The unilateral decision of the Education department of Assam to introduce Sanskrit as a compulsory subject in schools has given rise to a great deal of understandable controversy. True, there was a time up to the 1940s and 1950s when Sanskrit (or one of the other so-called ‘classical’ languages like Arabic and Persian) was compulsory up to the school leaving stage. But that was also a time when we did not have the three-language formula of today. As such, Sanskrit, Arabic or Persian made up the third language in addition to a modern Indian language (MIL) like Assamese or Bangla or Oriya (that was generally one’s mother tongue) and English. Even in those days the load of three languages was considered to be needlessly heavy. No one seemed to be very clear about why, in addition to two spoken languages, it was considered necessary to have third one that was no longer spoken. In an age when more and more people had begun to realize that language was primarily a spoken phenomenon and that writing systems evolved much later—in fact, thousands of years later in the case of quite a number of languages all over the world—young learners were far more interested in learning languages that were spoken rather than those that one used only for writing and for ceremonial purposes. Thereafter, with Hindi emerging as the most important common language in India, the language policy for schools expectedly underwent a change. The three-language formula comprising English, Hindi and an MIL that was generally one’s mother tongue began to be applied all over India. This three-language formula did create a discrimition of sorts because in some of the Indian States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Harya the mother tongue of the vast majority was Hindi. There were also other States like Rajasthan and Gujarat where Hindi was extensively used and people did not have to learn it in schools. So we had a situation in India where the three-language formula was applicable only where Hindi was not the mother tongue of the majority of students. Schoolchildren in States where Hindi was the mother tongue of the majority did not have to learn three languages. This created the kind of inequality that gives rise to difficult problems. The other problem is that English, which is not a language of the land, has to be given the prominence of a compulsory subject largely because it is a world language and also because having had the tradition of English learning in schools due to British rule of India for almost two centuries, it would be a shame not to make the best use of this historical accident. There are six countries in Europe, never ruled by the British, that have made English a compulsory language in their schools, largely because of the benefits that accrue to people who know English. In the other countries of Europe too (where English is not a compulsory language in schools) the commonest choice for one compulsory foreign language is English. As such, almost all over Europe an increasingly large number of schoolchildren are learning English. They are learning English largely because it has already taken the place of a world language. All over Europe, there is the urge to be able to speak a language that is understood almost all over the world. What does this do to the language policy for schools in Europe? Even without a three-language formula, there is the need to learn two languages: one’s mother tongue and English. And possibly, that is the reason why no one in Europe talks about making Latin a compulsory language for the schools. And that is why most schoolchildren in Europe maged to get by on just two languages. No wonder, they are in a position to devote more time to optiol subject of their choice.
In India, we have vitiated the educatiol scerio by (a) refusing to ask schoolchildren what they would like to study and how many languages they would like to learn as school subjects; and (b) letting politicians decide what should be the course content for our schoolchildren instead of leaving such decisions to educationists, schoolchildren, their parents and their teachers. In any case, now that the Education department of the State has decided to make Sanskrit a compulsory subject in schools, one can only urge the Education department to reconsider this decision and to make Sanskrit an optiol subject in schools. If the classic languages no longer spoken were made out to be far more important in the 21st century, education authorities in Europe too would have decided on making Latin and classical Greek compulsory for schoolchildren. They have done nothing of the sort in order to ensure that schoolchildren will have the time required to pursue subjects that are more relevant to the needs of the 21st century and beyond. Quite obviously, those who are interested in pursuing classical languages that are no longer spoken, can always make the choices even if Sanskrit is made an optiol subject. Those who are so keen on making Sanskrit a compulsory subject should also give some thought to the number of competent Sanskrit teachers available for the task. The Education department might be horrified to learn about the quality of Sanskrit that our schoolchildren are likely to learn from some of the teachers available for the job. They might be far better off learning a language that they can speak instead of learning one that they must be content only to read. What is more important is that we should not be turning a three-language policy into a four-language one.