‘Language is the only tool for expressing identity and culture’
Shubhranshu Choudhary is a journalist and is currently working on a Democratisation of Media project in Central Tribal India. In the course of his work he has developed world’s first Community Radio on Mobile phone called CGNet Swara. Choudhary was BBC South Asia producer for more than 10 years. He is winner of Google Digital Activism award 2014.
Motiravan Kangali is a retired bank employee, based in Nagpur. He has been actively involved with the political movements of the Gond tribal community in central India and is a well-known writer of popular books on Gondi language, script, culture, folk tales and history.
Tell me something about the state of the Gondi language at present, written and spoken
Shubhranshu : Gondi is spoken in six Indian states—Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha—by around 5 million people. It is one of the major languages spoken in the adivasi areas in Central India. It is also the lingua-franca of Maoist movement in Central India today. Majority of foot soldiers of Maoist movement are Gondi speakers. The 1991 and 2001 censuses put the figure of Gondi language speakers at 2.1 and 2.7 million respectively. But there is a big area of Gondi speakers under Maoist control where no census is taking place, practically. So we feel that the realistic number should be higher than government figures.
Now, the language is spoken differently in all six states and the influence of local languages is high. We have variations like Telugu-Gondi, Marathi-Gondi and Hindi-Gondi. Even within the same state like in north Bastar and south Bastar areas in Chhattisgarh state, Gondi is spoken differently. This is nothing unusual – all languages have different dialects, and different words are used to signify the same thing. But most languages spoken by large groups also have their standardised versions, which are used by media and in official work, and which are understood by most speakers of the language. Unfortunately, Gondi does not have such a standardised version since no effort was made in this direction earlier.
Motiravan : Most people in the Gond tribal community know and use Gondi in their day-to-day spoken use. In the rural areas, Gondi is usually the first language of people born in the Gond community. For many years, its use had declined due to lack of government support, especially in urban areas – people had an inferiority complex about using it, and preferred to use the state language. But in recent years, because of intense work by groups working on Gondi cultural identity, people have started speaking it again. The Gondi script, which was nearly forgotten earlier, has also been resurrected successfully. Today, a lot of educated and urban Gond people use the script for personal correspondence. Books and calendars are also being published in the script.
But the absence of a standardised language continues to be a problem. The language is so different, not just from state to state, but from district to district, area to area. Different words are used to signify the same thing. For instance, if a Gondi speaker from Betul tells a speaker from Andhra to sit or go, the other will not be able to understand because the words are different. The script is riddled with the same problem—there are several versions.
How does the fact that Gondi is not a scheduled language impact the population?
Shubhranshu : As I said, there is a huge and very poor population of Gonds in central India who speak only Gondi. If you go few kilometre off the road in places like south Chhattisgarh you will find a lot of people (especially women) speaking only Gondi. Hindi or other local languages like Marathi are like a foreign language to them – something used by the educated upper class. This, as you can imagine, creates a colossal problem, since the people and the administration can’t communicate with each other. In the Maoist belt of central India, it will be virtually impossible to find a single journalist, government official, teacher or anyone at all who can speak the language the people use. There is no education in Gondi either. I visited a school in Bastar bordering Andhra Pradesh and the headmaster told me that none of the teachers spoke Gondi and none of the students spoke Hindi. The system is totally out of touch with the aspirations of a large community. Is it surprising that phenomena like Maoism are manifesting?
Motiravan: In 1965, when Babu Jagjeevan Ram was the home minister, and the states in the country were being reorganised, there was a demand for a Gondwana state in Central India. The demand was turned down on the plea that Gondwana did not have a language or script to unify it, the basic premise being that states were being organised on the basis of language. We felt the argument was unfair, because Madhya Pradesh state also did not have a separate language of its own. However, there is a strong feeling among tribal political and cultural groups that if we had worked to develop the language earlier, we would have got the Gondwana state. Today, the Gond people are scattered across several states with no real cultural identity and cohesion. The majority of the population is impoverished and there is a strong sense of disconnect with cultural roots.
When and how did the need for language standardisation present itself?
Shubhranshu: We, in CGnetSwara, understand that the problem in central India is fuelled by this lack of communication between lower class adivasis and mainstream India. So we thought of starting a Swara platform in Gondi.
But soon we realised that there are many dialects of Gondi in use and many Gondi speakers from different areas do not understand each other. There is a huge influence of languages like Telugu and Marathi/Hindi in the dialects spoken. The idea of Adivasi Swara is to create a platform where all the Gondi speakers can talk to each other. At the moment there is no platform where these people, divided in six states, can talk. This can empower them culturally and politically if they can talk, is the idea behind a common platform and then efforts will be made for a standard Gondi. But they have to be able to understand each other.
Motiravan: The work of language revival has been on since 1982-83 when the Adivasi Vidyarthi Sangh was formed to work specifically on issues of Gondi identity. Gradually, this awareness came that words used to signify the same thing varied from one place to another. Today, there are a lot of books written on Gondi language, script and grammar. I have myself written several, including a compilation of Gondi grammar. But the books I have written are applicable only to the language spoken around Nagpur and Ramtek, which is not influenced much by Marathi. Travel to Betul in Madhya Pradesh, and there is not just the influence of Hindi, but the words themselves are different. Travel to Pune and the influence of Marathi is much higher. The need for standardisation was not felt to that extent earlier because not many were using the language except to speak to their family members or within the immediate community. But now that there are larger networks within the community, and there is an aspiration to take the use of the language further, the need for standardisation is also being felt.
What is standardisation of language? How is it done? What are you planning?
Shubhranshu: At Swara, we don’t know much about standardisation apart from what we have read on Internet. We understand that languages like Hindi, Dutch and Italian have gone through the process of standardisation but the effort was undertaken by the respective governments. And we feel that government should take lead here too, since it is a mammoth job. We organised a workshop on Gondi language standardisation in Delhi from July 21 to 25. The initiative was supported by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.
During the workshop, we made small teams of Gondi speakers from six states and requested them to go word by word and decide among them which word they would like in the standard Gondi. There are two or three Gondi scripts in circulation. They also need to decide which one they want to go forward with.
We hope to meet again at Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh to thrash out these problems and develop a dictionary of standard Gondi.
Motiravan: Standardisation can be a mammoth job involving years of intensive work by large groups of scholars. This work has been done for other languages in India, but the Ministry of Human Resources has never made a proposal for standardisation of Gondi or its inclusion among the scheduled languages. The first such proposal was sent by me in 2013, and I am yet to receive a reply. I strongly feel that government will have to lead any standardisation effort because the work is beyond the scope of any single group.
How long do you think it will take for the standardised language to reach a reasonable section of the entire Gondi population in the country? What are you planning in the direction of popularising the standardised language?
Shubhranshu: It will take a long time. But we are enthused with the response of the community leaders who are taking a lot of interest in the process and are also coming to the workshop. If community leaders can take the word to community in their traditional way, it may be faster.
Motiravan: Among educated Gonds, both in urban and rural areas, there is good awareness about the use of the language now, thanks to years of awareness-building work by various groups. If the requisite tools for learning the standardised language are made available – say dictionaries and books on grammar and script—this particular section is likely to pick it up fast. And from them it will percolate to the rest of the community.
In what other ways can the Gondi speaking people of India benefit from the standardization move?
Shubhranshu: Today, Gondi speakers are not able to help each other. But with a standard Gondi and a common platform like Swara (we hope there will be many more thereafter), we hope people who are in better situation like Gondi speaking people in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana will be able to help people in Chhattisgarh and Odisha who are in the middle of a war.
Motiravan: There are many benefits. First of all, if a standardised language is available, we can press our long-standing demand for primary education in Gondi. A lot of Gondi-speaking tribal children and youth can get the benefit of education if it is imparted in their mother-tongue. It will also go a long way in bringing the community together, because groups will be able to communicate and share concerns.
Finally, it might be a tool for once again pressing our long-standing demand for a Gondwana state. This demand has fallen on the wayside now, and most Gond politico-social groups are not pressing for it. But some tribal leaders, like Hukum Singh Kusre in Madhya Pradesh, are still pursuing the demand for the Mahakaushal region of Madhya Pradesh to be carved out as Gondwana state with Jabalpur as the capital. As I said, a lot of Gond groups are not involved with this demand any more, and even if the entire Gondi-speaking area of central India is not included, even if the state is really very small, it will go a long way in ensuring the security of Gondi tribal culture, identity and autonomy.