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The classical status of Tamil

By S.S. Vasan

"Let me state unequivocally that, by any criteria one may choose, Tamil is one of the great classical literatures and traditions of the world." This quotation was not taken from any recent literary or political statement made in India but from the official "Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language" issued by the University of California, Berkeley (April 11, 2000). Why has it taken so much time in India to recognise the status of Tamil as a classical language? The reason is political, according to Prof. George L. Hart, who authored the Statement.

And indeed it has taken all the arm-twisting charm of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to correct this historical prejudice, a prejudice that has deep roots in our history and psyche.

As early as 1835, Lord Macaulay was claiming in his "Minute on Education" that "... it may safely be said that the literature now extant in [English] is of far greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together."

The growth of `vernacular languages' of India, including Tamil, was set back so seriously that the eminent Tamil poet Subramania Bharati sounded this warning in the early twentieth century:

"Alas slowly will Tamil perish

As languages of the West flourish"

After Independence, things got no better for Tamil as even scholars like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru tried to impose Hindi as the sole official national language of India. This was a rather misleading aim that backfired as badly as Pakistan's attempts to impose Urdu on Bangladesh during 1952-1971. As Sir V.S. Naipaul cautions: "Cultural purity is a fundamentalist fantasy." The `one language policy' might have worked for China, but as a democracy India has little choice but to celebrate its diversity.

The Congress party has now come a full circle to deliver poetic justice — from its 1960s obsession to impose Hindi in Tamil Nadu — to recognising the long overdue status of Tamil as a classical language in 2004. The declaration of Tamil as a classical language by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Tamil scholar himself, is not just symbolic but a victory for Indian democracy as well.

What now?

That Tamil has at long last gained recognition in India is wonderful, but not enough. The next step is to get other nations to recognise the classical status of Tamil and also have it recognised by world bodies like the UNESCO. Would it not be wonderful if the Tamil-speaking United Progressive Alliance Government Ministers joined hands with the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Ministers in Tamil Nadu to use their combined political clout to bring this about? Governments in Singapore, Sri Lanka and Malaysia could be persuaded to take the cue from India. Tamil is already an official language in Singapore, whose President S.R. Nathan is a Tamil.

If three or more nations declare that Tamil is a classical language, world bodies like UNESCO could be persuaded to recognise the classical status of Tamil — like Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Persian and Sanskrit. If this sounds like a pipe dream, it is worth remembering that Tamil is comparable to French, which is one of the official languages of the United Nations. For instance, French is spoken by 98 million people around the world, with the bulk of the speakers in France. Tamil is spoken by 66 million people, and while a bulk of them live in South India, there is a considerable population of Tamil speakers in Canada, Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Recognition by UNESCO would bring in the much-needed international funds to support the ongoing work to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of Tamil.

(The writer is a Rhodes Scholar, Trinity College, Oxford, U.K.)

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