even ‘upper caste’ women were not allowed to speak Sanskrit – in Kalidasa’s plays, women characters always speak Prakrit, never Sanskrit. (It must be stressed here that the story of Tamil, another classical language, is very different. Unlike Sanskrit, it has been alive as a discourse both at the high literary level and the day-to-day realm.)

Sacred Sanskrit has always been a dead language. Even when Kalidasa was writing his ‘classics’, Sanskrit was hardly the understood language of the day; in his own times the plays were performed only after being suitably adapted into Prakritic versions that could be intelligible to the viewing public of the day. The dead weight of Sanskrit, however, remains a burden on us even in 1999, in the form of the ‘Year of Sanskrit’.

The same cannot be said of the status of English in modern India, even when its comparison with Sanskrit seems inevitable at surface level. At least theoretically (if we see the Constitution as a progressive text that displaces the Manusmriti) there are no injunctions whatsoever against the learning of English. Socially, there have been (and still are) problems in the way of aspirants from disprivileged backgrounds. But the modern-day Constitution (written in English) and ‘authored’ by a dalit, B R Ambedkar, opens a range of possibilities hitherto unknown in Indian society.

If we were to employ a motif from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the dalit-Caliban never got to learn Sanskrit to answer back his Prospero: ‘You taught me language and my profit on’t is/ I know how to curse you...1 In fact, the brahman-Prospero never allowed the dalit-Caliban near his language (Sanskrit). Today’s dalit-bahujan, of course, does not find himself in such an unnegotiable position vis-a-vis English.

We may hence attach a good deal of significance to the symbolism of having a dalit politician like Ambedkar play a crucial role in shaping what theoretically is the most progressive Constitution in the world. Not only did Ambedkar give shape to the Constitution, he was also the law minister in independent India’s first parliament. All this – an ‘avarna’ who has no place in the Sanskritic order of things playing a crucial role in shaping the laws that govern modern civil society – goes against the very essence of Sanskritic diktats. And we may also be glad that our Constitution has been written in English. Such a work could not have been written in Sanskrit.

The casteist elite quotes memorised titbits like the ‘gayatri mantra’ and couplets from Gita shlokas to flaunt its Sanskrit (= rote learning) and thus hold the ‘spiritual’ realm under its control. But today, it is English that is used to maintain power over more day-to-day activities – the ‘material’ realm. And hence control over English meaning denial of it to others – becomes important for the English-speaking section of India which amounts to a mere 2-3 per cent of the population.

English, however, has no notion of sacredness attached to it. It is something a person may aspire to, irrespective of one’s varna, religion or gender. On the contrary, the very notion of democracy is something that Hinduism’s ‘sacred’ Sanskrit texts do not account for. English, for which we seem to be making a case purely in the context of the Sanskrit-English debate, is of course a language that an imperial power used to enslave a major part of the world, including the Indian subcontinent. But it was something that the local Ariel-elite (to use The Tempest motif again) immediately acquired to help the British administer India. From being court ‘gumasthas’ to civil servants the brahmanical classes took easy pride in the fact that they could acquire English and serve the new political masters while negotiating for themselves a crucial space in the emerging social order.

But the coming of ‘English’ also opened up a new realm of ideas – the European enlightenment concepts of liberty, equality, fraternity, and hence justice and rule of law. Again, it is the Ambedkars of India who become alive to the practicable aspects of these concepts, while the upper caste elite represented both by the Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and the Nehru, T T Krishnamachari kind were and are interested only in the intellectual and textual possibilities that these ‘western’ concepts open up. They would be eloquent in their use of English and apparently understand the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity; some like Nehru would even let themselves be influenced by events like the Bolshevik revolution. But when it came to disturbing the core of ‘Hindu’ society with the kind of changes that an Ambedkar was hoping for as law minister – through the Hindu Code Bill, which aimed at providing the people of India a new social structure of kinship, marriage and inheritance, a law which aimed to undo the institutionalised evils of caste and patriarchy way back in the 1950s – the orthodox Hindu elite strongly resisted such a change.

This largely explains why innumerable things our Constitution wishes for are not put into practice: to point just one instance, untouchability is lego-juridically a crime, but then most ‘uppercaste’ Hindus would be (unpunished) criminals by that count.

In saying all this, one is of course taking for granted the ‘nationalist belief’ – the notion that India as a nation is as old as the vedas and Himalayas, as old and timeless as Hinduism as a faith is claimed to be. We are not for the moment trying to disturb the imagination, the dream rather, that the Indian national fabric has to be protected come what may. In other words, in talking of English, Sanskrit and even dalits as pan-Indian categories, we temporarily accept the belief that we have to negotiate our identities within the rubric of the nation state (more of a state, less of a nation till the BJP took over) that India is.

The point here is not whether dalit-bahujans all over the country are using English to assert their position today. They are of course doing this in languages they are comfortable in. But this again does not mean that a dalit from Andhra Pradesh is comfortable articulating his problems in ‘standardised’ Telugu – a Sanskritic Telugu that is prescribed by textbooks. Kancha Ilaiah, a dalit-bahujan thinker from Andhra Pradesh, theorises, in English of the purposelessness of dalit children being forced to acquire a culture that is alien to them through a language which is far removed from their social world – brahmanical bookish Telugu having nothing to do with the production-based materiality of the dalits’ Telugu.

So, when we look at the interstices between Sanskrit, English and Sanskritised ‘regional’ languages (the Prakrit) and what these spaces mean in the everyday discourse of our civil society, we see that the ‘quota’ candidates tend to look upon English (in which ‘upper caste’ students seem to ‘excel’) and a command over it, as a tool that would help them overcome their perceived inadequacies, and, in fact, look at the brahmanised ‘bhasha’, which they are forced to identify as their mother tongue, with contempt. This realisation of the importance of being articulate in English is particularly felt at the college/ university level where the bahujan comes into contact with the ‘posh, convent-educated urban types’.

Studies conducted by students of sociology and linguistics departments at the Central University of Hyderabad reveal that dalit students from rural, semi-urban Telugu medium backgrounds tend to attribute their ‘poor performance’ in the academia – in terms of low scores – to a lack of command over English. But here too, the student does not find help forthcoming. ‘Bad English’ is frowned upon and the disprivileged students’ sense of handicap is reinforced by the system’s indifference typically expressed as, ‘can’t do anything about it at this late stage’. Thrown into such a hostile world, the dalit student obviously does not perform as well as his/her ‘upper caste’ counterparts. The ‘dull’ dalits forever seem to lack ‘merit’. All the good marks are scored by the ‘bright’ English-speaking students. And thus the dalit-bahujans forever seem to be in need of ‘reservations’.

Such a systemic denial of English (taken as symbolic of things modern) to the dalit-bahujans in contemporary India – something that is not sanctioned by the system itself – shows that it is here that the ‘upper caste’ urban Indian uses English like he did Sanskrit in the imaginary ‘golden, classical’ era. It is thus that the genuinely democratic possibilities that English could have otherwise opened up in a caste society like ours have been nipped in the bud by a casteist elite that does not let go of power by subverting the potential of each new challenge – here, we see English as one such symbolic challenge – to serve its own ends.

Such an argument of English for dalits, we would be told, is uncritical of the fact that English was a coloniser’s tongue and the coloniser’s intentions in imposing his language on the ‘natives’ were never a noble one. So, why extend it to dalits? Why not, rather, romanticise them as that section of society ‘unpolluted’ by western aspirations and argue for letting things remain as they are? And even perhaps ask them to continue with their hereditary caste occupations in villages? Also, it would be pointed out that but for a fraction of dalits, who because of their exposure to higher education aspire to English, the larger masses share a historical resentment towards English and all that it culturally symbolises: modernisation/urbanisation/and now Americanisation.

Linguistic scholars like Probal Dasgupta (in The Otherness of English) have even rationalised the ‘bad English’ of the dalit-bahujans as one form of resistance to and subversion of colonial modernity by the ‘Bharat’ that is not ‘India’. Dasgupta manages to read great philosophical, intellectual and political meaning in Bharat’s ‘resistance’ to and ‘discriminatory’ use of the symbols of western/colonial modernity, of which English is something he discusses at length.

English is still a ticket, but to a job market than to a cultural elite. One learns English in India on the basis of instrumental rather than integrative motivation. This leads to a relatively shallow knowledge of the language. For today’s Indians, English is a technical means to personal ends. It is held at arm’s length from the mainsprings of their personalities... (1993: 79) With this premise, he goes on to argue towards the end of the book, by when the India of page 79 becomes ‘Bharat’, and today’s Indians ‘Bharatiyas’, that

This refusal the typical learner in Bharat achieves by focusing in an exaggeratedly formal fashion on the content of what is learnt, by memorising lists of points, by treating examination success as a definitive correlate of adequate mastery... and thus refusing to engage any personal element... in the job of learning (183). This sense of ‘discrimination’, which Dasgupta bestows rather patronisingly on an almost castewise unspecified Bharatiya (rural?) learner, results in ‘fragmentary learning’ where the learner is seen as being able to ‘welcome some material and resist the rest’ (183). Does this learner occupy a dalit position? Dasgupta does not specify; but it seems so. On the whole, what we read as the denial of English (among access to other symbols of modernity) by a casteist elite, occurs in the linguist’s account as a form of intelligent (yet romanticised) act of resistance whose roots are mischievously traced to the bhakti period’s resistance to Sanskrit and things Sanskritic (p 84, 147).

In Dasgupta’s framework, such resistance which results in a deliberate ‘faulty and fragmentary’ acquisition of English explains the ‘mistakes’ the so-called Bharatiya (as opposed to ‘Indian’) makes in his/her use of the language. So the conclusion that we have to draw is that the dalit learners – if we are forgiven our understandings Dasgupta’s misrepresented Bharatiya as that – have a certain stake in their apparent resistance to not just English but other things ‘modern’ (as in ‘western’). So when the ‘typical learner in Bharat’ resorts to rote learning (that is, simply memorises lists of points from an examination point of view using ‘kunjis’, guidebooks) we are asked to understand this as an act of subversion into which great political meaning is sought to be read, and not as an inherent flaw in a patently dalit-unfriendly pedagogy. Dasgupta, of course, points out that this is a result of the ‘India-based, teacher-centred’ (as opposed to Bharat-based, learner-centred, in his lexicon) approach of the system, but then again according to him, in this learning game ‘the learner controls by giving the teacher a lot of long rope’; the learner is not fully and ‘emotionally’ involved in the act of learning (English). What in our reading figures as a method that ensures that the dalits and ‘shoshits’ are not empowered by a system which seeks to produce ‘good’ speakers of English (apart from scientists, engineers, doctors... and, of course, linguists) from among only the upper castes, becomes for Dasgupta a metaphor for ‘Bharat’s rejection of western modernity’.

If we extend the logic of such a disempowering reasoning, it would mean that when a dalit student is awarded less marks (just pass marks, or as in most cases not even that) because of his/her ‘faulty English’ it is actually an act of resistance. By the same logic the fact that a lot of ‘Bharatiyas’ drop out of the education system at different levels from primary schools to university will also be sought to be read as an act of conscious resistance. Such a rationale, of course, has another subtext to it: the teachers of English (as a language) can now draw theoretical solace by pointing out that when the dalit is being awarded low scores for ‘his lack of grasp of correct English’, it can’t be really helped because it is an act of wilful ‘Bharatiya’ resistance to the hegemonic influence of English-modernity. At a less obvious level, it is one way of hiding the unwillingness of the (mostly upper caste) teacher (someone like Probal Dasgupta himself in a classroom situation) to devise methods that might enable ‘Bharatiya’ (rural/dalit) learners to be articulated in English on par with their ‘Indian’ (urban/upper caste, middle class) counterparts, and at a more obvious level it is one way of attributing an imagined agency to the ‘reluctant learners’ and thus escaping the blame of inbred intellectual and professional laziness.2

Compared to the usual middle class-upper caste reasoning which says something like the bahujans anyway ‘lack merit, therefore are not good at English’, the Dasgupta kind of rationalising which sees the ‘shallow use of the language’ as a form of resisting modernity seems more politically dangerous. If we were to cut all the crap of theoretical jargon, both these positions emerge as classic justifications by which the language of power may be sought to be denied to the bahujans. The upper castes and classes fear to have the oppressed learn the language of power and do what they (the ‘twice-born’) are supposed to do best. In political terms, such knowledge would only result in the dalits getting ideas: ideas like converting to Christianity or harking back to Buddhism; ideas that will enable them to mount a critique of the ‘knowledge’ that has been used to oppress them; ideas that will make an Ambedkar mount a powerful critique of Hinduism in his Riddles of Hinduism and Annihilation of Caste; that will result in an Iyothee Thass claiming an authentic Buddhist past for the Pariars; ideas that will result in a category like militant Marathi dalit literature, books like Kancha Ilaiah’s Why I am Not a Hindu which gives a call for rewriting all history from a dalit-bahujan viewpoint, ideas... ideas – something the dalits in the first place are not supposed to have at all.

A few remarks about dalit writings in English would be pertinent in this context. Today, we see a number of intellectuals like Gopal Guru, Kancha Ilaiah, Bojja Tarakam, Katti Padma Rao, V T Rajashekar and others articulating the dalit point of view in English. Of course, B R Ambedkar was farsighted in realising the importance of writing all his works in English. On the other hand, someone like M K Gandhi, the darling and holy cow of the Hindu intelligentsia, did not have to really bother about being inaccessible because of his use of Gujarati (just like Adi Shankaracharya enjoys an all-India access/ sanction despite his recourse to Sanskrit – a reactionary gesture especially in the light of the fact that the choice of Sanskrit went against the then popular democratising influence of non-Sanskritic bhakti). Gandhi’s iconisation and prompt saintification ensured that all forms of media are used to din in his ‘messages’. On the radio, ‘What Gandhi Said’ (‘Gandhi Anjali’) is a regular feature in all languages. His books are made available easily and cheaply. His quotes adorn public spaces. He is the subject of venerative books, films, art. He is the most accessible though also perhaps comparatively less read. We will be however told that the post-Mandal period has seen a proliferation of Ambedkar’s statues/framed photographs; but that even today it is extremely difficult to get hold of a copy of Ambedkar’s work does not bother many. The government of Maharashtra publications are there, but that seems to be the worst possible way of publicising the man’s work. And given that such difficulties have to be contended with, had he not written in English, he would certainly not have become a pan-Indian figure.

This would become more clear if we look at the case of another anti-Hindu contemporary of Ambedkar, E V Ramsami ‘Periyar’. The few translations of Periyar’s speeches/writings into English that are of late becoming available seem to be doing more of a disservice to him, so much so that they seem to put off even a prospective non-Tamil reader, especially if he/she is a stranger to the (much-maligned) non-brahmin movement of the south. The same is the case with someone like Jotiba Phule who is virtually unavailable to non-Marathis. During a private conversation, social scientist Gail Omvedt recently told me that Ambedkar’s decision to write in English was a conscious and deliberate one.

Here, we do not contend with ‘proficiency’ in English as much as with the fact that an attempt is being made by dalits to articulate their viewpoint in the language that connotes power, despite the difficulties that surround such an effort. We are more concerned about the social, cultural, economic and intellectual weight that a statement made in English (like Ilaiah’s Why I am Not a Hindu) carries and how the same statement in a ‘bhasha’, even if made more intelligibly, fails to make much headway. And for this very reason, the stance taken earlier in this article – we may make much of the fact that our Constitution has been written in English; such a work could not have been written in Sanskrit – stands.

Today, if someone like Kancha Ilaiah is being reckoned with, despite typical dismissals of his being ‘unscholarly’, it is because for the first time after Ambedkar a dalit writer is being packaged and sold in English, if not with the kind of hype that surrounds Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie at least with a fair degree of savviness. This underscores two things: the importance of speaking in English, a language that has been monopolised by the brahmanical elite and denied to dalits; and secondly, that it is a myth that dalits resist English/ modernity. To give another example, the pan-Indian popularity of a journal like Dalit Voice owes to the fact of its being published in English.

In such a scenario, the atavistic gesture of saying that Sanskrit academies will be opened up, universities set up, the ‘dev bhasha’ will be popularised – all this hopefully without hidden caste riders – will not mean a thing as far as empowering people is concerned. The learning of Sanskrit today is not going to materially help anybody irrespective of caste. The brahmanical classes, who know this best, have taken to English and monopolised it. At such a time, making Sanskrit available to all (irrespective of caste, unlike in the inglorious ‘ancient times’) might sound like a symbolic progressive move. However, it is clearly at least a good 2,000 years late in coming. And even if a new government comes to power, it cannot ‘roll back’ the declaration of 1999 as the ‘Year of Sanskrit’.


1 William Shakespeare's play The Tempest anticipates the colonial paradigm where the duke-in-exile, Prospero, ends up in an island that belongs to Sycorax, who is made out to be a witch-figure whose 'magic' Prospero learns, only to use the same to colonise the island and enslave Sycorax's son Caliban, an indigenous inhabitant who is animalised in the play (he 'smells like a fish') and referred to as a misshapen monster having no language, no culture, despite which he (Caliban) insists: 'This island is mine...'. Parallel and in contrast to Caliban, who does not mind swearing at Prospero and his daughter Miranda in the language he learnt from them, is Ariel, a fairy-like creature, also a 'native' of the island, who is glad to serve Prospero though he too wants to be set free one day. The Ariel-Caliban contrast had engaged, fascinated and angered the intelligentsia of other (post)-colonial contexts, especially in Latin America, resulting in intellectuals like Retamar and Memmi's brilliant use of this paradigm, literally and metaphorically, to understand their own situations. More recently, Caribbean poet Derek Walcott reverses The Tempest paradigm in his Pantomime. However, English departments in India – centres dominated by a brahmanical crowd – even as they swear by Shakespeare and his universal greatness never seriously discuss the colonial paradigm of The Tempest, though it seems that given our immediate history of British colonialism such a discussion and engagement with the text would be politically most meaningful. Rather, English department personalities like C D Narsimhaiah congratulate themselves over their outright rejection of Caliban. Without the slightest self-consciousness of intellectual poverty it is announced that even "In the worst days of our national struggle no Indian patriot who incidentally knew his Shakespeare better than some professors of English, brought himself to mouth Caliban's 'You taught me language and my profit on't is I know how to curse you.' On the contrary he pined with Miranda [Prospero's daughter] for the 'brave new world' and 'our little life is rounded with sleep' " (1990, 174). This assertion, even as late as in 1990, best captures the spirit of brahmanisation that has overseen the trajectory of English in India.

2 It must be made clear that we are limiting our discussion here to the non-literary use of English in India; the use of English for 'discursive purposes' as distinct from 'literature' (as defined in the conventional English department sense of the term). For his assessment of the 'literary' output by Indians in English, we are totally with Dasgupta's brilliant demolition of this much hyped and celebrated body of writing that goes under the guise of Indo-Anglian writing or Indian writing in English. See chapter 3 of his The Otherness of English, particularly, pp 111-44, which makes a case for 'the non-substantiality of Indian English'.


Dasgupta, P (1993): The Otherness of English: India's Auntie Tongue Syndrome, Sage, Delhi.

Ilaiah, K (1996): Why I am Not a Hindu, Samya, Calcutta.

Lal, P (ed) (1969): Modern Indian Poetry in English : An Anthology and Credo, Writers Workshop, Calcutta.

Narasimhaiah, C D (1990): The Indian Critical Scene: Controversial Essays, B R Publishing, New Delhi.

Nehru, J (1974): Discovery of India, Bombay.

Ramanujan, A K (1990): 'Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?', in M Marriot (ed), India Through Hindu Categories, Sage, New Delhi.

Shakespeare, W (1980): The Tempest in Complete Works of Shakespeare, Oxford and IBH, New Delhi pp 1-26.

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