Delhi University: How Indian language departments started disappearing from colleges

Delhi University: It is not just Urdu. Language departments such as Tamil, Bengali and Punjabi have disappeared or are at risk.

Delhi University: How Indian language departments started disappearing from colleges University of Delhi: Language departments in DU are at a crisis despite nod from NEP 2020 (source: Shutterstock)
Atul Krishna | Jan 12, 2022 - 4:51 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: The way Imteyaz Ahmed of the department of Urdu at Delhi University sees it, it will soon become pointless to offer postgraduate and PhD programmes in Urdu at DU. The subject is fast disappearing from the DU colleges, he said. Only two North Campus colleges now teach the subject at undergraduate level.

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This predicament is not Urdu’s alone. “Modern Indian language” (MIL) departments teaching Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi among other languages, have struggled for decades and shut down in many colleges, in practice if not on paper.

The Malayalam department at the university has not seen a teacher recruitment in more than two decades.

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For example, Vijayalakshmi Rajaram was the last permanent teacher in Miranda House’s Tamil department where she had taught since 1979. “I retired in 2013, they appointed a teacher for the students to complete the course as some of them were in the first or second year. They wanted to close it after. They did exactly this,” she alleged.

Closing of departments is a lengthy, laborious process. According to Rajaram, Ahmed and others, colleges and universities have bypassed the process of formally closing a department by simply refusing to recruit teachers. Plus, they do little to promote the departments at the time of DU admissions and in consequence, MIL studies are dying a slow death.

Indian language departments

The modern Indian language (MIL) and Literary Studies department at the university was set up in 1961. Curiously, the situation on the ground has gone contrary to policy and pronouncements in Parliament where ministers and political leaders have repeatedly professed support for Indian language studies. Most recently, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has provisions for supporting Indian languages even to the extent of teaching engineering in them.

But clearly there is conflict on this at the highest levels. In the last week of December, the University Grants Commission (UGC) wrote to all central universities asking them to “rationalise” courses based on the “demand of the students” and the number of students attending the course. Teachers felt that such an attempt at rationalisation would adversely affect modern Indian language (MIL) departments in colleges.

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“Since I joined in 2001, there has been no Urdu department. Unfortunately, this is the plight of all languages. When there are only few takers for the courses and because of the teachers cap, teaching posts are transferred to more popular courses,” said Abha Dev Habib, associate professor at the department of physics, Miranda House.

“It is very surprising that the NEP is talking about multidisciplinary education and promoting Indian languages and at the same time modern Indian languages such as Urdu and Tamil are being closed down in universities,” said Seema Das, member of Executive Council at DU .

Slow erasure at DU

However, MIL departments are already under threat. In some of the most prominent colleges in DU, MIL departments such as Urdu and Tamil have not seen any recruitment for decades. Teachers alleged that the colleges do not even put these subjects in their prospectuses or cut-off lists – the list of minimum scores in board exams at which admission is granted to a programme.

Urdu departments in some prominent colleges such as Hindu College, SGTB Khalsa, Lady Shri Ram College, and Miranda House, now exist only on paper. They are as good as closed due to the lack of recruitment over the years.

There is squabbling over how this situation came to be. College administrations have argued over the years that the departments have not drawn students in sufficient numbers. Teachers counter saying colleges have failed to promote these departments. Some even allege that the college prospectuses neglect to mention these degree programmes so prospective students don’t even know they exist.

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“For years, Urdu departments in many colleges including Hindu, Miranda, have been closed down after the teachers have retired. If it is not even showing in the prospectus then how will students apply?” asked Das.

“These colleges are not even showing Urdu in their prospectus, then how can students know which colleges are offering Urdu?” asked Ahmed. “This is not like a major subject like Hindi which is there in almost all the colleges. Students are not at all aware if Hindu College has an Urdu department or not. These are all done by some principals on their own. They cannot just close down a teaching post sanctioned by the UGC for which it receives funding.” The University Grants Commission (UGC) is the chief higher education regulator and it closely controls and monitors the sanctioning of teaching posts in public institutions.

Teachers also said that it is pointless for the university to have postgraduate and PhD level when the students are cut off at the undergraduate level itself. Delhi University has a department of Urdu for teaching and research at the postgraduate and PhD level.

DU admission, loss for poor students

Given the MIL departments’ struggle, some colleges have employed measures to draw students to them in DU admission season.

“Colleges that have an active Urdu department, like Satyawati College, give concessions to students in terms of [cut-off] percentage. When these concessions were given, the colleges could easily fill up their admission seats. Urdu students are usually from weak economic backgrounds and hence tend to stay away from the limelight. If they are given some relaxation they will gain confidence and come to the forefront,” said Imteyaz Ahmed.

university of delhi, du admissions, ugc, nep 2020, delhi university urduUniversity of Delhi: Many colleges give concessions to ensure admissions in these departments

At some colleges, the departments have been teaching only Programme courses and not Honours ones. “At first, Urdu was offered with commerce in these colleges. But they did not relax the cut offs at all. Most of these students studying Urdu are from government schools that have no facility and they are not able to get the high percentages required to opt for this. Then Urdu was slowly reduced to BA programmes,” said Mazhar Ahmad. The BA Programme is a degree course that teaches a mix of disciplines from the arts and social sciences rather than teaching one discipline at an advanced level.

“Since there was no relaxation in the cut offs, the number of students that were opting for the course came down to just one or two. Then, after the teachers retired they opted for guest teachers or conducted classes in other colleges. Eventually, the departments were shut down,” said Mazhar Ahmad.

Teachers also said that neglect of these departments is disproportionately impacting poor students, reducing their opportunities.

Permanent teachers as ‘watchdogs’

At Miranda House, India’s top college according to the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), the Punjabi and Tamil departments closed in 2005 and 2013 with the retirement of their last permanent teachers.

Very often, how a department fares is left to the individual heads. “If one year, there is less number of admissions or if the cut-offs are too low then these departments have a tendency to collapse. The situation is such that these teachers have to be like watchdogs for the department and once they are gone there is no one to check if they are in the prospectus or not,” said Dev-Habib.

While she was there, Rajaram did her best. She stayed in touch with Tamil schools in Delhi and counselled their students. “There are eight higher secondary schools in Delhi under the Delhi Tamil Education Association. Those students are very bright, they have good teachers. I always used to give free career counseling to all of these students. Because of this, I never suffered from a lack of students.”

She added: “There is a big Tamil population in Delhi and most of them are poor, some are in the lower end of government services. Their children should be given the freedom to study in their mother tongue.”

But once Rajaram retired, there was no one to ensure the survival of the department. “They recruited a teacher to complete the syllabus for that batch and after that they didn’t appoint any teachers although the department is still there,” said Rajaram. She stressed that as a central university, Delhi University has the obligation to provide courses in modern Indian languages.

Similarly, when the Punjabi teacher retired in 2005, Miranda House asked the university department teachers to teach registered students instead of recruiting. However, in that instance, the department had resisted and insisted that the college recruits new teachers, recalled Rajaram.

Bias against Urdu

While all MIL departments have struggled, Urdu teachers have felt the loss most keenly and some allege “clear discrimination” in the erasure. While not stating it explicitly, some teachers hinted that the alleged discimination is because Urdu has come to be associated with Muslims.

“This is a clear discrimination against the Urdu language. When the issue was raised multiple times in the Academic Council and Executive Council meetings, sometimes [the excuse is] there are no students. When students are demanding they say there are no teachers,” said Imteyaz Ahmed.

“This has been an issue that has been happening for the past 20-30 years. Khalsa has had no Urdu department for eight to 10 years, Hindu college had no Urdu department even when I was studying there as an undergraduate student,” said Mazhar Ahmad who teaches Urdu at Zakir Hussain College (Evening).

Teachers felt that the colleges are not too keen on having Urdu departments around while other language departments, including foreign languages, are doing alright with fewer students.

“There are around 25 crore Urdu speakers in the country. Some languages with fewer speakers don’t have any problems. Even foreign languages like Italian are doing well in Delhi University. Then why is there this discrimination towards Urdu?” asked Imteyaz Ahmed.

Minority commission letter

Taking note of the issue, the National Commission for Minorities directed the vice-chancellor of Delhi University, the principals of SGTB Khalsa College, Lady Shri Ram College, Miranda House and Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar College and the head of Urdu department of Delhi University, to constitute a committee to look into why the Urdu departments were not functioning. The commission asked the authorities to submit a report by January 20, 2022.

This angered the officiating principal of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar College who said that the college has 35 students and two teachers in the Urdu department. “It is nonsense. Someone has written something in a newspaper and they have written to us. If you just check our website you’ll know that there are 35 seats for Urdu and all 35 seats are filled. There are two teachers in our department as well,” said RN Dubey, officiating principal of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar College.

Careers360 did not receive any response from Lady Shri Ram College or Miranda House. The copy will be updated with comments if and when they respond.


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