Constitutional Significance of a Classical Language

It strikes me that opinion columns in Indian newspapers have greatly improved in their style, analysis, and content. Previously, opinion writing was dominated by retired bureaucrats who bloviated about their experiences in government and littered their writing with convenient anecdotes. Thankfully, that trend is on the decline. I’m especially pleased that law and legal developments are being covered with greater frequency, and at the risk of shameless self-promotion for this blog, I urge you to pay close attention to Venkatesan’s occasional digests with links to op-eds by lawyers and legal commentators.

I thought I’d highlight this column by M.A. Baby, Kerala’s Minister for Education and Culture, on the demand for Malayalam to be declared a classical language. I found it especially interesting, readable, and made a good case for the point at issue. Actually, I was surprised that Malayalam is not yet a classical language. I would have thought that the country’s first fully literate state would have sought that status for its state language a long time ago. But this issue also raises the question of whether a classical language is entitled to any constitutional or legal benefits. From a constitutional perspective, there are two official languages, English and Hindi. There are 20 (?) other languages listed in the Eighth Schedule. But the Constitution is vague about their precise legal standing — they are protected against interference on account of Hindi development under Article 351 and representatives of these languages are to constitute the Official Languages Commission (whose mandate does not seem to focus on these languages explicitly). Would our readers have more insights on this issue?

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  • Interesting. I read this piece by Mr. Baby this morning and thought it didn’t make a particularly good case for Malayalam as a classical language.

    Let me put it this way. He starts off with reasonable premises in terms of what is a classical language and why and so on. He identifies the traditional classical languages correctly, and indeed makes a correct (in my opinion) argument in favour of Tamil’s inclusion.

    The last section (“Need for equal treatment”) is also fair and reasonable, but the entire middle of the article is just a lot of hand waving about Malayalam which is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand (trade relations, Koodiyattam, tolerance, translations of Sanskrit, Sankaracharya, Jnanpith award etc.) None of these points, by the author’s own criteria, qualify Malayalam for classical status.

    The only reasonable argument he makes is that it should be conferred the status simply because Telugu and Kannada are recognized as “classical” languages, when they are clearly not (again, in my opinion).

    I agree with Baby to the extent that if Telugu and Kannada qualify, Malayalam should qualify. I agree with the criteria he lists initially for classifying something as a classical language. But the rest of his “argument” is on very shaky ground.

    Full disclosure: My mother tongue is Malayalam, I grew up in Andhra Pradesh, and went to college in Tamil Nadu 🙂

  • Agree with the linked piece that a distinction shouldn’t be made at all. However, I don’t see why the current literacy level in the state should have any bearing upon whether the language of the state becomes a classical language or not. I mention this because the both M A Baby and Vikram Raghavan seem to say that a high literacy level in Kerala qualifies Malayalam for a classical language status.

  • This debate about classical languages by politicians who do nt really understand the significance is amusing. I would like to draw your attention to this article in the Hindu by Sheldon Pollock really gives insight to the classical language debate
    Mr Sheldon Pollock is Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Columbia University, New York, Editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library, and author of, among other books, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men