Why a Muslim girl scoring 100 in Sanskrit in CBSE Class 10 is no news

It's sad that the religious identity of the 15-year-old girl overshadowed her academic performance.

 |  7-minute read |   30-05-2018
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A 15-year-old girl scoring 100 out of 100 in Sanskrit in the CBSE Class 10 board exams wouldn't have been big news for many, but for her name — Anam Ali, a student of Cambrian Public School, Kanke, Jharkhand.

So, when The Telegraph packaged the story with an equally eye-grabbing headline — "Guess who hit a ton in Sanskrit" — it succeeded in stirring intrigue. As the news spread, people on social media also appreciated the story. But what exactly were we celebrating — that Sanskrit is not dead  — or that a Muslim student, in her own way, is keeping Sanskrit alive?

To keep things balanced, the news report also mentioned that Anam, "an ace in Sanskrit knows to read and write Urdu well".

This is, of course, not the first time that a Muslim student topped any Sanskrit exam. There have been a number of instances when this has happened, and happened in the recent past. The internet is replete with news stories about "Muslim girls in Jharkhand learning Sanskrit", "Muslim girl tops BA Sanskrit exam in Kerala", "Muslim girls shattering Sanskrit stereotypes", "A Muslim scholar with a passion for Sanskrit".

So, why does it fill our hearts with a certain extra warmth every time a Muslim name is attached to Sanskrit — an ancient language culturally associated with the Hindus, the language of Vedic India?

Because, in their well-meaning ways, certain sections of the media as well as common people believe it's important to highlight India's "unity in diversity". The fact that there is still some hope for that unity to survive amid attempts to drive out all those whose presence makes India diverse. 

In new India, it has become increasingly important to highlight what was once obvious — people, their achievements, their contributions. A Sikh cop saving a Muslim man from a Hindu lynch mob; Muslim girl scoring a ton in SanskritA Muslim man breaking Ramzan fast to donate blood to Hindu boy. But since secularism is now a "sickening" concept to many, (hence, the new nomenclature  — "Sickular"), it is important to keep repeating that a minority group or member — a Muslim, a Sikh, a Christian — is as much a part of India as those who feel otherwise.

That is why Anam Ali becomes a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity. But it's really unfortunate that we need such markers of diversity. Sadder still is the fact that the religious identity of a 15-year-old girl overshadowed her academic performance.

amul_053018053508.jpgCulture wars: What Amul had to say when Smriti Irani defended the decision to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas.

With textbooks being revised and history rewritten, national integration is actually getting replaced by notional integration. While political parties have devised new ways to infuse more life into this "notional" idea, the people of this country too can't seem to stop fighting over who is 'more Indian' — the trishul-wielding, English-speaking social media user or the unrelenting gentleman wearing his secularism on his sleeve. Both sides have to understand that India’s diversity is too complex. It neither starts, nor ends with religion.

But how can we forget that this country has a rich history of glossing over real issues, shutting out outside help only to gloat in its Swadeshi pride?

Sanskrit and controversies surrounding the language has a similar Swadeshi angle. In the recent past, there have been several controversies related to Sanskrit. In 2014, the HRD ministry had announced the decision to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools. Smriti Irani, the then-HRD minister, had defended the decision saying: "It [German as third language] violated the constitutional right of the child and the state. It is not about promotion of Sanskrit but about safeguarding constitutional rights."

In 2015, the Indian Science Congress kicked up a row with a symposium on "Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit" that included a paper on the existence of interplanetary aircraft in India around 9,000 years ago, cosmic connections and a “fusion of science and spirituality due to inter-penetration law”.

In 2016, it was revealed in Parliament that IITs were asked to teach Sanskrit language for facilitating study of science and technology, as reflected in its literature. 

In the same year, in a separate development, yoga guru Baba Ramdev tried to milk the Sanskrit cow by making a fresh pitch for a Vedic Education Board in the country, despite being once snubbed by the HRD ministry earlier.

It's true that Sanskrit, as many argue, is identified as central to the idea of Indian culture, but Indians have been using and celebrating a host of other languages and dialects in everyday life for ages. This includes all those colloquial languages too. It's not Sanskrit alone that needs more promotion or protection. In fact, Sanskrit is celebrated across the world and has seen a number of Western enthusiasts embracing and spreading it. (It's a different matter that a section of Sanskrit-propagating Indians believe more in showing resistance than welcoming foreign-origin Sanskrit scholars like Sheldon Pollock.)  

What is important to restore the rich legacy of the ancient language is not squabbles and fights over how many Indians speak Sanskrit, or why all Indians must speak the language, or a Mr I-have-an-opinion-about-everything suggesting that Sanskrit should be made a compulsory subject in schools, but by truly imbibing what the ancient scholars of the language taught us — it's humanity that's intrinsic to keep the idea of India alive.

Also read: CBSE should be ashamed for allowing students to score 499 out of 500 marks

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Sanghamitra Baruah Sanghamitra Baruah

Works at DailyO.

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