In a recent speech, the Chief Justice of India mentioned that Ambedkar wanted Sanskrit as the official language of India. In this piece, we explore if this was indeed true and also track the debates around Sanskrit in the Constituent Assembly as a potential national/official language.
The question of national/official language emerged for the first time before the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee in 1947. Clause 9 of the Sub-Committee Report issued on April 16, 1947, recommended that Hindustani in Devanagari and Persian script would be the national language and official language of the Union. English was recommended as a second official language for a transitionary period.
Ambedkar in his Minute of Dissent to the report agreed with the proposal to have Hindustani as the official language of the Union, however, he mentioned two caveats. First, he wanted Hindustani to be the language of the State - both the Union as well as the provinces. He believed that if each province was empowered to choose an official language, the object of having a national language would be defeated and linguistic plurality would hamper effective administration.
Second, Ambedkar cautioned against the possibility of the Hindustani becoming ‘sanskritized by Hindu writers and arabicized by Muslim writers.’ He felt that if either were to happen, Hindustani would lose the status of a national language and would adopt the status of a ‘sectional language’. To prevent this, he recommended the establishment of a Hindustani National Academy like the French National Academy.
Two years later, Ambedkar seemed to have changed his position on the language issue. On September 11, 1949, newspapers reported that Ambedkar had sponsored a proposal to make Sanskrit the official language of the Union with English as a transitional arrangement. This proposal was supported by Naziruddin Ahmed and B.V. Keskar. The other signatories to the amendment included Lakshmi Kanta Maitra, T.T. Krishnamachari, V.I. Muniswamy Pillai, G. Durgabai, P. Subbarayan and Dakshayani Velayudhan.
How and why Ambedkar’s views on Sanskrit changed remains a mystery.
A day later, on 12 September 1949, the language issue was discussed in the Assembly. Naziruddin Ahmed suggested that Sanskrit should be the All-India language. Ahmed believed that Sanskrit would be equally difficult for all provinces to grasp and therefore would not give any particular province an unfair advantage (as Hindi would).
Lakshmi Kant Maitra submitted an amendment to make Sanskrit the official language of the Union. He advocated for Sanskrit because it was considered to be the oldest and had the most respectable ‘pedigree of all languages of the world’. He also said it was widely spoken across India, including the southern States and that most provincial languages had their roots in Sanskrit.
T. A. Ramalingam Chettiar rebuked the claim that other regional languages were derived from Sanskrit - he vehemently opposed the proposition that Tamil was derived from Sanskrit. Advocates of Hindi acknowledged that Sanskrit was an important language but still felt Hindi would be a more practical choice.
Finally, the Assembly adopted the ‘Munshi-Ayyangar formula’: Hindi would be the official language of the Union and English may be used during transition.
It is important to note that while Ambedkar supported the amendment to make Sanskrit the official language, he did not press the issue in the Constituent Assembly, nor did he participate in the debate. Except for a lukewarm ‘What is wrong with Sanskrit?’, we do not find any strongly expressed argument or rationale used by Ambedkar to support Sanskrit as a national or official language.