Hindi axed as PM honoured

October 13, 2006

The timing could hardly have been worse, writes Phil Baty.

In the week that Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, flew in to promote his country's cultural and educational links with Britain and to pick up an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Cambridge University, the institution was forced to confirm that it is to abandon the teaching of Hindi and Sanskrit to undergraduates.

In a statement released to The Times Higher on the eve of Dr Singh's degree ceremony this week, the university said that although the field of South Asian studies was "thriving" at the university, undergraduates on the Oriental studies degree would no longer be able to learn Hindi, India's official national language, which is spoken by 800 million people. Nor will they be able to study the ancient language of Sanskrit.

One source close to the discussions at Cambridge said: "It is extraordinary and a major embarrassment. Sanskrit underpins the whole of Indian society and culture. It is a very, very big subject - the foundation stone of South Asian culture. It is disingenuous to claim South Asian studies can thrive without it."

John Smith, reader in Sanskrit at Cambridge, declined to comment, saying that "the situation is a delicate and difficult one".

Dr Singh attended a summit with Tony Blair this week to promote business, economic and cultural links between the UK and India. Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, was also due to promote educational links between the countries this week, under the joint UK-India Education and Research Initiative.

Gordon Johnson, director of Cambridge's Centre of South Asian Studies, noted that the university said that undergraduates could continue to study specialist papers with a South Asian content in history, geography, economics, social and political sciences, social anthropology, divinity and archaeology. He added that graduate students would continue to study Hindi and that Sanskrit would be available at graduate and research levels.

The university declined to say how many undergraduates studied Sanskrit or Hindi each year, but the number is understood to be in single figures.

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