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Classic case of politics of language

New Delhi, Sept. 27: The government has 'declared' Tamil a 'classical language' despite the objections of experts it consulted and after a committee it had appointed refused to recommend it.

It is not the government's business to tinker with such cultural issues as language and literature, the president and secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, the academy of letters, who were members of a 'committee on languages' specifically wrote to the government.

No government in any country has found it necessary to sit in judgement and 'declare' if a language is 'classical' or not. An effort was made to convince the establishment that language does not need to be declared 'classical'.

'Language is like the Himalayas, naturally born,' a source privy to the deliberations of the committee told The Telegraph while explaining the views of the experts.

The president of the Sahitya Akademi, Professor Gopichand Narang, and the secretary, Professor K. Satchidanandan, were part of a seven-member committee that also included the joint secretaries of the ministries of home affairs and human resources development and the department of culture.

Presenting the views of the Sahitya Akademi, Narang and Satchidanandan actually warned that the granting of 'classical status' to one language can open a 'Pandora's box' with similar demands being made for other languages.

Within hours of the 'declaration' of Tamil as a 'classical language' on September 17, their fears have come true. Union planning minister M.V. Rajashekharan has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Kannada should also be recognised as a 'classical language'. Karnataka chief minister Dharam Singh has announced that he would press for the same status for Kannada.

The Sahitya Akademi office bearers told the government three months ago -- when the move was first made -- that it would be unwise to grant such recognition to just one language in a country of such diversity. The government replied that the UPA had promised the classical status for Tamil in its Common Minimum Programme (CMP) and the experts had to find some way of implementing the promise.

The Sahitya Akademi office bearers wrote a second time. In essence, they repeated that it was not the government's business to declare a language 'classical'. 'It is a classically foolish move,' a source said.

But the government brought pressure on the committee through the bureaucrats representing the ministries. Despite that, the committee decided that 'it did not want to play into the hands of the government and decided to make space for other languages to be included,' a source in the committee said.

Members of the committee felt that the pressure was being brought on it because of the compulsions of the Congress and the UPA government to appease its ally, M. Karunanidhi's DMK.

Determined not to make a specific recommendation, the Sahitya Akademi then agreed to join the seven-member 'committee on languages'.

Recognising that it could become part of a political game, the committee decided it will not make any suggestion to the government but would express its 'academic opinion' and all it did 'was to abstract the shared features of classical languages like Greek and Latin'.

Members did this in consultations among themselves and other experts.

The committee listed four criteria for classical languages in its report:

High antiquity of a language's early texts or recorded history (going back to between 1500 and 2000 years)

A body of ancient texts which are considered a valuable heritage

A literary tradition that is original and not derivative

A discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or offshoots.

These criteria apply to Tamil and are also true about Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. But Sanskrit is not 'declared' a classical language presumably because it is rarely spoken. The criteria will leave out many commonly spoken Indian languages even if they have a rich and hoary past.

Marathi, Telugu, Bengali, Hindi, Oriya, Assamese, Bhojpuri are just some of the languages that may not fulfil the criteria. Then there are disputes over the antiquity of languages. For instance, at one time Malayalam was indistinguishable from Tamil, one expert said.

What does the declaration of Tamil as a 'classical language' mean for those who speak it and work with it' As of now, very little. The University Grants Commission (UGC) is likely to be coaxed to dole out grants to set up chairs and fellowships in Tamil studies. There are proposals that the same be done for Arabic and Persian.

What the declaration can do and will do, however, is to bring a touchy issue into the political fray.

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