How Adivasi languages are at threat by dominant cultures and states’ apathy

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As a vast country with diverse Indigenous cultures and traditions, India is a hub of languages. The Indian constitution recognizes 22 languages. Because of this recognition, there has been a considerable volume of literature in these languages. Besides Sanskrit, with very few speakers and being the language of the dominant Brahmin community, the following 21 modern Indian languages are: Assamese, Bangla, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Kannada, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Santali, Sindhi, and Urdu. Among them, there are only two tribal languages – Santali and Bodo, which got inclusion in 8th schedule in 2004. 

In a multilingual society like ours, language plays an important role in shaping our social experiences. It has been argued that safeguarding the diverse linguistic minorities and providing them a level playing field and equal opportunities is necessary for effectively realizing the inclusive growth in the country (NCLM 5Oth Report).

Indigenous Languages in India

As per the last census, Adivasi-Tribal communities make up about 8.2 per cent of the nation’s total population. This diversity extends to languages as well. A linguistic survey  has established that there are about 1635 native languages in India (of which about 197 are classified under the categories between ‘endangered and vulnerable’ by UNESCO—almost all of them are languages of Indigenous communities). This might be unbelievable to some but the diversity of endogamous groups and regional divides contributes to this reality. 

As an expression of legitimately recognizing Adivasi community, their art, music, history and literature should also be made part of the curriculum and taught in the educational institutions. Similarly, the government should declare local holidays when Adivasis celebrate their festivals or cultural activities.

However, many of the indigenous languages, especially, that of Adivasis, are at threat due to several reasons. In India, most of the indigenous languages do not have script and they exist only in oral form, hence, they are gradually disappearing. Further, most of indigenous languages are not recognized by the government despite the large population of people speaking the language. For instance, as per the 2011 census, Gondi Language is spoken by 29,84,453 people and Koya/Koi language is spoken by 13,48,423 people, but still both Gondi and Koya/Koi is not recognized by the government of India—making it difficult to preserve the indigenous languages.  

Imminent danger to the Indigenous languages

The indigenous languages in India are largely ignored by the Indian government, along with the intrusion of the so called “civilized cultures” into the indigenous culture. One of the important mechanisms through which the displacement of indigenous mother tongue is happening is through the school system. Schooling, even in the Adivasi regions, are primarily conducted through the official language of the state, where  Adivasis have to learn and adapt to other dominant languages, cultures, festivals, customs, and so on, instead of equipping with their own culture and native originality. As a result, many of the school going Adivasis children do not speak their mother tongue. Further, they are socialized in schools to accept the dominant cultural practices such as Diwalu or Sankranthi or Dussera. They are socialised into the dominant culture in the schools, and start to look down upon their own culture.  Medium of learning certainly has a huge influence in this cultural shift.

As the educational institutions run by the state have prescribed holidays for cultural and religious rituals or festivals of the dominant communities, Adivasi children are bereaved of their opportunity to participate in their native festivals and rituals in the villages. Consequently, they do not get to “live” within their own culture. According to my observation, many of the Adivasi school going children have been ignoring their culture and at the same time, they are fascinated by the local dominant cultures. Some of the Adivasi students feel ashamed of speaking in his/her mother tongue due to the inferiority complex from peer pressures and educational pedagogy. 

Schooling, even in the Adivasi regions, are primarily conducted through the official language of the state, where  Adivasis have to learn and adapt to other dominant languages, cultures, festivals, customs, and so on, instead of equipping with their own culture and native originality.

Another significant issue at hand is the non-tribal migration to the tribal hamlets. Non-tribal people speak the official state language or regions’ dominant language. They communicate with Adivasis in the official or their own language only. The dominant community, with their sense of superiority, look down upon the tribal languages and hence do not feel the need to learn it. The unavailability of script and learning institutions makes it even harder. Consequently, Adivasis are gradually attracted to learn the non-tribal language and speak them in their daily usage, even within their household. These are some of the reasons that deeply affect the indigenous languages and their status in society.

Demand for Recognition of Indigenous Languages and Religion

Adivasi intellectuals and supporters have realized how the indigenous languages are ignored and endangered. Currently, across the country, the demand for inclusion of indigenous languages in the 8th schedule of the constitution has been gaining voice. Recently, the Odisha government also has given a notice to the central government for inclusion of three indigenous languagesHo, Mundari, and Bhumij in the 8th Schedule. Similarly, Koitur Adivasis of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and other states are demanding for inclusion of Gondi-Koya language in the 8th Schedule. According to the ministry of home affairs, there are demands for inclusion of over 38 languages in the 8th schedule. 

In a similar process of invisibalisation and misrepresentation, Adivasis are officially recognized as Hindus in the government records. This is why, the Adivasis of India are now demanding for a separate “Tribal Religion” code/coloumn in the coming Census of 2021. They argue that they are not Hindus and their culture is different from the Hindu religion. They do not have a religious concept like many of the dominant religions. They worship nature and their ancestors, unlike the practice of idol worship of Hindus.  This is the reason why, now, the Koitur Adivasis are also demanding a separate code/coloumn for their religion called “Koya Punem” in the upcoming census. 

While the government claims to have done so much for the Adivasi areas, the Adivasi tradition, emotions, cultures, and customs have been completely disregarded. Whereas, the culture and language are most important to the identity of Adivasi people. Without culture and language, Adivasi communities cannot survive. Therefore, the government should take initiatives to protect the Adivasi culture and language. As an expression of legitimately recognizing Adivasi community, their art, music, history and literature should also be made part of the curriculum and taught in the educational institutions. Similarly, the government should declare local holidays when Adivasis celebrate their festivals or cultural activities. Such positive gestures might help the upcoming generation among the Adivasis to acknowledge their own history, culture, language and identity.


Photo: Tameshwar Sinha

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Madakam Lakshman Koya

Madakam Lakshman Koya belongs to Koya-Koitur community and is a native of Chinthuru mandal, East Godavari, Andhra Pradesh. He has finished his M. Phil in Anthropology from University of Hyderabad. he is currently working as Welfare Secretary at Village Secretariat, Kummuru, Tribal Welfare Department, Government of Andhra Pradesh.

One thought on “How Adivasi languages are at threat by dominant cultures and states’ apathy

  • August 14, 2020 at 3:49 pm
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    Indeed it is a very good write up on the tribal situation especially with its apathy in our country. To introduce the indigenous languages in the domain of education is the first step. Another important step is to create awareness and positive attitude among the natives regarding their own indigenous mother tongues. In this connection native youths may initiate in starting indigenous language associations/ clubs through which literacy programs in the mother tongues/ other tongues through bi literacy / bilingual education programmes. Efforts may also be made that govt notices, programs etc., be in the indigenous mother tongues. Also instructions regarding first aids, creating awareness about the do’s & don’ts in this period of corona virus etc., may be attempted. Further creative writings in the indigenous languages may be attempted/encouraged, to begin with in small ways with the help of native scholars/ educated people. The available folklore in the mother tongues which are oral be transferred to the written media- written in the tribal languages.
    Best Wishes
    Prof V Gnanasundaram,CIIL, Mysore

    Reply

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