Posted by: Vikram | May 2, 2016

In North Indian schools, Sanskrit as a third language is about hegemony, not practicality

Language has been a contentious issue in the subcontinent since the establishment of European colonial rule. The question of which language should be used for administration and instruction in schools has led to intense political mobilization at various points of time.

As a step towards resolving linguistic conflicts in independent India, a three language formula for primary school instruction was adopted. Schools in Hindi-promoting states were to include ‘a modern Indian language, preferably from South India’ as a third language, in addition to English and Hindi. Non Hindi states were still compelled to teach Hindi, meaning that true linguistic equality remained elusive. Fast forward 50 years and North Indians have subverted this legislation, offering a prominent example of their adherence to a homogenized national identity centred around the Delhi region.

In the name of the three language formula, Sanskrit has been adopted by most Hindi belt schools as a third language. Sanskrit has far fewer speakers than Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Marathi and any other non-Hindi modern language. A claim is often made that Sanskrit is easier to get good marks in. But there is far more new media (movies, songs) and actual speakers of the Bengali, Tamil, and the other modern languages to learn the other languages from. Therefore these arguments seem suspect. So, why then has Sanskrit been chosen as the third language by so many schools in North India ?

There are two parts to the answer:

  • The widely propagated myth that Hindi is India’s ‘national language’, and therefore has to be spoken in some form by the non-Hindi language speakers.
  • The belief that North India is the centre of Hinduism, and therefore is also the home of Sanskrit, an important language of Hindu liturgy.


A circular typifying third language attitudes: German, French, Sanskrit, Spanish, Japanese, Russian and Chinese are all offered as options. But there is no space for a non Hindi/Sanskrit Indic language like Bengali or Tamil.


We now elaborate on these reasons. A natural question to ask is, wont the potential economic benefits of learning Marathi, Punjabi and Bengali lead to a positive outlook towards learning those languages ? After all, the North Indian elite are very keen to have their children learn languages like German and French. But here, the myth that ‘Hindi is our national language’ comes into play. So pervasive is this myth that even many non-Hindi speakers fall for it. In the minds of most North Indians, every Indian citizen must somehow speak Hindi, or they are deviant from the ‘mainstream’. This makes non-Hindi languages inferior and not worth learning, even if the opportunity presents itself.

We move onto the second reason. Many North Indians believe that Hinduism first developed there, and then ‘spread’ to other regions through Sanskrit epics. However, these epics themselves developed over a long period of time, with no clear point of origin. The importance of these texts in Hindu traditions, and indeed their very content, differs across regions. Also, Sanskrit as a language, was not native to any part of the subcontinent. But the desire to be ‘central’ in the modern Indian state, has led to a strong tendency among North Indians to appropriate Sanskrit. Due to such false and politically expedient beliefs regarding Sanskrit and North India, people, especially the elites there, have come to equate the two.

Thus, non-Hindi Indian languages are not worth learning, and Sanskrit, with a false association to North India takes their place as the third language. Thus, it is the belief in the centrality of North India and its traditions, and the resultant aversion to linguistic equality, that are the real reasons behind the widespread adoption of Sanskrit as a third language in schools there.


  1. and yet you preach nonsense Pan-Indian Nationalism when at its core its all about Hindi/North Indian Cultural&Political Imperailism over South&North East States because in Indian Democracy there is no safeguards against cultural&Political imperialism because Indian Constitution doesn’t recognise States as Ethno-Linguistic units but rather as abstract administrative units.

    Vikram, you write a LOT about Constitution but i fail to see why i should respect it or not go against its core principles when its so idealistic and out of touch with reality.

    • I dont disagree that the variant of Indian nationalism propagated since independence has privileged the culture of Hindi speakers in North India.

      However, this is more a problem of degree than kind. Even this privileging happens only in the context of a national identity deriving from the freedom movement (all three national holidays are centred around it) and not intrinsically promoting a particular language, ideology or religion.

      Hindi is only given the status of ‘raj-bhasha’ or official language, not ‘rashtra-bhasha’ or national language. The Official languages act removed even this privilege, and included English with the same status. There is no reason why this status cannot be extended to all the other Indian languages.

      Regarding Constitution, as long people are willing to protect with their lives and energy, and endorse it with their democratic participation, I see ample reason to respect it.

      • No, there is a clear promotion of a Hindi and the idea that “North India” is the real India and South&North East India is periphery. This becomes evident when you look at the CBSE history books which only focuses on North India. As far as the Central Govt and constituion is concerned, South India is merely an administrative unit of no historical, cultural or linguistic significance.

        “The Official languages act removed even this privilege, and included English with the same status”
        Which wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for those dang meddling Tamils! National Language or Not, Central Govt pours MILLIONS into promoting Hindi using non-hindi people’s money.

        “There is no reason why this status cannot be extended to all the other Indian languages”
        There is one good reason! Hindi Speakers make up over 40% of the population and are multiplying at a constant rate. it takes over two third majority in the Parliament to pass a law, NOTHING gets passed if Hindi people don’t like it. And Hindi people very much like the status quo.

        Here are the facts:-
        India is NOT a Federal Country, it is a democratically rigged in favour of Hindi Speakers&North Indians by sheer numbers. There is no safeguard in the constitution against this discrepancy so the cultural, economic, social&linguistic Imperialism will go unabated until it reaches a breaking point.

        “as long people are willing to protect with their lives and energy, and endorse it with their democratic participation, I see ample reason to respect it.”
        Germans did the same thing for the Hitler, doesn’t mean they were wrong… very very very Wrong.

      • John Toren, there is little point in continuing this discussion if you think the constitutional regime in India is equivalent to Nazi Germany.

        You might want to read up on Godwining:

      • I didn’t say Constitution in India was equal to Nazi Govt!(though i kinda wish it was, after all, Nazi Germany was way more competent than Indian Govt has EVER been).

        I gave you an example of all the “Good people of Germany willing to protect Nazi Germany with their lives and energy, and endorse it with their democratic participation” just like how you gave it for Constitution of India.

        Just cus they did, doesn’t meant they weren’t wrong! I don’t care how many people endorse the Constitution, in my eyes its still pure garbage, the central Govt needs to decentralise its powers to the State and make India a Federation.

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