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Kannada vs Sanskrit war in Karnataka as pro-Kannada bodies reject Sanskrit words, university

Sanskrit bodies’ opposition to Kannada in degree courses lit the fire. Govt funding for a Sanskrit university compared to poor state of Kannada University in Hampi fanned it.

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Bengaluru: A language war is brewing in Karnataka, taking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government by storm. At the crux of the furore is a Sanskrit university and a movement to de-Sanskritise Kannada vocabulary. 

For two weeks now, campaigns to reject Sanskrit have taken over the Kannada debate space, even compelling politicians to take sides. The language row is the latest in a series of strong regional identity and pride campaigns that Karnataka has been witnessing. 

The anger stems from petitions filed last year by the Samskrita Bharati Karnataka Trust and three other organisations promoting Sanskrit research and study in the Karnataka High Court, challenging the state government’s decision to make Kannada language compulsory in degree courses under the National Education Policy. 

The high court in December stayed the government’s plan to start mandatory Kannada language courses in higher education. 

Then, pro-Kannada organisations led by Karnataka Rakshana Vedike launched a Twitter campaign Sunday to protest against the state government’s funding to set up a Sanskrit university when the lone Kannada University in Hampi is struggling for funds. 

“The government has approved 100 acres of land and Rs 359 crore for setting up a campus for Sanskrit university, but doesn’t have Rs 2 crore to give to Kannada university in Hampi. Who is the government giving land and money to? To those who are opposing Kannada language in undergraduate courses. They will reject our language but we are supposed to give them our money, our land and our resources?” said T.A. Narayanagowda, president, Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, speaking to ThePrint Tuesday. 

The controversy spread to Twitter, with people voicing strong nativist sentiments under the hashtag #SayNoToSanskrit.

Also read: Mysore Pak evokes bitter Twitter war after author’s misleading post

BJP condemns anti-Sanskrit mood

Even as the hashtag #SayNoToSanskrit trended, with thousands of pro-Kannada Twitter handles opposing the Sanskrit university, many handles, including those of BJP leaders, condemned the campaign, making it a direct ‘Kannada organisations versus BJP/RSS’ debate. 

“Sanskrit is part of our everyday life, with its influence in culture, rituals, practices, even language. This is a non-issue. There is no need to whip up hatred against Sanskrit,” Pratap Simha, BJP MP from Mysuru-Kodagu, said Monday, adding that pro-Kannada organisations were raking up the issue to criticise the BJP and Narendra Modi. 

Simha came under severe fire for mocking native Kannada names during his statement. Many BJP leaders, including Karnataka cabinet minister C.N. Ashwath Narayan, defended the government’s move to fund the Sanskrit university, deeming the language the representative of Indian culture. 

However, Congress MLA Priyank Kharge said Monday: “Most of them in BJP are unaware that Dravidian languages or the classical languages don’t originate from Sanskrit. It used to be the Devabhasha, language of gods, not of the common folk.” 

Govt approved land, blueprint for university

On 3 January, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai inaugurated multiple developmental works in Ramanagara district. The official launch to the setting up of a campus for the Karnataka Sanskrit University was one of them. The new campus — in association with the Karnataka State Open University — will come up on 100 acres of land sanctioned by the government at Magadi taluk in Ramanagara district, about 58 km from Bengaluru. Magadi is about 28 km away from Sugganahalli — the famous hilly terrain in Ramanagara where the blockbuster Hindi film Sholay was shot.

The Karnataka Sanskrit University was established in 2010, during the tenure of the previous BJP government. The university, however, does not have a permanent campus of its own and currently functions out of a building in Sri Chamarajendra Samskrita College in Chamarajapet, Bengaluru. 

The current Basavaraj Bommai-led government has approved land and a blueprint for construction of the university in Ramanagara at an estimated cost of Rs 359 crore. 

“It is the responsibility of the government to provide financial aid to educational institutions. Only a blueprint of works and estimated costs have been approved but the government hasn’t transferred any money yet to the Sanskrit University. Sanskrit is the mother of all languages and I don’t understand the opposition to the revival of the language which even foreign universities are offering courses in,” Satyanarayana Bhat, secretary, Samskrita Bharati Trust, told ThePrint. 

He added that there was a lot of interest among people to study Sanskrit. “There are 45,000 students studying the Vedas and Sanskrit scriptures in Karnataka. Over one lakh students study it as a language from Class 5 to 12,” Bhat said. 

There is no denying the state’s deep connect with Sanskrit. Karnataka is home to Sudharma — a daily newspaper in Sanskrit printed in Mysuru and the first worldwide to have a Sanskrit e-paper. Mattur in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district is a rare village where Sanskrit is used for daily communication, along with the Sankethi language. 

Kannada university languishing

The argument that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages is vehemently rejected by pro-Kannada activists and researchers. 

“We are fighting Samskrita Bharathi and other petitioners in court for opposing Kannada and are also giving Karnataka’s taxpayers money to set up a Sanskrit university. Let government give money to Kannada university first,” T.S. Nagabharana, president, Kannada Development Authority and national award-winning film director, told ThePrint. 

Indeed, the lone Kannada University in Hampi has been struggling for resources over the last few years. So much so that the university has stopped accepting new research fellows owing to a shortage of funds. 

“We get around Rs 50 lakh annually from the government, but that is barely enough for maintenance of the university and salaries. We face a huge shortage of salaries for guest lecturers and stipend/scholarships for students, especially SC/ST students. We have requested the government for Rs 25 crore in urgent aid, but haven’t received it,” Dr A. Subbanna Rai, registrar, Kannada University, Hampi, told ThePrint.

Campaign for Kannada words

A precursor to the campaign against the Sanskrit university was a campaign to sanitise Kannada vocabulary and replace Sankritised words with simple Kannada words. Ellara Kannada (everyone’s Kannada), a campaign by Kannada activists, sought to simplify the language by eliminating aspirated consonants, or ‘Mahapranas’, and replace complicated Sankritised words — especially in science and mathematics — with simpler native Kannada words. 

For example, the word ‘accuracy’ is translated as ‘nishkrushtate’, a Sanskrit-derived word, in Kannada medium science textbooks. Proponents of Ellara Kannada say the term ‘sarime’ would be a simpler, more accurate translation of the term. The Ellara Kannada campaign, too, was met with opposition, with many questioning the intent of de-Sanskritising Kannada and it’s practicality. 

Renowned Kannada writer and former chairman of Karnataka Nataka Academy, K. Marulasiddappa, questioned whether Sanskrit mandated such attention from the Karnataka government. 

“There are 18 Sanskrit universities across the country, with hundreds of crores being spent on them by the Union government and state governments. There is only one Kannada-speaking state and only one Kannada university in the country. There is no need for Karnataka government to pay it (Sanskrit) more attention than it deserves,” Marulasiddappa told ThePrint.

He added that while the Sanskrit language was a treasure trove of literature and needed to be preserved and respected just like any other language, the government’s priority must remain Kannada.

In February 2020, the Union HRD ministry had told Parliament that it spent Rs 643.84 crore on the promotion of Sanskrit in the last three years. The figure was 22 times more than the funds (Rs 29 crore) spent on the five other classical Indian languages — Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Odia. 

“The Ellara Kannada movement is flawed,” Marulasiddappa opined about the other belligerent in the language war. “Every language has a spoken style and a written style, which cannot be merged in totality. While one mustn’t be mocked for one’s dialect and pronunciation, merging the spoken and written languages will destroy Kannada literature,” he added.

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

Also read: It is impossible to understand Karnataka’s complex politics without reading this breakdown


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