The Full Story of the Dravidianist Slaughter of the Sanskrit Department at Presidency College, Madras

The Full Story of the Dravidianist Slaughter of the Sanskrit Department at Presidency College, Madras

Remember the infamous Shuddho-Ashuddho? That was the circular issued by the Education Department of the Jyoti Basu Government in 1989 about the proposed changes to the history syllabus in the state. The summary of Shuddho-Ashuddho: all mentions of Muslim atrocities against Hindus during the medieval period were Ashuddho (literally, impure) and had to be deleted; all mentions of the brave Hindu kings and warriors who fought them were similarly Ashuddho. This was how for example, Aurangzeb became St Aurangzeb. But the Communists in West Bengal were at least two decades late to the game. The Dravidianists had implemented the Shuddho-Ashuddho scheme of things as early as the 1950s itself in Tamil Nadu by making the Deva Bhasha, Sanskrit completely Ashuddho. The pristine “purity” of their version of Tamil, like the jealous Abrahamic Gods, wouldn’t tolerate an equal, and therefore demanded a wholesale slaughter of Sanskrit.

It is one thing to merely read historical or contemporary accounts of wars and other tragedies. However, it is entirely a different thing to actually live or experience those horrors. Which is why our wise ancients merely stopped at saying, Yuddhasya vaartaa ramyaa (The narrative or story of war is thrilling) and didn’t say that the direct experience of or participation in war was thrilling.

By the middle of the 1950s, the frenzied hollering of the Dravidianists whose venomous Tamil chauvinism had penetrated almost every corner of the Tamil society was about to reach the climax they desired: they were now within striking distance of capturing political power which alone would enable them to seize and bamboozle institutions with the Dravidian battering ram. To the twisted sensibilities of the supremely overrated Maniratnam, this bamboozling appeared as some sort of Divine Dravidian Deliverance of Tamil Nadu as depicted in his phony Iruvar.

The atmosphere of social harmony that existed among the B.A. and M.A. students at Presidency College, Madras till the late 1940s (as described by Dr. B.G.L. Swamy in the previous part of this series) was shattered by a series of venal steps directly aimed at destroying Sanskrit in the garb of making it more accessible to the masses.

This is how it happened.

It began with a self-righteous demand for justice rooted in manufactured victimhood. Overnight, someone noticed that a majority of students graduating with First Class marks belonged only to a “particular forward caste!” followed by the consequent demand, “a scheme should be devised whereby other castes should also be given First Class marks.” This topic was hotly debated in the University Senate and Rajya Sabha. The “warrior” Dravidian and “pure” Tamil tabloids witnessed record sales propagandizing this. As we’ve seen in the previous parts, the Dravidian sword-sharpeners won the day on this occasion as well.

A Timber Merchant, a Railway Employee and a Cop Become Sanskrit Examiners

A new precedent and convention was thus established: Sanskrit examiners had to be appointed solely on the basis of their caste. Accordingly, a five-member body of Sanskrit examiners was formed: three Brahmins, two non-Brahmins and one from a really backward caste. The first three were easy to find. For the second category, an employee of the Indian Railways was found. He had an M.A. in Sanskrit. But finding the other member proved a more uphill task. After months of hunting when no such candidate could be found, the University made an amendment: only a B.A. in Sanskrit would suffice. Finally, they netted a candidate who frankly confessed his inability: “Saar, forget Sanskrit, the last time I even touched a book was twenty-five years ago. I barely crawled through Sanskrit after flunking three times. I’ve forgotten how to write or read the Sanskrit alphabet. I’m doing well in my timber business. Please let me go.” But after much persuasion, he finally consented.

As for the last category—the solitary examiner from a really backward caste—no candidate could be found. More debates and discussions ensued. Finally, it was agreed that the real role of this candidate was to act as a policeman who would ensure that the other four members would not develop casteist feelings in their evaluations. And if they were suspected of such feelings, he would bring in the necessary corrective measures. Who better than a real policeman to do the policing? So the Government found a policeman from the Police Department and made him the examiner. No knowledge of Sanskrit was needed for this job.

The cop embraced his new job with the zeal of a new convert. Instead of the time-honoured practice of evaluating answer sheets, he proposed a revolutionary idea: examiners had to know the caste of students in advance and award marks according to the backwardness or otherwise of the students. The other four members were horrified and vetoed his academic revolution. The same fate befell his other revolutionary ideas, the details of which are beyond the scope of this essay.

Finally, after dogged lobbying with Dravidianist politicians, he managed to exert political pressure on the Presidency College Principal to somehow admit a bunch of unwilling backward caste students to Sanskrit M.A. These students had never learnt Sanskrit since the day they were born. The Sanskrit Pandit of the Department was a traditional Vaidika, deeply learned in Tarka (Logic) and Vyakarana (Grammar). He asked the cop, “are your students familiar with the Devanagari alphabet?” The cop was dumbfounded. He hadn’t even heard of something called Devanagari. But he had heard of the Nagaari (trumpet) typically played in temples on occasions of festivals and processions. So he said, “of course, they play the Nagaari with great skill!” The Sanskrit Pandit rued his fate but was forced to accept these students. Now the cop put forth another demand: the students had to be given special coaching. The Pandit agreed again. But he put a very elementary test to them: pronunciation of the language. As it turned out, the students spectacularly failed. But the cop had his own brand of reasoning about phonetics: “What do you mean pronunciation? Any word can be pronounced in any manner in any language. Everybody knows this simple fact!” The poor Pandit resigned to his fate.

The results were immediate and fatal. Within the space of a few classes, the non-Sanskrit Sanskrit students knew that they couldn’t grasp anything at all. But they were well-versed in human nature which responds to incentives. Confident that they had the backing of the powerful cop, they used the caste card and complained against the Pandit: this Vadyar (teacher) is deliberately not teaching us properly. We need a different Vadyar. But the Principal put his foot down.

The Great Dravidian Leap Forward Bulldozes Sanskrit

However, the issue now took a life of its own. It reached its logical home: that of the Dravidianist politicians and ideologues. Uproarious debates erupted in the Legislative Assembly, University Senate, “pure” Tamil organizations, and “Veera” Tamizh Associations. As before, Dravidian tabloids had a field day denouncing the Aryan invaders from the north, Brahmins, and Sanskrit supremacists. The following decision was reached: the Sanskrit Department has been upgraded. The reasoning offered: “Why should only one community teach Sanskrit? Is there a rule that other communities are prohibited from teaching Sanskrit?” The upgrade involved creating reservations for the following posts: the Sanskrit Department would now have a “Chief” Lecturer, three assistant lecturers and two Pandits. Qualifications were also amended: it was no longer necessary to have a Sanskrit degree (graduate or postgraduate); even novices in and hobbyists of Sanskrit could apply. It was a huge milestone in the Dravidianist version of The Great Leap Forward. Of ensuring social justice by shattering bourgeoise rules of intentionally making it difficult to learn language. Sanskrit was now within the reach of everyone. By doing this, the Dravidianists claimed that they were actually making Sanskrit more accessible to a greater number of people. See where “Poromboke” T.M. Krishna gets his inspiration from, when he “takes” the oppressive “Brahminical” classical music to the slums and the gutters?

And so the posts were filled with eminences adorned with the following qualifications:

  1. A singer of dirges in Sanskrit and Tamil became the Chief Lecturer.
  2. A “pure” Tamil loyalist who had been working as a Hindi Munshi in some school but had lost his job after the Tamil warriors inflicted a crushing blow on Hindi in the state. This Sanskrit lecturership was how the Dravidianist Government rehabilitated this ex-martyr of Sen Tamizh.
  3. A former P.A. of a former Dravidianist MP. This MP knew no other language than Tamil. And so, this P.A. rendered him loyal service each time he went to Delhi by acting as his translator in that wretched citadel of Aryan Invaders. The P.A. lost his job the moment the MP lost his deposit in a recent election. But like his benefactor, he was also a committed Tamil warrior who had passed a Tamil language exam. The Government gave him the Sanskrit lecturer job.
  4. The fourth eminence was a self-taught Sanskritist who had learned the Deva Bhasha largely using psychic powers. In his previous avatar, he had led an anti-Brahmin agitation. The Government gratefully rewarded him now.

The appointments were filled to the utmost satisfaction of the Dravidianist Government. The Sanskrit Department had been suitably upgraded.

It was now time to sharpen the sabre to inflict implement the Second Step of the Great Dravidianist Leap Forward.

Revising the Sanskrit syllabus. Shuddho-Ashuddho.

Recall our friendly cop who had rendered such yeoman service to Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu? He was now back in action with greater gusto. As a highly valued member of the syllabus revision committee. After detailed and elaborate deliberations spread over months and involving highly animated and sublime discussions, an unanimous consensus was reached: the existing syllabus was heavy. It had to be made lighter and  student-friendly. Else, no one would come forward to learn Sanskrit. Here are some highlights of the syllabus revision.

  1. Rasagangadhara of Jagannatha Panditaraja: Delete
  2. Kavyaprakasha of Mammata: Delete
  3. The second half of Kadambari by Banabhatta: “Retain half of the second half,” recommended the friendly cop.
  4. The origins of Rasa: Delete
  5. The Panchama-Anka (Fifth Act)of Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntala. The friendly cop exploded with fury when he heard this. He thundered, “Beware! I’ll throw…I mean, the Government will throw into prison anybody who even utters the word, Panchama (another word for “Dalit”)!  The member who proposed this clarified patiently, “Panchama-Anka means the Fifth Act.” Friendly cop: “That’s exactly what even I’m saying! The Act, the law regarding the Panchamas! It’s not necessary. We’ll replace it with the First Act. Our young students will be thrilled to read the romantic episodes between Dushyanta and Shakuntala.” Agreed.
  6. Vedas: Retained after much debate.

However, not one member of this new teaching faculty had learnt the Vedas in the traditional fashion. And so they appointed an intellectual lobbyist friendly to the Dravidianist ideology, who also had a smattering of Sanskrit to the position of a Vedic Pandit. He had to teach Vedic recitation to these teachers. After six months of teaching, he realized his own limitations and in a rare flash of honesty blessed his student-teacher: “I have knowledge of Vedic recitation enough for reciting it myself. I haven’t learnt how to teach it. I bless you to become my Ekalavya and practice on your own, what you’ve learnt so far.” The dutiful disciple followed the path but with a slight modification. He was an accomplished singer of Thevarams (a traditional method of singing devotional hymns to Shiva). He began chanting the Vedic hymns in the Janjuti Ragam set to the Rupaka Talam.

The Sanskrit Department upgrade had predictable consequences. Within two years, the Sanskrit Department had more teachers than students who leapt out to safety far away from this Great Dravidianist Leap Forward. The most stinging indictment came from a student who had come equipped with formidable pre-qualifications. Since childhood, he had traditionally learnt Vyakarana (Grammar), Kavya (Poetry), Nataka (Drama), etc. After attending a few classes at this department, he sought their blessings before bidding them farewell: “My Most Revered Gurus, I have an earnest appeal. Please listen to it with benevolence. If I continue to study here any longer, I will forget what little Sanskrit I have learned so far. I will join another college and continue my Sanskrit studies there. You must kindly bless me.”

The flood of Sanskrit enthusiasts that the Great Dravidian Leap Forward had originally anticipated was now reduced to a solitary drop. And then dried up completely. The Government asked the Sanskrit Department to justify the existence of so many teachers sans any students. Those who saw the writing on the wall quickly activated their old lobbies and jumped to greener pastures. A couple of years later, the University issued a general order to upgrade the syllabi of all subjects including Sanskrit.

Except that there were no longer any takers for Sanskrit at Presidency College, Madras.


The aforementioned account at the Presidency College, Madras is an adaptation from Dr. B.G.L. Swamy’s book, Collegeu Ranga.

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