India controversy over status of one its languages

A group of literary figures and politicians from Kerala believe Malayalam, which is spoken by tens of millions, deserves classical status and the benefits such a designation entails. But not everyone is convinced.

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NEW DELHI // India's ministry of culture is reviewing a petition to accord Malayalam, a language spoken by 34.7 million people, the status of a classical language.

The label is partly a matter of prestige, but it would also make Malayalam, which is spoken predominately in the state of Kerala, eligible for increased government funding to preserve and study the language.

A group of literary figures and politicians from there has been campaigning to secure Malayalam's classical status for more than two years. A recent report by a government-appointed committee has proved to be a setback, but Oommen Chandy, Kerala's chief minister, said last month that he would "make all efforts to see the language gets the status".

The culture ministry has not announced a time frame to make its decision.

The official criteria for a language to be labelled "classical", according to the ministry, include an antiquity of texts and recorded history dating back 1,500-2,000 years, and a literary tradition that is both ancient and original.

Apart from Sanskrit, the other three primary south Indian languages - Tamil, Telugu and Kannada - have all been deemed classical. Tamil was accorded the status in 2004, while Telugu and Kannada received it in 2008.

In a report this past summer, however, a committee from the Sahitya Akademi, the government's academy of letters, maintained that Malayalam did not pass the test of antiquity.

"It is doubtful if [Malayalam's] antiquity can be pushed back to the early centuries of the CE [Common Era]," the committee reported, explaining why Malayalam did not satisfy the age criterion of 1,500-2,000 years.

"Malayalam developed out of the west coast dialect of Old Tamil. It was during the eighth or ninth century that the west coast dialect started evolving as a separate language."

Tamil was the older language, which gave birth much later to Malayalam, the report said: "The relation between Tamil and Malayalam is like that of a parent and an offshoot."

But ONV Kurup, a Malayalam poet who in 2007 won the Jnanpith, India's highest literary award, said that Malayalam was just as old as Telugu or Kannada, and that it only shared a common protolanguage with Tamil. "Unfortunately, in that expert committee, there were no Malayalis at all, even though we suggested so many people," Mr Kurup said. "They deliberately selected people who already thought Malayalam is an inferior language."

Two years ago, a delegation of scholars headed by Mr Kurup presented the prime minister with a four-volume dossier to press the claims for Malayalam's antiquity. Mr Kurup wrote the foreword to this work.

One of the scholars, Pudussery Ramachandran, told the Press Trust of India in June that the dossier "had all scientific details proving the antiquity of Malayalam".

Mr Kurup recounted an example from literature that, he said, was a strong argument for the early development of Malayalam.

"In Silappatikaram, the fourth-century Tamil epic that was written in Cranganore in Kerala, there is a canto that contains so much Malayalam vocabulary, which is very similar to the language spoken by Malayalis today," he said.

"It's a matter of shame that, of the four Dravidian languages in south India, one language alone is marginalised in this way," Mr Kurup said.

But VRP Nayar, a prominent scholar of linguistics in Kerala, argued that languages "should be considered classical not because of government fiat, but because of the will of the people, exactly as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit were".

The practice of dubbing Indian languages classical, Mr Nayar said on Sunday, began because national political parties wished to please Tamil-language chauvinists who ran powerful state-level parties. But it quickly put the government in a miserable position, he said.

Mr Nayar insisted that "the earliest Malayalam text that we teach is from the 12th century, and before that there are a couple of inscriptions from the 9th century. Even that canto in the Silappatikaram, considered one of the five great epics in the Tamil language, has been brought up recently, when this whole question of the classical status came up. It has never been a part of historical studies of Malayalam".

A grant of a classical status to Malayalam could put the government on top of a slippery slope, he added.

"To my knowledge, most Indian languages bloomed and developed between the 10th and 12th centuries," he said. "So if Malayalam is called classical, then speakers of Marathi and Bengali and Punjabi and Gujarati will also ask for the status. So the government will be driven into the miserable situation of calling all Indian languages classical."

"Don't get me wrong. I'll be only too happy if, despite all this, Malayalam is given this status and millions of rupees are awarded to research the language," Mr Nayar said with a laugh. "But the way in which these things are being done is unscientific, and the protection of our languages shouldn't be connected with this 'classical' tag in any way."

The classical tag would make little difference to daily life, N Chandra, a businessman in Cochin, said.

"Malayalam is already alive and vibrant. It isn't like the language will die if it doesn't receive funds from the government," he said.