Teaching of Oriental Languages

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

The Historical Background

By Doojendranath Napal

The teaching of Oriental languages is a Mauritian problem as old as the coming of Indian immigrants to the island. One fact which should not be lost sight of is that the Indians who came to the island were not illiterate and ignorant people; they brought with them a rich cultural heritage handed down to them from ages. Government soon realised that it had neglected the education of the immigrants as a census revealed that only 2% of the children of immigrants could read and write while among the immigrants themselves there was a much higher percentage of literates, of course in oriental languages. Yet nothing was done for imparting education to the Indians until 1852 when an experimental school was opened in Savanne for the teaching of Indian children. This attempt, however, met with no success.

Governor Sir James Higginson devoted himself heart and soul to the education of immigrant children. On the 22nd March 1854, he submitted and recommended to the Council of Government the proposal of the Mauritius Church Association to establish a primary school in Port Louis for the teaching of English and Tamil. The following year Govt took up seriously the question of education and voted a certain sum of money for that purpose. It contemplated the idea of making education compulsory. But the language problem suddenly propped up. Were the children to be taught in English, French or in some Indian dialect? There was diversity of opinions on this point. Government was for separate schools for Creoles and for Indians and for bringing native teachers from India for the education of the children of immigrants.

But Government was opposed by a committee which was appointed to study that question. The committee advocated a policy which would bring about a fusion of the immigrant population and the other inhabitants in order that in the future the colony could have a resident agricultural population. The committee also insisted that French should be the medium of instruction, but opposition came from an unexpected quarter — the Board of Directors of the East India Company. They would not allow French to be forced upon the children of immigrants.

From the Education report of 1865 we learn that there existed Indian schools in which the pupils were taught “Nagari, Tamil & Coringhy (probably Telegu) in order to enable the boys speaking those several languages to understand one another and to be able to read and write their own“. Immediately before the Royal Commissioners of 1872 came to the island, that is in 1871, the Education Report commented on the unfavourable conditions of the education of Indian children who “were growing up in the grossest state of ignorance… and no adequate means were brought into play to meet their moral and intellectual wants”.

In the same Report, we gather that some Christian monks versed in Hindi and Tamil conducted examination for “Calcutta teachers” and those teaching Tamil.

The great difficulty for running the Indian school was the lack of teachers. In 1864 the Normal School for the training of teachers was reorganised and the young Indian teachers were given a course of training. But we can say that teaching of the children of Indian immigrants was carried on in a haphazard way, and some pretext or other was always at hand to serve the purpose of government.

The Royal Commissioners of 1872 recommended that either English or an Indian language should be the medium of instruction. After 1872 we find that more attention is paid to the teaching of Indian children. In fact every Report after that date dwells on the organisation and progress of Indian schools.

The last Report we came across is that of 1894 in which we read:
“To provide for the education of Indian children 8 Half-Time Second Grade Government Schools were in operation at the end of 1894. All these have been established in the vicinity of sugar estates or the Indian camps and villages. The number of Indian and Indo-Mauritian children on the list of these schools is 295. This can hardly be called a success, and I fear that so long as some measure of a compulsory character is not resorted to the indifference and cupidity of the Indian parent and the interest of the employer of Indian labour will thwart the intentions of the Government upon this large question of the spread of education among Indian children.”

The Report of the Royal Commission of 1909 spoke in praiseworthy terms of the Education Code which made provisions for the substitution of an Indian dialect for either French or English and made it compulsory for the teachers to be able to speak at least one Indian language. The Report commented that advantage was not taken of these provisions as it was alleged there was “no public demand or the establishment of such schools.”

The Report, in its turn recommended the establishment of schools “in which simple instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic and gardening should be given, as far as possible, in the mother tongue of the child, and in any case not more than two languages employed, should be made compulsory in the country districts where the existing primary schools are attended largely by Indian children.”

During the years immediately following 1909 we do not see any development worthy of notice in the teaching of Oriental languages. We believe that government did not take seriously the recommendations of the Commissions. Matters were in such a state until the arrival in the colony of Kunwar Maharaj Singh who was delegated by the government of India to inquire into the state of Indian immigrants in the colony. The Indian delegate submitted his Report on the 13th October 1925. We cannot find anything more about that Report except for the fact he recommended the teaching of Oriental languages. The unfortunate part of the matter is that the Report is not found anywhere in the island, not even at the Mauritius Archives.

The Education Reports during the years immediately following the Maharaj Singh’s Report keep silent about it. Believing that perhaps the Debates in Council of 1925-1926, 1927 and 1928 might be helpful to us in the matter for which we consulted them, incidentally we came across Hon Raffray who laid a petition from the inhabitants of Grande Rivière demanding a school for the teaching of Hindi and a motion of Hon Lallah, deputy for Grand Port, asking government to vote a certain sum of money for the institution of schools for the teaching of Oriental languages. But our efforts to pierce the mystery of the non-existence of the Report remain fruitless.

In the Indian Centenary Book 1934, J.R.de Lingen wrote an eloquent plaidoyer in favour of Hindustani. He lamented the loss of these Indians who were indifferent to learning that language. They lost, he said, tradition, mental training, something very beautiful in itself and their inner anchorage.

We can do no better than close this article by a quotation from him: “The language of India will always speak to the soul of her children, as no other language can speak, and will echo far beyond her geographical boundaries. The oldest living Aryan tongue, and yet the youngest, the river from its twofold springs runs strong and limpid; and the music of its waters will not die so soon.”

Friday 21st December, 1956


* Published in print edition on 2 August 2019

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