February 14, 2020
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Tongue In A Twist

Kannada or Devanagari? The dialect-rich Konkani sets off furious debate on the choice of script in Karnataka.

Tongue In A Twist
Sandeep Adhwaryu
Tongue In A Twist
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
On April 13, the destructive rage of language activists burnt down the Central Library in Imphal, giving a shocking new twist to the controversy surrounding the script for the Manipuri language. Manipuri nationalists, since the state was integrated into the Indian Union in 1949, have demanded that the ancient indigenous script of the language, Meitei Mayek, be restored and the Bengali script, adopted two-and-a-half centuries ago, be abandoned.

A similar controversy is raging in a diagonally opposite end of India, in the Konkan region, and this is about choosing an appropriate script for the Konkani language in Karnataka. A rough estimate puts Konkani speakers at 37 lakh in Karnataka, spread across three coastal districts. Konkani has been the mother-tongue of some very famous Indians, like filmmakers Guru Dutt and Shyam Benegal, writer Girish Karnad, badminton ace Prakash Padukone and Nandan Nilekani of Infosys.

The script controversy here though, for practical reasons, is unlikely to witness the devouring pitch of Imphal. Nevertheless, a debate consuming the attention of the linguistic community is on and it is gradually acquiring political overtones. The dilemma being faced by Konkanis in Karnataka is whether they should stick to the Kannada script they have been using for centuries, or shift to Devanagari, to foster a larger ethnic unity with Konkani speakers scattered in other Indian states, mostly Maharashtra and Goa; or merge with the global tide and use the tech-friendly Roman script, as a good majority of Goan Christians and even others are said to do.

Although the dilemma has existed for quite some time now, the debate has suddenly come alive in Karnataka because the state government, bowing to the long-standing demand of the community, has agreed to introduce Konkani as a subject in schools from Class 6. Before it embarked on the process of preparing textbooks, it asked the community to internally evolve a consensus on what script should be used, and the choice given was between Kannada and Devanagari. Devanagari is the official script in Goa, where Konkani is the official language. Besides the script, the Konkanis were asked to decide what 'boli' (dialect) of the language to standardise for the textbooks, as the dialect is said to change every 20 km along the coast.

A couple of weeks ago, the Konkani Sahitya Academy, an autonomous body set up by the state government, after an elaborate consultative process, decided on Kannada as the script for Konkani. "We invited 121 eminent Konkani people to place their opinion in writing. Out of the 67 who responded, 44 voted for Kannada, 19 for Devanagari, two for the Roman script and the remaining two were unclear. We also conducted a survey in 102 schools in the region where 88 per cent of the students, teachers and parents endorsed the Kannada script. So, we chose Kannada," says Eric Ozario, president of the Academy. As regards the dialect, a 20-member 'Zankar' committee decided to adopt the structure of the language used in Goan schools and build a lexicon that draws copiously from the 16-odd dialects.

But the politically powerful Devanagari lobbyists have taken this "majority decision" badly. They have argued that the Central Sahitya Akademi has only recognised Konkani written in Devanagari; Konkani on currency notes too is written in Devanagari and the upsc too has allowed the Konkani paper to be answered only in Devanagari. "When such is the case, why should we disadvantage our children by adopting the Kannada script? Devanagari will also unify the community across India; our language has its roots in Sanskrit," they claim.

But Ozario counters this. "If the Kannada script is gone in Karnataka, an ethno-specific character of Konkani would be lost," he says."Also, our literature in the Kannada script is no inferior to the one written in Devanagari. More importantly, when not a single Konkani newspaper or periodical in Karnataka uses Devanagari, why should we impose the script? In 2004 alone, there were 40 books written in Kannada Konkani, which is not a small number for a minority language. Also, church literature in about 165 churches is in Kannada Konkani. All this will be lost if we adopt Devanagari. Kannada Konkani is our identity marker, so how can we let it go?"

But there are some people within the Konkani community like Anand Shanbhag, organising secretary of the Uttara Kannada Zilla Konkani Parishat, who take the middle path: "I was at the meeting convened by the Academy and I suggested that we should give people a choice to use either Kannada or Devanagari. This trend is already prevalent; in the Konkani PG Department at St Alosyius College in Mangalore, students use both Devanagari and Kannada," he says. "That may be the final solution. In order to keep the unity of the Konkanis, here we may have to ask the government to prepare textbooks in both the scripts," says Ozario.

Renowned linguist and former vice-chancellor of the Kannada University, K.V. Narayana, confirms that the issue is a complicated one: "This is a problem peculiar to the Konkani linguistic community because it is spread across ethnic and geographical areas. The other two prominent languages within Karnataka, Tulu and Kodava, do not have this problem. They quite comfortably use the Kannada script. Konkani is probably the only scriptless Indian language which uses nearly half-a-dozen scripts and code-mixes with an equal number of languages. Along the west coast, a good number of Konkanis use Arabic, Malayalam, Roman, Devanagari and Kannada scripts depending on the dominant one in the region. At one level, Konkani's situation is much like Kannada, which shares borders with five languages, creating a high instance of code-mixing and dialect variety. An ideal option could be to encourage a bilingual environment across Konkani-speaking regions and also promote Roman as a parallel script, if not as an alternative," he says.

Renowned filmmaker Shyam Benegal offers greater perspective to the issue: "I have never written in Konkani, but when my mother wrote a letter to my father, she used the Kannada script. That is because she grew up in the South Kanara region. At that time, South Kanara came under Madras Presidency and North Kanara came under Bombay Presidency, where Devanagari was prevalent. Since Konkani is scriptless, people used the script of the dominant language of the region. Due to Konkani's spread, it also developed different dialects. For instance, I cannot follow the Konkani that the Pais of Cochin use, there is a deep Malayalam influence on it. If someone were to listen to my Konkani, they will make out that it has an Urdu accent, because I grew up in Hyderabad. Similarly, there is the influence of Marathi in the Mumbai area and Portuguese in the Goa area. So, my rule of the thumb would be, people should use the script of the dominant language of the region. This problem has erupted because the process of crystallisation has begun. Earlier, there was no such problem," he says.

Well-known Kannada writer but a Konkani speaker, Jayanth Kaikini, who appears inclined to the Roman script, sounds a warning: "When languages with established scripts like Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, etc are themselves facing an anxious situation in the context of globalisation, Konkanis should be more practical. For me, my mother-tongue is ultimately a very beautiful domestic language, which many centuries ago did not even have a third person plural usage. Civilising a tongue is obviously wrought with problems," he says.

Jnanpith laureate Girish Karnad dismisses the controversy as pointless. "The script should not become a barrier. Logically speaking, Devanagari suits Konkani because it is so close to Prakrit, classified as an Indo-Aryan language, and almost indistinguishable from Marathi. And when Hindi as a national language is taught in schools, children anyway learn the script. But it is a fact that a good number of Konkanis have for a long time used the Kannada script, which evolved for a Dravidian language."

Even as a majority of Konkanis argue for the Kannada script, the irony that stares them in the eye in Karnataka is that the Kannada Sahitya Parishat on June 14 launched a 'save mother-tongue movement' to press for the use of Kannada as a medium of instruction in schools across the state!
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