Koiturs continue to fight for identity and survival of Gondi language

Yushmita Sidar
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Image: Gondi language experts and community volunteers at the first dictionary workshops held at Delhi’s Gandhi Smriti Darshan Samithi  in 2014. (Photo courtesy – Ramesh Kasa)

On 21 July 2020, amid the pandemic, Adivasi Sankshema Parishad, an organization working in Telangana, and other Adivasi organizations from six states where Gondi is spoken geared up to observe Gondi Language Day using social media platforms in compliance with the COVID guidelines. Many members of the Gond or Koitur community, especially youth, participated in it and showed their concern about this language.  The campaign was organized with the intention to call up Adivasis for observing Vishwa Koya Bhasha Dinotsavam every year.

The UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, in 2018, had categorised Gondi—the mother-tongue of the Gonds or Koiturs—in the “vulnerable” category, among other Adivasi languages. Gondi belongs to the Dravidian family of languages and is spoken majorly in parts of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, and Maharashtra. The language is also linguistically related to Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. Spoken by around three million people, it has at least six dialects but can only be written by about a hundred people. There are two Gondi scripts—Mashram and Gunjala. Mashram script was developed as a result of a movement led by Munshi Mangal Singh Mashram, a scholar of Gondi language hailing from Madhya Pradesh, in 1928. On the other hand, Gunjala script, which is argued to have originated in 1750, was retrieved in 2006 by Jayadhir Tiramul Rao and his team of researchers at the Andhra Pradesh Government Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Institute.

Since the division of Gondwana’s ancestral territory, Gondi is spoken so differently in every state that its speakers cannot communicate with each other smoothly and efficiently. The language has been influenced by regional languages, for instance, Gondi in Maharashtra has a Marathi influence, Gondi in Telangana has Telugu influence, moreover, because of urbanization and modernization, the language has been losing its authenticity.

Gondi was seen as an “uncivilized” language but now thanks to the various awareness programs and initiatives taken by the community, people are making efforts to learn it and are not ashamed of their own language.

In order to address this, a project was launched to save Gondi, by preparing community’s first concise Gondi dictionary, that was later also built into an application. The project was initiated by Gond elders including Sunher Singh Taram and Motiravan Kangali and was facilitated by CGNet Swara organisation. Workshops in various Gondi speaking regions were held between 2014 and 2017 as a part of the project. The workshops were attended by Gondi language experts and volunteers from various states. The very initial workshop was organized at Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Smriti in Delhi. The workshops included grouping of volunteers from each state who would give Gondi words used in their respective region. This method resulted into documentation of several variants of Gondi words.

In 2018, after eight meetings over four years, with 60 representatives of six Gondi dialects, alongside the members of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, a standardized Gondi dictionary was published in Devnagari with 3,000-3,500 words. Gondi developed differently in different places primarily due to the lack of a centralised co-ordination. The lack of Gondi literature and a universal script were among the major problems faced by the community in order to bring the dictionary together in the first place. The Gondi dictionary prepared by the Australian linguist Mark Penny was taken as the reference point for the new dictionary. In order to get relevant data and words, the members used to speak the Hindi sentences to Gondi speakers and experts, who translated the sentences back in Gondi. Workshops were held where translations were done. The project also focused on the ideas and needs of the Gonds and brought the community together.

However, this wasn’t the first ever Gondi dictionary produced by the community. According to Gulzar Singh Markam, a former member of the Gondwana Gantantra Party and a Gondi language expert, different Gondi dictionary had been developed by Gonds of different regions in the past but due to influence of state languages all the dictionaries were different from each other and were also distorted.

In August 2020, CGNet Swara in collaboration with IIIT, Naya Raipur and Microsoft Research Lab, Bengaluru, made progress on the new Interactive Neural Machine Translation app which will help to translate between Gondi and Hindi.

Many children in tribal areas have been unable to study in schools that did not have local languages as their mediums, therefore, having tribal languages as a medium can bridge the gap and allow these children a better learning atmosphere. And including tribal languages in the early education can help in promoting and preserving languages of Adivasi communities.

Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana government have already taken initiatives to include Gondi in primary education. The New Education Policy also allows education to be imparted in the mother-tongue. While there are no books in Gondi and there is a shortage of teachers who can instruct in Gondi, in Chhattisgarh the government soon plans to work towards it.

Many children in tribal areas have been unable to study in schools that did not have local languages as their mediums, therefore, having tribal languages as a medium can bridge the gap and allow these children a better learning atmosphere.

In Chhattisgarh, a group of Gond community members formed an education committee named after the revolutionary Jango Raitar. The committee has established three Gondi medium schools so far. Two of them are in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker and Kondagoan, where around 300 children are being taught in Gondi with the help of computers by digitizing the Gondi fonts. It was earlier taught orally for the past five years at Sarona in Kanker and Masora in Kondagoan, without any printed study materials or books. Vishnu Padda, the secretary of Jango Raitar Committee, had published a primer in Gondi language in the year 2005 after studying Mothiravan Kangali’s Gondi script. And the primer was being used to teach the children prior to digitization of Gondi fonts.  This initiative will be a milestone for development of Gondi language and the digitized Gondi fonts will also be useful for the government to print books and study materials.

After the Gondi dictionary and inclusion of Gondi in schools, another major step on which works and efforts are being done is inclusion of the language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The demand to include Gondi in Eighth Schedule has been expressed since a really long time now; however the demand is yet to be met. Many believe that the reason for non inclusion of Gondi in Eighth Schedule is that it is not spoken by “adequate” amount of people and it has no written scripture or a common script.  The major argument for this is that Gondi spoken by over 30 lakhs people in six states has not yet been recognized in our Constitution whereas a Brahmin community language- Sanskrit with over 24 thousands speakers has been recognized. This reflects the existing Brahminical nature of the Indian state.

It is true that there is a lack of Gondi script and Gondi was orally spoken and passed down to the coming generations. Akash Poyam, in his essay “Mind Our Language, wrote “The Gondi language has an oral tradition of narratives through songs and stories which contains troves of knowledge about the Koitur belief systems, social norms and values. They also provide history of our origin and ancestors. Therefore loosing the language meant loosing the roots of culture, religion and identity.”

At present, we can safely say that Gondi has survived and will continue to fight. Gondi was spoken by the ones in tribal areas only, which are relatively isolated from the rest of the world. However, Gonds, especially the ones who have been socialized through modern education, have neglected their mother-tongue Gondi, and continued to use Hindi, English and their respective state languages. Gondi was seen as an “uncivilized” language but now thanks to the various awareness programs and initiatives taken by the community, people are making efforts to learn it and are not ashamed of their own language. The assertion of Gondi language also highlights that the educated class among the community understands the importance of the language and wants to preserve it, since losing Gondi will not merely be a loss of a language but also the culture and origin of Gonds.

Yushmita Sidar

Yushmita Sidar belongs to Koitur (Gond) tribe and is currently an undergraduate law student at Hidayatullah National Law University, Nava Raipur.

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