Go Beyond ‘A For Apple’: Celebrating Indigenous Languages in 2019

Adivasis are often tricked out of their land & property because they don’t understand Hindi.

4 min read
Go Beyond ‘A For Apple’: Celebrating Indigenous Languages in 2019

‘The grass is greener on the other side’ are words of wisdom for us, inhabitants of the language world of English. But the tribals of Chhattisgarh, like much of the rest of India, would laugh at us. Which grass, they’d ask?

Is it the muchri, mukha, kima, bindo, khakha, gundru, poker arkham or some other, they’d want to know. Because for them, speakers of the Kudukh language, grass isn’t just grass. It goes by various names, depending on their colour, texture and characteristics.

In a world threatened by climate change, indigenous languages like Kudukh are veritable treasure troves of undiscovered, undocumented biodiversity that’s helping the planet withstand the pressures of greed-induced development.

This is perhaps why the United Nations declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.


Coming Closer to Nature

For people like us, immersed in urbanity and English, learning an indigenous language could open up new ways of seeing, and making fuller sense of the world around us. The diversity of names for grass in Kudukh, spoken by several tribal groups in central India, opens up one such avenue.

For, it’s not just names we’d learn, but also the use of specific kinds of grass for particular activities. Like what’s best for covering the top soil so moisture is retained in the earth; what to use as fodder so cattle are healthy; which provides cool shade from the blazing sun; and which has medicinal value comparable to chemically-produced pills we pop so often.

“Indigenous groups share a symbiotic relationship with nature,” says Abhay Xaxa, sociologist and convenor of the National Campaign on Adivasi Rights.

“Our languages reflect this symbiotic relationship, with names for a dazzling variety of flora and fauna. They are a sort of database, an orally-transmitted documentation of biodiversity, of species and varieties yet unnamed in the sciences,” says Xaxa, whose surname is also the name of grass that grows in ravines. “Paying attention to indigenous languages, learning from them names and ways of life, would bring us closer to nature.”


Literacy & Education for Adivasis

“We say A for Apple and A for Anar, but none of it makes sense to our children,” says Arjun Nag, one among a handful of tribal lawyers who got educated and started working in the 1990s.

“Children in forest villages have neither seen apples, nor anar. So much of ‘education’ doled out in schools remains several worlds removed from their lives.”

Nag was part of Adivasi Harijan Kalyan Samiti, an NGO which started a school with help from local residents in Bastar district’s Bhadrimau village in 1995. Unlike in government schools, the medium of instruction in this school was Durwa (tribal language spoken by Durwa tribal community).

“Children who shied away from government schools where the medium of instruction was Hindi thronged the village school because it expanded their realms of knowledge, and provided them with confidence,” says Nag.

The school had to be closed down after three years owing to lack of funds.

The Xaxa committee report of 2014 on the status of tribals in India mentioned that the language of instruction in schools remains a key barrier for tribal students, also contributing to their backwardness. Yet, even today, Hindi continues to be the lingua franca in government schools.

“For tribals, Hindi is a foreign language. No wonder, enrolment in schools remains low among indigenous groups,” says Xaxa.


Why Tribal Languages Need Official Recognition

All tribal languages in circulation today have been transmitted orally across generations. None, barring Santhali, has a script of its own. Consequently, none of them are recognised as official languages by the Indian State. The implications of this on the everyday lives of indigenous groups encompasses a large spectrum, including but much beyond the medium of instruction in schools.

All government records for instance, are maintained in official/ recognised languages. As a result, a tribal has no way of understanding if the land title pertaining to the patch his family owns actually lists out the property details correctly.

In the event that his land is to be acquired for a ‘developmental project’, as is the case in almost every state, he has no means of making sense of acquisition, and later eviction, notices. This contributes to tribal groups being dispossessed of lands and forests they have nurtured for centuries.

My own experience as a journalist reporting from tribal areas, tells me that indigenous groups don’t take this injustice lying down. They raise the banner of revolt ever so often, like they did in Bastar’s Tokapal block in July 2015.


Democracy Needs to Touch Lives of Tribals Too

About a 1,000 tribals had gathered in Tokapal that day for a public hearing in connection with land acquisition for a pipeline that would carry slurry (iron-ore) from the mine in Chhattisgarh to steel plants in Andhra Pradesh.

They were livid that notices informing them of the public meeting, and asking for their objections to the project, if any, were issued in Hindi.

“How do you expect us to understand Hindi,” they demanded of the deputy collector and other officials present at the hearing, before walking out of the hall in rage, sloganeering, “Radd karo, radd karo, jansunwai radd karo (Cancel this public hearing).”

Outside the hall, in broken Hindi, they told me they’d not part with an inch of the land their forefathers had nurtured! Their languages, the innumerable names for grasses, or fish, or sounds of the forest, are repositories of this symbiotic relationship with nature.

Among other things, they teach us of a way of life that’s sustainable, and that which the most advanced technologies today fail to provide.

In 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages, we need to pay more attention to such languages. Through them, perhaps, we would be able to understand indigenous groups, and thus deepen our democracy, such that it touches their lives.

(The writer is an independent journalist and researcher, and currently teaches at a college in Bengaluru. He can be reached at @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Politics   Culture   Adivasis 

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