A motley group of eight huddles together, discussing the best Gondi word for ‘drum’ animatedly. The group’s members span five states and come from as many as seven different professions, including farming, journalism and forestry. What unites them though is their ethnicity—they are all Gonds—and their purpose to generate a shareable Gondi lingua franca that, they hope, will help forge a common identity for their community. Dispersed across Indian states and further alienated from each other by the different varieties of Gondi language that have been influenced by locally dominant tongues, the Gonds today are a fractured lot. However, long marginalised as minorities, a proud majority in central India is finally pulling its act together.
And if there’s an icon who has emerged as a totemic figure, it is Ravana, a figure the Gonds claim to have worshipped from ancient times. Seeking to steer clear of modern, proselytising Hindutva and Christianity, two religions that have made inroads into their community, the Gonds have found in Ramayana’s ‘demon king’ their patron saint. Temples to Ravana are now being billed as centres of pilgrimage for Gonds. Some of them even call themselves ‘Ravanvanshis’ and venerate their patriarch despite opposition from right-wing Hindu organisations. It is their foundry where they hope to forge a religious identity too, just as neat and definite as their linguistic one.