A new survey of India's hundreds of languages could have far-reaching political implications.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - September 18, 2011
NEW DELHI, India — This fall, a plucky Indian professor of English will fire the first shot in a battle to revolutionize how this large, diverse country perceives itself.
The key to his project: an army of some 2,000 volunteer linguists, translators and typists.
For the first time since the British Raj, Ganesh Devy's People's Linguistic Survey of India will catalog the nation's myriad tongues. The enormous exercise will call into question colonial definitions of civilization and ethnicity that have persisted through the 60-year history of independent India.
“This is one of our heritage treasures that we have not been overtly aware of,” said Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. “It's very important to conduct these surveys and catalog [these languages], because it will help us formulate the appropriate language policy. We do not have an appropriate language policy [in India] because we don't have an idea of the breadth and length of lingusitic diversity.”
Reminiscent of Sir James Murray's Oxford English Dictionary project — which drew on the knowledge of hundreds of volunteers, including a prolific murderer, for information about the origins of English words — the People's Linguistic Survey promises to be a remarkable resource for academic researchers and a vital aid in the struggle to preserve dying tongues.
But the growing stack of tomes may have broader implications, too, for India's education system, and even the political organization of its 28 states and seven union territories.
“This will provide good material for fresh thinking about cognitive categories in every walk of life,” said Devy, who is a professor at the the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Gujarat.
“If I may say so, in all modesty, perhaps this will come to be seen as one of the more important linguistic projects during the last 100 years in India,” he said.It is indeed a huge endeavor.
The original British language survey took some 30 years to complete. More recently, India's registrar general, which conducts the census, has taken 15 years to survey just four states.
But Devy's army of volunteers have already finished work in nine states. Progress is underway in seven more. The first results are slated, from Jharkhand, to be published in November — with Gujarat and Maharashtra ready for the World Languages Meeting in Gujarat in January.
Devy expects the entire project — including a series of books in English — to be finished by the end of 2014.
“I have been working with the languages of the tribal communities of India for the last 20 years, working with the tribal communities, so I have been able to set up quite a large network of individuals interested in looking at language identity, language loss, language empowerment, and issues like that,” said Devy.
It was through that network that the professor recruited an army of volunteers whose efforts have already put the government to shame.
“These volunteers include professional linguists, teachers, cultural activists, farmers and villagers. It is a cross-section of Indian society,” Devy said. “Of course, my list is deficient: I don't have any criminals or black marketeers.”
To aid researchers, each language will be detailed with a 1,000-word history, a brief glossary and some examples of poems and stories. And based on preliminary findings, the official number of Indian languages will likely rise from the Raj-era figure of 179 — of which a paltry 22 are officially recognized by the constitution — to nearly 900.
However, it's the main reason for the expected increase that makes the project revolutionary.
When British linguist George Abraham Grierson conducted his Linguistic Survey of India in 1894, he ignored the languages of many nomadic tribes. He classified as dialects many other tongues that local people used to define their ethnicities. And he neglected a large part of South India because the Nizam of Hyderabad in what is today the state of Andhra Pradesh refused to cooperate.
At least partly as a result, when first the British and then Indian authorities divided the country into language-based states, many sizable groups found themselves split by separate administrations and robbed of political influence in keeping with their numbers. For instance, planners deemed the Gond tribe insignificant because the Gond language had no written literature or written script (until 1928) — so the group was scattered across five different states.
“These states were formed irrespective of the number of speakers of languages,” said Devy. “To give you an example, the Munda group, the Santhal group, the Bhil group – they did not get their states.”
These linguistic boundaries have already proven controversial. Since 1960, when language-based agitations forced the Bombay State into today's Gujarat and Maharashtra states, nearly a dozen new states have been carved out on linguistic or ethnic grounds, and the troubles aren't over.
Ethnic rebellions still simmer across the country, demanding separate states, or even nationhood, for the speakers of Nepali, Bodo and other languages that borders — and, too often, government budgets — have ignored.
At the same time, Grierson's language survey, and independent India's subsequent propagation of its inherent prejudices, has had a disastrous impact on India's many indigenous tribes.
“The marginalized people are speaking marginalized languages,” said the University of London's Abbi.
In the most dramatic instances, languages — and sometimes the people who speak them — have simply ceased to exist. Last year, for example, when an 85-year-old Andaman islander named Boa Sr gasped her final breath, the Bo tribe and the Bo language were irrevocably lost.
“With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory,” Survival International's Stephen Corry remarked at the time. “Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands.”
But even where tribal communities remain robust in numbers, the low status afforded to their languages has helped to keep them isolated and excluded from India's snowballing economic development.
"Only around 15,000 people in India speak Sanskrit, while some 80 million speak various tribal languages in central India alone,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, founder of CG Net Swara, a mobile-phone based news platform for Indian tribal peoples. “Yet All India Radio, the only source of news for many rural Indians, broadcasts frequent bulletins in Sanskrit and none in these tribal languages."
Though various studies have shown that children learn better when taught basic concepts in their mother tongue before attempting to master a second language, India prioritizes just 22 out of the 900-odd languages that Devy seeks to catalog, and the state's promised free and compulsory education is most often available in fewer still.
“In the Constitution of India, there is a special schedule of languages, which alone receive official support,” said Devy. “When the schedule was created after independence, it had 14 languages. Now it has 22. All the funds for primary, secondary and higher education can go only to these languages.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, tribal literacy rates lag behind those of the general population, and only about one-fifth of the so-called “Scheduled Tribes” noted by the Indian constitution as historically underprivileged are attending school, according to the latest census.
“If we don't include these langauges in our education policy, obviously we are discriminating against them,” said Abbi. “We have a reservation policy [that mandates quotas in jobs and higher education] for the [historically underprivileged] Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But the reservations are for the tribe, not the language. This is the reason why tribals want to forget their languages.”
Meanwhile, the proportion of tribal peoples living below the poverty line, at nearly 50 percent, is also “substantially higher than the national average,” according to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.
“My aim is not to find which is the language that is spoken by fewer than 5 percent, and how will I revive that language,” said Devy, who founded a university for tribal peoples known as the Adivasi Academy in 1999.
“My aim is to see where a sizeable number of people exist, have a speech tradition, a language of their own, but because of the denial of the language in legitimate educational spaces this community is suffering on the developmental scale.”
Making sure the world knows that these languages exist is the first step.