In a country of over a billion people, there are about 14,000 people who claim Sanskrit is their mother tongue, an analysis of Census numbers reveals.
With the Union government gearing up to celebrate Sanskrit Week, a district-wise profile of the ‘Dev Basha’ based on Census 2001 numbers (Census 2011 language figures are yet be released) reveal pockets in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, northern Telangana, southern Rajasthan, Nagpur and Haridwar where a sizeable number of respondents claimed Sanskrit to be their mother tongue.
Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of speakers, with over 550 people.
‘Sanskrit has influence without presence’
There are almost no Sanskrit speakers in the country’s north-east, the eastern States beyond Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat, according to the Census 2001.
Tamil Nadu is unique because according to the 1921 Census, the Madras province had the highest number of Sanskrit speakers in the country — 315 of a total of 356.
Sanskrit is also the only scheduled language that shows wide fluctuations — rising from 6,106 speakers in 1981 to 49,736 in 1991 and then falling dramatically to 14,135 speakers in 2001.
“This fluctuation is not necessarily an error of the Census method. People often switch language loyalties depending on the immediate political climate,” says Prof. Ganesh Devy of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India.
Census figures reflect the political aspirations or the atmosphere in the country at a given time, he says, highlighting the case of ‘Bhil’, a language spoken by several tribal groups in western India. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of speakers nearly doubled — an expression of the aspiration of these people to carve out a new State for them similar to the creation of Jharkhand in the late 1990s, Devy says.
The number of Bengali speakers, the second highest spoken language after Hindi, is also much higher than the entire population of West Bengal in nearly every Census over the last 30 years, he says. “At least some of this is due to the migratory population from Bangladesh whose original mother tongue is Urdu, but they claim it is Bengali to enhance their chances of citizenship,” he adds.
The Census is thus rather subjective, but it is a very good tool for measuring the political mood of the language communities.
Because some people “fictitiously” indicate Sanskrit as their mother tongue owing to its high prestige and Constitutional mandate, the Census captures the persisting memory of an ancient language that is no longer anyone’s real mother tongue, says B. Mallikarjun of the Center for Classical Language. Hence, the numbers fluctuate in each Census.
“Sanskrit has influence without presence,” says Devy. “We all feel in some corner of the country, Sanskrit is spoken.” But even in Karnataka’s Mattur, which is often referred to as India’s Sanskrit village, hardly a handful indicated Sanskrit as their mother tongue.
Ultimately, Sanskrit may be nowhere and everywhere, say Devy. “It has been with us as an idea. There is an emotional link with the language. Another language can replace it only if our myths and rituals move out of Sanskrit.”