Should Sanskrit be taught compulsorily in schools? The Assam government is convinced it should be, and a cabinet decision has been taken to make Sanskrit compulsory up to Class VIII. Consequently, Sanskrit teachers by the thousands will soon be appointed in all government schools. Predictably, there will be a lot of political hot air over this move in the coming days. The RSS has welcomed the decision, the Assam Sanskrit Sahitya Sabha has contended it will help prevent western impact on the State’s culture, while the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) has branded it a move to ‘saffronise’ education. Seeing RSS diktat behind the decision, the Chatra Mukti Sangram Samiti has questioned why tribal children in the State should be burdened with Sanskrit. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) has called for Sanskrit to be made optiol, while History and Geography be made compulsory subjects. The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) is unhappy too, protesting that the State government should do more to advance the cause of Assamese language in schools, in the face of stiff challenge posed by English and Hindi, rather than waste energy on Sanskrit. State Congress president Ripun Bora, while stating that his party is not against making Sanskrit compulsory in schools, has demanded similar status for Assamese, Geography and History, while asking why private schools are being let off from teaching Sanskrit.
Significantly, the N Gopalaswami-led committee on reviving and developing Sanskrit, constituted by the NDA government in November 2015, had not recommended for Sanskrit to be made compulsory in schools. Rather, it wanted that under the three-language formula, schools and examition boards should ensure that Sanskrit is made available to students interested in learning it. Taking a pragmatic view, the panel had observed that to popularize Sanskrit, textbooks in science, mathematics, social sciences and other streams will have to be written in the language. Since this was obviously a tall order, the panel felt Sanskrit should be promoted in schools, but not be made mandatory. In April last year, the then HRD minister Smriti Irani had informed Parliament in a written reply that as per the N Gopalaswami panel’s suggestion, ‘IITs have been requested to offer Sanskrit as an elective subject or as a language course for students who wish to study the language’. Another panel suggestion was that the IITs may facilitate study of science and technology ‘as reflected in Sanskrit literature’, along with ‘inter-discipliry study’ of Sanskrit and modern subjects. A panel member, co-founder of Samskrita Bharati and Padma Shri recipient, Chamu Krish Shastry had in an interview cast light on the panel’s thinking. “We are against making Sanskrit compulsory, or for that matter, making any language compulsory. There should be options to learn every language and choice should be given to the students. Today, students are intelligent enough to know what they want,” he had said. In this context, he also spoke of the need to make people aware that Sanskrit is a simple language, that great treasures lie hidden in Sanskrit literature, that Sanskrit needs to be connected with modern subjects.
It is instructive to compare the N Gopalaswami panel’s perspective on studying Sanskrit with that of the Second Sanskrit Commission headed by Satya Vrat Shastri, which had been constituted by the UPA government. There was a strong whiff of politics when the NDA government subsequently refused to extend its term, and refused to accept its report which it submitted in August, 2015. Interestingly, this commission had recommended a four-language formula by making Sanskrit compulsory till Class X. Another suggestion was to introduce Sanskrit studies in institutes of science and technology, and mandatory hiring of Sanskrit teachers in such institutes. So the N Gopalaswami panel favored by the NDA government, has actually taken a more flexible view on teaching Sanskrit in schools, mindful of the need of not adding to the burden of students already made to study three languages. There are many reasons why Sanskrit can attract an inquisitive mind in the 21st century. Experts have marveled at the ‘synthetic’ quality with which Sanskrit can build itself, the precise grammar that makes it a good candidate for ‘tural Language Processing’ for machine learning and artificial intelligence. If more such potential lie hidden, it makes more sense to study Sanskrit as an attractive option, rather than under compulsion.