Rangeela Bhili glances around nervously, brushing her thumbs against each other. It’s almost as if she’s at an inquisition. Her teacher at the informal and multilingual school where she is being reschooled in her mother tongue Dungra Bhili is bringing up an unpleasant past. “Why did you not learn anything at school?” Chaudhary Rekha, the teacher, asks. Despite having studied till Class VII in a Gujarati medium public school, Rangeela could not even write her name properly. “Because our teacher, whenever he came, always taught in Gujarati,” she says softly in Dungra Bhili. A year at the Tejgadh-based Adivasi Academy’s Vasant Bahubhashi Shala has changed that. She can now read and write with much greater fluency. And all thanks to classes in a language she can finally understand.
Her classmate Jiram Rathava, officially schooled till Class VI in a Gujarati medium school, cut a similar sorry figure when he enrolled at the multilingual school. He couldn’t even write his name and used a thumb impression instead. Today he is being taught Gujarati and other subjects in his mother tongue Rathawi and has made remarkable progress. In a year’s time, when the two students are reintroduced into the official education system, they’ll be much better equipped to deal with what the textbooks have in store for them.
Students like Rangeela and Jiram are representative examples of the cost many of India’s children have paid because of the hegemonic linguistic policies enshrined into our educational set-up. It’s a state renowned scholar Ganesh Devy describes as akin to ‘aphasia’—a condition in which a person loses the ability to speak, read or write. Devy heads Bhasha, a Baroda-based trust that has spearheaded the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), which alerts us to the existence of many other and similarly lesser-known languages and their speakers, most of them beyond the count of India’s 22 scheduled and 100 non-scheduled languages. It’s their rights that the survey tries to have protected in the face of the onslaught of major languages.
There is finally a full survey, even if unofficial, of India’s languages to match the first linguistic survey of India, led by George Abraham Grierson and completed in 1928, which recorded 733 languages (see Masters and Surveys). India now has a fresh count—of 780 languages and 66 scripts—that will be officially released in New Delhi next week. The tally stands in stark contrast to the 2001 census figure of 122 languages, which suppresses the count and names of languages that are spoken by less than 10,000 speakers. The new linguistic map, while identifying many languages that are endangered, throws up an encouraging sign. Some of the country’s lesser-known languages are today amongst its fastest growing because of passionate and popular support from its speakers and in spite of official apathy. These include the Bhili group of languages, Byari, Ahirani, Mewati and Lepcha (see accompanying map for more names and their geographical spread). Even the Indian Sign Language (ISL), which with an estimated five million users has a wider reach than some scheduled languages like Bodo and Sanskrit, has found a mention in the survey.
The Bhili group of languages, considered one language by the census and which has grown at an impressive 71 per cent between 1991 and 2001, is a good example of how a language can prosper beneath the veneer of linguistic homogeneity. It has several published books to its credit and magazines, and music videos in its languages are widely circulated. They are now even a subject for academic research in some universities. “The latent expression of the Bhilis is now being given free vent,” says Kanji Patel, a writer and honorary director of the Adivasi Academy. “The number of a language’s speakers should never be the criterion to decide its importance,” he adds.
A similar turnaround has been reported for Ahirani—spoken mainly in the Nasik, Dhule, Jalgaon and Nandurbar districts of Maharashtra—which has an estimated one crore speakers. Some of its unique words include ‘tahalban’ (for ‘clear’ and different from the Marathi equivalent ‘spashta’) and ‘sola’ (for ‘groundnut’ that is referred to as ‘shingdana’ in Marathi). “It took a lot of mobilisation to dispel the idea that it was a dialect of Marathi and spoken by the downtrodden,” says Sudhir Deore, a lecturer of Marathi and an Ahirani proponent. Today it has even adapted itself to new media, with Facebook groups and SMS-es floating around in the language. But like many others, it is still not acknowledged by the Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Sanskriti Mandal. “It gives grants for books that are written only in Marathi,” says Deore.
Picture of eloquence Lepcha community members in Siliguri. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 09 September 2013)
That tide of official apathy is gradually turning in West Bengal, one of the more linguistically diverse states, with 28 languages, including the major presence of the scheduled Santhali language, and the highest number of scripts (nine) in the country. It is here that Lepcha has seen tremendous growth, with translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s works and even growing calls for a different state. “The state has already given an official approval for the teaching of Lepcha in schools,” says Indranil Acharya, the PLSI state coordinator for West Bengal and a lecturer of English at the Midnapore-based Vidyasagar University. “This is something that ought to have been done much earlier. Besides the hegemony of Bengali, the leftists always wanted to impose a sense of uniformity and paid scant attention to the state’s smaller languages,” he adds. Even the Chhattisgarh government adopted, more out of strategic compulsions than love for linguistic diversity, the instruction of Gondi, Chhattisgarhi, Korku, Halbi and Surgujia at the primary level in 2010.
As they’re spoke Bilingual alphabet chart in Munda and Oriya
The survey, however, is not about “digging up a graveyard of languages” but celebrating and perpetuating its diversity, says Devy. Keeping this in mind, he says he is going to “aggressively and quite committedly” plead for developmental planning at the micro level. “This, so that employment opportunities are available to the speakers in the larger area around their language. Our linguistic diversity needs to be seen not as a developmental liability but as an economic asset.” The other interesting find has been the little-known presence of many ‘foreign’ languages in India. This includes speakers of Karen (reported in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), Syriac in Kerala, and Siddi, an African language that still survives in Maharashtra unlike in Gujarat where its speakers now use Gujarati. Certain closely-guarded names of languages belonging to denotified tribes, labelled by the British as ‘criminal’, have also been recorded. Their speakers have held on to them for fear of persecution as the language is often eponymous with the identity of the tribe. These include communities such as the Nayaks, Kolis and Dafers.
Those who have worked for the PLSI agree that offering multilingual education, something few states practise with either dedication or efficiency, is undoubtedly one of the best ways to protect our lesser-known languages in the long run. One of the many formal suggestions the PLSI intends to make to the government includes a pitch to facilitate optional education in a child’s mother tongue at the primary level. “We have somehow remained stuck with the notion that schools can teach only in one language, whereas we need multilingual schools that use many languages as the medium of instruction,” says Devy. One such successful model comes from Orissa that has been offering primary education in as many as 10 different languages. These include Santhali, Saura, Koya, Remasham, Kishan, Kubhi, Kuvi, Munda, Juang and Kurux. “Each one of these has a total of 1,600 textbook pages,” says Mahendra Kumar Mishra, a retired officer of the state’s education department and someone who helped set up this multilingual model that has been used in 550 schools since the 2006-07 session.
Men of many words Mewati speakers in Haryana. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
Other than pushing for vigorous academic research in languages at a dedicated institution and a decadal survey of languages, the PLSI, more than anything, is an attempt to convince the government to celebrate linguistic diversity. “It is something that ought to be done with pride and not frustration. We must make a beginning in that direction,” says Devy. “Having a schedule of languages was a good idea but now we need a better one.”
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
I wish that Outlook will highlight multilingual education in Chhattishgarh, Orissa , Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand.
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has taken steps in addressing the tribal children in their mother tongue.
Odisha story can be the ideal model for rest of the country.
I wish Out look can make it a story .
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