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(This is the second article of a three-part series)
When Macaulay’s report led to stopping of the British government’s financial support for Sanskrit — and to Arabic and Persian, which anyway received far smaller share from the funds — Sanskrit supporters started a different narrative, which showcased it as the oldest classical language among Indian languages; all other languages being mere vernacular languages. Thus, they claimed that not only did all the regional languages originate from Sanskrit, but also that they had no separate existence. This new narrative started finding inroads and yielding benefits to the Sanskrit lobby.
During this time, in 1858, the British government directly took over the governance of India through the Government of India Act adopted by the British Parliament. Although various measures were taken after that to change the rules and procedures pertaining to administration, the impact of the classical language narrative on the British government’s view of Sanskrit is evident from the following reports.
In 1901, an Indian Universities Commission was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Thomas Raleigh. A year later, the commission submitted its findings to the British government, suggesting several improvements to enhance the functioning and delivery of education across universities in the country.
Accepting these recommendations, the British government enacted a new ‘Indian Universities Act’ in 1904. The measures implemented by the Act were the basis of the curriculum and educational framework for the entire British India.
Hence, the recommendations of this study need to be carefully considered, as they make evident the special attention that Sanskrit received over other Indian languages during this period.
Ayurvedic medicine was practised only by upper castes. Considering the time when untouchability was common and it was forbidden for other communities to even enter the streets of upper castes, it can be understood that public medical service was something that could not have happened through Ayurveda alone
“If the alternative of a vernacular language is permitted, many students will lose the benefits to be derived from a knowledge of a classical language containing a rich literature and embodying a record of the thought and action of one or other of the great races of mankind. There is no Indian vernacular, according to the strongest advocate of the alternative study of vernacular languages, that is as rich in literature as Sanskrit. In the second place, the amount of mental training which the study of a classical language ensures is much greater than that required for the study of a vernacular language. Thirdly, the study of classical Languages is of the utmost importance for the improvement of their allied vernaculars.
Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian are the principal classical languages of India which are studied in the Universities; Avesta and Pali are also recognised.”
The Indian Medical Policy issued by the British Government in 1913 and the subsequent Sadler Commission reports continued along the same path.
From the very beginning, the British government’s objective to provide a nationwide medical infrastructure and service, especially in rural areas, was a great challenge. For a long time, medical education in the form of Ayurveda and Unani systems were provided by separate institutions. Apart from that, education in modern medicine was also imparted separately through Sanskrit.
As various Provincial governments and authorities followed diverse medical procedures, the British government aimed to bring the medical institutions and educational systems under the unified central civil service and to improve the medical facilities.
In relation to this stated aim, if we observe the contribution of doctors who studied Ayurvedic Medicine in the name of traditional indigenous medicine, and those of the ones who took up modern medicine through Sanskrit, an interesting fact comes to light.
Many government reports that analysed the medical developments in the latter part of the 19th century indicated that, despite the various educational development measures taken up to that time, the number of trained doctors (with MB and LMS degrees) was low compared to the size and population of the country. So, the British government was forced to follow unconventional methods to bring basic medical care to rural areas (noted as mofussil).
Accordingly, they took up the initiative of training indigenous medicine practitioners in the rural areas. While trying to do so, the decision was taken to avail the services of hereditary village doctors, or “Vaithiyans”. The report also pointed to a certain antagonism to modern medicine among the upper classes, especially the “Brahmins”. It also expresses concern about finding ways in which Brahmins can have more participation in modern medicine in the future.
Vaithiyans are a group of people who inherited medical practice without any formal training and hail from backward washermen (Ekali) and barber (Navidar) communities, whose service was accessible to everyone in the village. In contrast, Ayurvedic medicine was practised only by upper castes. Considering the time when untouchability was common and it was forbidden for other communities to even enter the streets of upper castes, it can be understood that public medical service was something that could not have happened through Ayurveda alone.
Reading the annual medical reports delivered at the beginning of the 20th century, it is evident that the upper castes began increasingly giving up traditional medicine and the tendency to seek modern medicine increased. Subsequently, the comparative share of Brahmins among graduates in modern medicine increased significantly over non-Brahmins. From this, it can be noticed that the upper castes which traditionally practised Ayurveda later switched to modern medicine.
Although the Justice Party’s basic aim was to devolve power to non-Brahmins, eventually its primary focus became breaking the dominance of Sanskrit and giving preference to other languages of the province, including Tamil
The Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 brought about a major shift in the thought of direct control on medicinal practice by the central government. Through the Government of India Act, 1919, which resulted from these reforms, the medical sector that had been hitherto under the direct control of the central government, came under the jurisdiction of the provincial governments.
The 1920 Madras Province elections saw the Justice Party emerging victorious. Although the Justice Party’s basic aim was to devolve power to non-Brahmins, eventually its primary focus became breaking the dominance of Sanskrit and giving preference to other languages of the province, including Tamil. Subsequently, the Thanithamizh movement (a movement to promote Pure Tamil free of Sanskrit and other language influences) also came to the fore. The Pure Tamil movement was initially started by Maraimalai Adikal and later promoted by Tamil elders like Devaneya Pavanar, Bharathidasan, Parithimal Kalignar, Perunchithiranar, Ki Aa Pe Vishwanatham and many others who took it forward. Both Brahmins, like U Ve Saminatha Iyer, and non-Brahmins, such as Namakkal Kavignar, jointly contributed immensely to it. However, the prominence the Pure Tamil movement got during the Justice party government had many political and social reasons.
Already, in the name of classical language, Sanskrit was dominating the entire curriculum agenda. Among the teachers, the Tamil teachers who were identified as vernacular language instructors were in a very poor condition, without any economic prospects compared to the Sanskrit teachers who were identified as classical language teachers. While those who teach other subjects were called teachers, those who teach Tamil were designated as Tamil Pandits. Their salary was very less compared to others, especially Sanskrit teachers. And there was no way for them to move up, like becoming headmistress/headmaster. But being in a weak position, both economically and in terms of social status, they could not raise their voice against this injustice.
When the Pure Tamil movement was launched, most of the participants were Tamil teachers. Most of the Tamil teachers, who were non-Brahmins, got an opportunity to gain attention under the Justice Party regime, which was keen to give priority to languages other than Sanskrit. This is the main reason why the Pure Tamil movement came to the fore.
Now that medicine and education had come under the control of the provincial government, and the pure Tamil movement had taken a lead, the Justice Party began to give priority to equitable social developmental programmes. As part of that, decentralisation of medical services came to its attention. An influential section among them was committed to modernising medical services. It also promoted initiatives such as reservation to ensure the role of non-Brahmins in medical education.
Already, in the name of classical language, Sanskrit was dominating the entire curriculum agenda. Among the teachers, the Tamil teachers who were identified as vernacular language instructors were in a very poor condition, without any economic prospects compared to the Sanskrit teachers who were identified as classical language teachers
As the preference for Sanskrit decreased in the Madras Province, Siddha medicine, which is based on Tamil texts, began gaining priority. The classical language narrative was now under question and the financial support for Ayurveda dwindled. Hence, its proponents were now forced to revive Ayurveda and its basis, Sanskrit, with a new strategy.
Meanwhile, the Congress and its movements started promoting traditional products and ideas with Swadeshi identity.
In May 1920, Gandhi’s statement was published in Telugu Swadeshi newspaper Andhra Patrika.
“The profession of medicine is one of the chief means used by the English to keep us as servants … The hospitals are institutions helping on sin; they lead to men neglecting the rules of health and continuing to indulge in immoral life. The state of the European doctors is very unjust. In the name of the protection of human bodies, they yearly kill some thousands of animals.”
Gandhi’s view on many of the contentious issues underwent a change over the years, opinions on modern medicine. With his statements often setting the tone for the Swadeshi movement, this opened a new door for Ayurveda and Sanskrit followers. Elsewhere, a new challenge began to rise against the Justice Party from within its ranks.
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