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(This is the first article of a three-part series)
Power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility, the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot. In his “Silencing the Past”
In his book “En Nanbarkal” (meaning my friends) well-known Tamil scholar and social activist Ki Aa Pe Viswanathan, while mentioning the achievements of the Justice Party government, also said they “removed the need to have knowledge of Sanskrit to be eligible for a Medical degree”. It has been the cause of many controversies.
Since then, there has often been a war of words between Tamil Nationalists and Dravidian activists, who seek to highlight injustice to the Tamil cause on one side and the so-called nationalists who seek to debunk this calling it a figment of imagination on the other side. Often both sides rattle their swords on social media and elsewhere because of this.
Many of the technical terms in evidence-based medicine have their roots in Latin. The reason for that is in how the history of scientific medicine evolved. But where does Sanskrit, which had no role in its history fit into this? And why had Ki Aa Pe Viswanathan said so? Is there any basis for that? The quest for answers throws open an interesting set of facts and a complicated history.
The initial knot of the issue dates back to the early 19th century. It was on February 2, 1835 that Thomas Babington Macaulay published his educational reform report, ‘Minute on Indian Education’, under the orders of India’s first Governor-General Lord William Bentinck.
Although medical education was to be provided in regional languages, only three languages, namely Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian were available as the medium of education. Among them, Sanskrit was the language that got mentioned prominently
While various medical systems such as Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha had been widely practised in this land, Western medical system was first introduced to our country by the Portuguese.
Subsequently, when Britain took over the country, providing quality medical care across the region proved a big challenge. Apart from the actions the central government took across the British colonies, various provincial governments also took measures to augment medical education and medical services. For example, in 1822, the first educational institute to teach Western medicine in regional languages was established in Calcutta with financial assistance from the British government. It was announced that students from all over the country could come and learn western medicine in regional languages.
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Although medical education was to be provided in regional languages, only three languages, namely Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian were available as the medium of education. Among them, Sanskrit was the language that got mentioned prominently. Funds went mostly into running the educational institution and for publishing books in the three languages.
During Mughal rule, Ayurveda and Unani medicine were given separate financial support. Accordingly, separate educational institutions were started and run for that purpose. In this too, there were mostly Ayurvedic schools teaching in Sanskrit in the name of indigenous medicine. Continuing the previous Mughal government practice, Ayurveda and Unani medicine were extended financial support by the British government as well. Accordingly, a separate set of educational institutions were started and maintained. In the name of institutions for indigenous medicine, there were mostly Ayurvedic schools set up, which taught in Sanskrit.
So, not only were widely-spoken languages ignored when medical education was offered in “vernacular” languages, the institutions offering education in traditional indigenous medicine were mostly focused on Ayurveda (and to lesser extent Unani), leaving little space for alternative systems.
It was in this context that Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ created a storm. In his report on medical education, he noted that the British government had provided several lakhs of rupees as financial aid for education about indigenous medicine in the three languages that they classified as “vernacular” languages. He also concluded that such a medical education did not yield the desired impact, and that the vast majority of society still did not get access to proper medical care.
“It is said that Indians can never acquire a sufficient knowledge of English. But many Indians I know have demonstrated a better command of English than any European. I have found that Indian intelligence and intellectual capability is much better than they think.”
When his study was presented before a committee set up for the purpose, it raised a huge furore. Although the committee agreed that funds given to “vernacular” languages should be given to some other language instead, it created a conflict whether the other language should be English or Sanskrit and the committee was split over this.
Various arguments were advanced in favour of Sanskrit by its supporters in the Committee. For example, “Sanskrit is an exceptional language widely respected by Indians; only if it is in such an ancient “vernacular” language widely respected by people, will it be possible to gain their approval and trust; and Indians do not have sufficient knowledge in English which was a foreign language for them.
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Macaulay made strong arguments against these assertions. He did not belittle Indian languages and knowledge anywhere, as it is insinuated today. On the contrary, his arguments reveal his unwavering faith in the knowledge of Indians. For example, his counter-arguments to the aforementioned Sanskrit proponents presented following viewpoints:
● “It is said that Indians can never acquire a sufficient knowledge of English. But many Indians I know have demonstrated a better command of English than any European. I have found that Indian intelligence and intellectual capability is much better than they think.”
● “Though I have not directly acquired the knowledge of Eastern languages (Sanskrit and Arabic), I have read and absorbed the translation of their best books. Based on that, I acknowledge and agree with the popular opinion on their exceptional excellence in literary writings. However, as far as modern scientific subjects are concerned, if the question is whether English or Sanskrit, it is English that should be supported.”
His final argument was presented based on strong factual evidence.
“A group of many former students from Sanskrit College submitted a petition to the government last year. In it, the petitioners stated that they had studied in the college for about 10 to 12 years learning enough in Hindu literature and science and had further obtained a certificate of merit. Even then, with such certificates, they said they had no chance of improving their situation and were neglected and discouraged by their countrymen. Therefore, they begged to be recommended for consideration to the office of Governor-General for a prospect of government employment with respectable pay,” he added.
He summarised all this by recommending that the funds awarded each year to Sanskrit and Arabic and Persian languages along with incentives for students studying in them should be stopped and instead be spent on developing medical science education in English.
His recommendations led to the withholding of huge funds given to Sanskrit (and to a lesser extent to Arabic and Persian) in the name of development of vernacular science education. Despite this, he suggested that the Hindu Institute of Education in Benares and the Mohammedan (Arabic/Persian) Institute of Education in Delhi be run with government assistance.
This is how the funding of lakhs of rupees which Sanskrit had been receiving in the name of “vernacular” language education was stopped.
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