By Balaji Viswanathan
The Tamil aggression against Sanskrit is fairly new [about 5 decades old], fairly limited [most common people don’t care] and was a collateral damage out of 2 main pillars of the Dravidian movement – anti-Brahminism and anti-Hindi.
Historically, Tamil and Sanskrit played well with each other. Tamil city of Kanchi was a key national center for Sanskrit too. Most major Tamil kings kept Sanskrit names. Adaptations of Sanskrit epics such as Ramayana were highly popular. Tamil kings like the Pallavas were multilingual [proficient in Sanskrit & Prakrit as well as Tamil]. Cholas and other emperors issued their coins in both the languages. It would have been preposterous to them to see Tamil as some antithetical language of Sanskrit. Let me show you some ancient Tamil coins to show the status Sanskrit had. Later we were ruled by Vijayanagar, Marathas etc. Again, both languages played well. This continued to the 20th century.
The Stage 1 Dravidian movement
At the start of the 20th century, when the casteism was its peak, there were anti-Brahminism movements in a number of places. Tamil Nadu had its strongest. It is said that the founder of the Dravidian Kazhagam, EVR Periyar was abused during his trip to Varanasi as most mutts refused to take him, owing to him being a non-Brahmin.
That movement got some steam and given that the varna system was not well established in TN, it was pretty much binary – Brahmin vs. Non-Brahmin. Thus, they probably strategized to go after Sanskrit – the language that Brahmins used as much as other languages, and that was an easier way to win Brahminism & hence the caste system [it’s another matter that most people who participated in the movement never had any intention of giving up their castes and continue to retain it to this day].
The modus operandi was thus simple – paint both Sanskrit and Brahmins as outsiders [notwithstanding the contributions of both to the Tamil language] and use the linguistic nationalism to replace what they thought of the corrupting effect of Hinduism. This had some effect in the society, but not too much in the politics. The Dravidian movement continued to get little votes.
The anti-Hindi movement
They longed for an opening into politics and 1965 provided them that. In that year, English was to cease its usage as an official language. The Constitution made Hindi as Indian Union’s official language, giving a temporary status to English. That was to end on Jan 26, 1965.
The prospect of losing precious government jobs [when central government exams were to be in just Hindi] galvanized the students – who were hitherto not too much involved in the Dravidian movement. The prospect of government jobs probably hit hard more than any notions before and anti-Hindi was the rage [there were previous anti-Hindi riots too in the decades before, but with a lot less success as it didn’t have the job factor].
On the back of fighting Hindi, the Dravidian movement quickly rode to power. They were also helped by the attitude of the Congress party under Kamaraj that overestimated their own influence [a popular phrase in Tamil refers to Kamaraj’s statement that he could win even when lying down].
Now, that they were in power, they got a chance to implement their long-desired policies. Every revolution needs a villain & a base to hold on. In the case of this, they used the Tamil language as their base with the villains being [Hindi/Sanskrit/Brahminis
In summary, the anti-Sanskrit attitude of some Tamils is primarily a result of the Dravidian movement and had little historic precedence. Again, their main grouse is not Sanskrit – it just that it became a collateral damage in the fight against Hindi and Brahminism.
(Author is the VP of Products at Invento, Chennai)