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Amidst, the award returning and ‘intolerance’ tamasha. Invisible in headlines, one of the largest indigenous group of India, ‘Gonds’ assembled in Chandrapur, a small town of Maharashtra for something that’d determine future of their community and homeland. The assembly hall echoed with Johar, Seva, Lingo, Badadev; homage was paid to Late Gondi scholar Dr. Motiravan Kangali, while pictures of Rani Hirai, Babu Shedmake, and Lingo occupied the front stage. Held from 21-15 November 2015, it was the 6th workshop of Gondi standardization held at Chandrapur- erstwhile Gond kingdom of Chanda. The workshop’s journey began in July 2014, at New Delhi when Gond elders and scholars with CGNet decided to initiate the much needed standardization process. After Delhi, workshops were successfully organized at Kannada University-Hampi, Karnataka, Indira Gandhi National Tribal University-Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh, ITDA-Utnoor, Adilabad and Khammam in Telangana.
According to Census-2011, the official numbers of Gondi speakers is 27.13 lakhs, however the number could be higher, since many of the isolated regions have not been covered in it. Gondwana, which historically consisted of Central Province-Berar and parts of (now) Northern Telangana was divided into many states after creation of India. Gonds were ‘integrated’ into new linguistic boundaries and Gondi was deliberately ignored by the central and state governments. Government policies certainly did not do much to recognize and address the outcomes of this assimilation. Gondi language and therefore culture remained on the periphery of the state discourses. Gondi language further faced threats with imposition of regional languages like Hindi, Marathi, Odiya, and Telugu etc in school education. One of the struggles for the Gond community to find a common cultural and political imagination was of course the language difference. The lack of recognition and language standardization not only resulted into loss of literature and knowledge production, but also eroded the already marginalized language making it inaccessible to the new generation. The necessity of standardization was thus realized and it has now become a central theme of Gond’s movement for autonomy.
More than 250 Gondi experts from 6 states, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa and Telangana took part in the workshop. The local organizers of the event were Gondwana Adivasi Shikshan Sanstha, Manikgar and Gondraje Samaj Sudharak Trust, Chandrapur. Gond thinkers, elders like Professor K M Metry, Suner Singh Taram, Usha Kiran Atram, Gulzaar Singh markam, Hirasan Uikey were guiding and leading the workshop. With Chandrapur workshop the standardization process was expected to complete that would later be published as a standard Gondi dictionary.
While most of the states have had their own versions of Gondi dictionary, a standard work has not been produced so far. The standardization is based on Gondi dictionary published by ITDA Adilabad, authored by Mark Penny, a scholar of Gondi language. This dictionary consists of 2800 words and has Gondi-English-Hindi-Telugu words in it. In the standardization workshop, these words were to be reviewed, edited, and corrected. Initially, people from different states worked independently on the list of words (from Mark Penny’s dictionary) and provided word usage in their respective regions. E.g. in Maharashtra, three different Gondi words were recorded from three different regions. Once it was done, a group consisting of members from all six states would sit together and record their responses; finally an agreement would be sought at one common word with the consensus of elders. The idea was to trace the root ‘Gondi’ words that over the period has become diluted and changed in everyday usage. As expected, most of the times these root words were similar throughout the states. The workshop itself provided a sign of optimism, where people who had a great difficulty understanding each other in first workshop at Delhi, were now able to understand and speak to other Gondi speakers by the sixth workshop at Chandrapur.
This workshop was also symbolic of tribal unity and self-determination, where Gonds on their own accomplished what was the responsibility of government. The workshop was one of its kind, where teachers, scholars, politicians, lawyers, policemen, farmers, students from 6 states had come on their own expenses to contribute to their community. It also gave a space for the community to discuss social and political issues that concerns their future. It is hoped that the standardization would also pave the way for a proposal to the government to include Gondi in 8th schedule. Moreover, standardization had become a political necessity for Gondwana state demand, as was also consistently pointed out by Dr. Motiravan Kangali. Gondwana state demand had become visible in various pockets of erstwhile Gondwana after 1940s, when Komaram Bheem had first demanded for a Gondwana Raj. However when a formal plea was made in 1956, The State Reorganization Commission rejected Gonds demand arguing it did not meet ‘language parameters’ since there was no ‘standard Gondi’. It is therefore hoped that standardization and inclusion of Gondi into schedule list would give the ongoing Gondwana movement an edge towards the demand for state autonomy. Moreover, community elders believe that Gondi language can help them mobilize and organize 1.3 million Koiturs/Gonds spread across 6 different states.
The workshop ended with participants visit to Pen Thana, a sacred place for ancestral worship located deep into the forests of Chandrapur. After paying tribute to ancestors, a feast was organized beside river. The space beside Pen Thana looked festive and reminded me of the jatras. By sunset, group of men, women holding hands, forming chain, began singing Rela Song. More people joined the group and the joyful moment of singing and dancing continued until sunset. The 5 days workshop was more than just a workshop. It was an opportunity of revisiting our history, celebrating our culture and being proud of what we are. It gave a sense of oneness to Gonds from six different states.
While it was a delight being part of this historic event, it also raised certain doubts and questions- why did it take so long for Gonds to work on standardization of language? Even though dictionaries already existed in respective states and Standardization was always in the consciousness of the community. The state and central government did not pay heed to community’s concerns and with lack of institutional support, Gonds imagination could not become a collective project. However, when the initiative was carried out by an outsider organization with certain privileges, the process faced no difficulties. Is it to say that, without an ‘outsider’ intervention, Adivasis would not have been able to do it? I don’t think so. Adivasis struggle for autonomy is the best historical example of it. Nevertheless, better late than never, the community has now set an example for future generation and it is hoped that this effort would strengthen community’s social and political movements and their objectives. The draft of dictionary is expected to be released soon and then would be go into publication. This ray of hope is a way forward to make decades old aspiration for autonomy and long awaited recognition of our language and culture a living reality.
Photo Courtesy: Nehru Madivi and Shatali Shedmake