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.
Gondi is a language spoken by over 2.7 million (2001 census figures, liable to have gone up), mostly in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But its proud speakers will tell you their number is three or four times that, and not without smarting, because Sanskrit, with just around 15,000 ‘speakers’, has a privileged status in the Eighth Schedule, but not theirs. More so when they tell you ‘tribal’, as a description, conveys only part of the Gondi story, a language they claim with increasing resolve is a ‘classical’ one in the same league as Sanskrit. Research has gone in to posit Gondi as the “mother of Dravidian languages” and to suggest the Harappan script, whose illegibility has long stumped scholars, is actually decipherable using a Gondi one.
Claiming themselves to be legatees of a rich history is one of the ways for the Gonds to rally together to build a cohesive, pan-Indian identity. Their determined showcasing of an indigenous religious tradition and the deliberate effort to evolve a demi-official Gondi standard—a practical necessity endowed with elements of a prestige form—gives impetus to the campaign. For a people who occupying ground zero of the Maoist conflict and relegated to the shadows of India’s progress, the efforts offer a glimpse into their aspirations.
Last month, 60 Gondi speakers gathered at a workshop in New Delhi to hammer out a lingua franca—a Gondi esperanto, so to speak—the first such attempt. There were representatives from Bastar, deep within Maoist territory, just as those from the urban sprawl of Bhopal. It was a chaotic, but momentous start. Overseeing this landmark initiative was Dr S.I. Koreti, who specialises in the history of Gonds at Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University. “This move will unite a people divided so far and made weaker by the lack of cooperation,” he says. The desired outcome of a collective consensus is a long way off. A ‘standard’ form of Gondi will also require its speakers to agree to using one of the many scripts currently in use to write the language.
Given its potential, the launch drew political interest. Union tribal affairs minister Jual Oram pledged his support for the inclusion of a standard Gondi into the Eighth Schedule. Delhi, earlier this month, also saw a convention that brought Gond Lok Sabha MPs face-to-face with Gonds from across India.
Present in Delhi for the Gondi workshop was Manmohan Shah Batti, a member of the Gondwana Ganatantra Party and a former MLA in Madhya Pradesh. He was behind the installation of a Ravana statue in a temple in Chhindwara district in 2008. “Many had stopped worshipping him out of fear as Hindu influences weakened tribal traditions. Our gods had become demons,” he says. With the Ravana temple, Batti hopes to create a new pilgrimage centre. “Hindus have Varanasi, Christians have the Vatican and Muslims Mecca. We too should have ours as it will help build an identity,” he adds. A defiant Batti hasn’t been deterred by threats, including those to “burn him publicly along with Ravana’s effigy”.
The project’s uniqueness is something 78-year-old Moti Ram Kangale, a Gond scholar based in Nagpur, has dedicated himself to. So much so that he switched Ram for Ravana in his name. “One of our four lineages descended from Ravana. We therefore worship him as our ancestor,” he says. The ten-headed king might be a mythic figure a lot of Indians torch and dispatch to hell every year, but the Gonds have for him only the respect that’s due to an ancestor. There’s no real point, many say, to Ravana being regarded as the epic ‘villain’—after all, he didn’t kidnap Sita. Antipathy, if any, ought to be directed at Rama, who in a Gondi oral version of Ramayana is spoken of as an Aryan invader who attacks the Gond king’s territory and kills him.
Ravana, along with his wife Mandodari and son Meghnad, is venerated in different forms. The most common is through three totems that can be found in Gond villages across central India. But there are temples dedicated to them too, including one in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district, with an idol of a reclining Ravana. Legend has it that a local warrior would often travel to Lanka to hone his combat skills by sparring with Ravana. To save him the trouble, Ravana asked him to set up a temple with his idol. Today, locals flock there to mark auspicious starts.
It is hoped that the move to forge a common Gondi will also be a harbinger of prosperity—many Gonds hope it will lead to access to education in their language. Koreti’s colleague at the workshop, K.M. Metry from the Department of Tribal Studies at Kannada University in Hampi, adds, “It will also prompt greater research to establish how Gondi is the root of Dravidian languages”. As he brings up words that are similar in Kannada and Gondi, including ‘mara/marra’ for tree or ‘anchey’ for basket, the zeal shows through.
This effort has been supported by CGNet, a popular mobile radio news service. There’s a strategic reason. Shubhranshu Choudhary, who manages CGNet, wants to set up a pan-Gondi shortwave station. Gonds may be spread across six different states but they face similar challenges, whether it is around tendu cultivation or land-grabbing. “A Gond from Abujhmad therefore should be of help to another,” he says. “The Gond population is huge but such is their state that they struggle to find sincere leaders and elect them.”
While much of the media merely skims over tribal issues, Choudhary hopes the radio station, by taking up their cause, can lead them to question those in power, including the Maoists. “Democracy bettered by technology is a much better option than illusions of Communism or Maoism. We need to see this as a strategic investment,” he says. “We need a dialogue between the marginalised class of adivasis and the right people in positions of power.” The beginning of this campaign by the Gonds to occupy mainstream space is therefore historic. As Pramod Potai, a social worker from Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district, says, “Our attempt to standardise Gondi and push it in the Eighth Schedule is like Gandhi’s campaign to win independence.”
(The writer is a media fellow at the National Foundation of India, where he is exploring links between linguistic discrimination and Maoist conflict.)