- The journey of Santali: From script-less to official language - January 20, 2021
Image: A snapshot of Santali version of Wikipedia that was launched in August 2018. It was also the first tribal language in the country to get it’s own Wikipedia edition.
Language is essential to self-expression. If you aren’t able to express your inner thoughts, society will drown you out. Mother tongue is the most significant element of any community, especially Adivasi communities. Lack of practice of any language can lead to its extinction. To avoid it, the language it needs to be preserved through regular usage and communication. This is similar to how our beloved culture, the heritage we obtain from our ancestors needs continuous enrichment by the present-day living community. As Adivasis we have to overcome lots of barrier to survive. This is despite the fact that we live in a democratic country that has bestowed us with civil rights.
Nowadays, I see many people from the tribal community attempting to hide their inherent identity by not using their mother tongue in front of others. The reason perhaps is a desire to advance in society, leaving behind the downtrodden community they come from. While I understand their motives, I fail to understand the logic behind such behaviour. How can they renounce the community they were born in? The very people, who raised and nurtured them, taught them how to speak, and the essence of Adivasi-ness. When they attain prosperity, they simply forget to look behind. They stop speaking their own language because to society it sounds unpolished. My questions to them is –if you reject your community, culture and language by saying its backward, who is going to take the responsibility to preserve and protect it?
The Santali language hasn’t been dated precisely. It is spoken by over seven million people and has been in existence for thousands of years. The language belongs to the Munda subgroup of Austro-Asiatic language family which is distinct from the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian group of languages. It is primarily spoken in Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam, as well as in the neighbouring countries – Bangladesh and Nepal. Santali was originally an oral language without a script. Later it came to be written in five scripts: the Ol Chiki, Devanagari, Bengali, Oriya and Roman scripts.
Dhirendra Nath Baskey, a Santal scholar, in his 2008 book Santali bhasha o sahityer itihas wrote that, the main problem of Santali language was its lack of script, though this language is the oldest and highly regarded in Austro-Asiatic language group. During the British colonial period, the efforts of missionaries drew attention to the language. Some of the notable names included the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, Church Missionary Society, Northern Evangelical Lutherans Church and others. At first, they collected Santali words to learn and also published it in the form of song, rhymes and vocabulary in the middle of nineteenth century.
In 1925, recognising the need for Santali to have its own script, Pandit Raghunath Murmu, a Santal teacher and writer, created the “Ol Chiki” script. He also wrote songs, plays and textbooks using the script. Santal leaders fought for many decades demanding official recognition for the language. This struggle came to fruition on 22 December 2003, when the language was placed in the 8th schedule of the Indian Constitution and became an official language of the country.
Much time passed before Santali gained the official recognition that it has today. time reduced the acceptance for this language. Before being written down it was kept alive through oral traditions. It is the Santal people, who took pride in their language and cultural heritage who strove to preserve it and not let it die out. In recent times, the Santali language is flourishing. It has become a popular topic of research and is being studied in schools, colleges and universities. While one can study in Santali medium schools until the Higher Secondary Examination, college and universities in Santali medium are yet to open.
There have been many success stories for Santali, such as: Jharkhand and West Bengal governments have declared Santali as a second state language. In 2013, the University Grants Commission introduced Santali to the National Eligibility Test allowing lecturers to use the language in colleges and universities. On 2 August 2018, Santali became India’s first Adivasi language to get its own Wikipedia edition. In 2018, Santali was used as a medium for the West Bengal Secondary Board Examination for the first time. The same year, Santali Radio Jockey Shikha Mandi became the first Indian RJ to host a radio show Johar Jhargram entirely in Santali.
Yet like the two sides of a coin, the Santali language has also seen struggles. In some cases we the tribal people have not been able to preserve the purity of our language, also due to lack of states’ support. In other cases, our language has been influenced by adjacent regional languages; moreover, regional disparity has also diversified the tribal language.
“Santal tribes are wild and unlettered”- has been a general impression of Santals among non tribal communities. The domination of non-tribal communities over tribes and their language and culture has given rise to inferiority complex among many generations, such that they feel ashamed of speaking their own tribal language in public.
The movement for recognition of Santali language had started from the middle of the twentieth century. Santali speaker have already taken too much time to accept Ol Chiki script, moreover our political system has not benefitted tribal people for over fifty years. Santali is very popular in the community, though it is considered as hateful and unworthy by the non tribal community. In the leadership of Bhabatosh Soren, a former minister of West Bengal, a committee was formed for education in Santali medium, but it got abolished later.
While the government has implemented Santali medium schools they have poor infrastructure and resources resulting in low education quality. Such issues make educated parents resist admitting their children to Santali medium schools. With dominant languages such as English, Hindi and Bengali viewed as essential for professional situations, it also becomes necessary to ensure job security for younger generations learning the language.
It is language that sustains our identity. To preserve and sustain our language we need to plan and work together. Let’s stay united since we have much to fight for, there is strength in unity and we are more powerful when together. We cannot sit back and let our mother tongue die out. It is the language that connects us to each other so let us work together and fight to keep it with us and the future generations.
Ahmad. A, (2011), Social Geography, Rawat Publications, Jawahar nagar, Jaipur- 302004
Baskey. D N, (2008), Santali bhasha o sahityer itihas, sunil baskey publications, 18/1, Santinagar, Regent Park, Kolkata- 700040
Patel. T, “This Tribal Language Just Became India’s First To Have Wikipedia Edition in Own Script!”, August 10, 2018, The Better India.
Sinha. D, Meet Shikha Mandi the first RJ to host a show in Santhali, more lifestyle, Hindustan times, march 04, 2018