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India's Gonds struggle to preserve their mother tongue

Researchers, tribal elders push for study of written and spoken Gondi language

India's Gonds struggle to preserve their mother tongue

Gond tribal elder Vittal Rao (standing, in red head gear) and Kotnak Jangu (standing, in blue head gear) pose for a photograph with other Gondi language instructors and their students in front of government-run primary school in Telengana state (Photo by Shawn Sebastian)

Shawn Sebastian, Adilabad

January 12, 2015

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As the sun sets in Gunjala village in southern India's Telengana state, Vittal Rao, a Gondi tribal elder heads home from his cotton fields after his day’s work. While his peers pass the evening with idle chat, Rao engages in something he considers close to his heart. 

He flips through the pages of a century-old book, his lips quivering as he carefully reads. 

"The book has a collection of stories written in our mother tongue with messages that promote good behavior," says the 70-year old Rao. 

The elderly Rao is one of the last few surviving people in Gunjala village who knows what is called "Gunjala Gondi Script", a local script in the Gondi language spoken by India's largest tribal group — the Gonds. 

These days, Rao makes up part of a team of researchers and volunteers engaged in a series of events aimed at teaching the script to the next generation to prevent it and the language from becoming extinct.

The 10-million strong Gonds live spread across six central Indian states. Gondi, their language, is the second most common spoken tribal language in the country with close to 300,000 speakers. However the language lacks a functional standard script and is diluted and influenced by several regional languages in the states where it is spoken.

Rao along with another elderly tribesman, Kotnak Jangu, are among the few with knowledge of the script. They both want to revive and popularize their language before it dies out.

For years, a lack of written works in Gondi stymied its promoters, but in 2007 a Gunjala village text was discovered during a manuscript survey and has given fresh hope for those trying to save the language.
According to UNESCO's 2010 e-atlas, India has the highest number of endangered languages in the world with 196; many are tribal languages. In the report, Gondi is categorized as a "vulnerable" language. 

With the help of the village elders, a group of researchers have documented this text and the few others they have managed to find and have initiated the process of teaching Gunjala Gondi script to 15 youngsters in the village.

In August 2014, with the assistance of the Integrated Tribal Development Agency in Telengana, a Gunjala Gondi textbook was introduced in 15 primary schools in the area with an emphasis to promote the mother tongue among Gond children. 

Last month, the Centre for Dalit and Tribal Studies at the University of Hyderabad initiated a 'complete literacy mission' in Gunjala village, which aims to teach the script to 500 villagers in six months. 

To support this endeavor, a Gondi research institute will be set up in Gunjala village with the help of the state government. 

The story of the Gondi language is similar to many other tribal tongues in India, which are undergoing a gradual decay because of the dominance of other regional languages. 

According to elder tribesman Kotnak Jangu, prior to Indian independence in 1947, Gondi was the only language the Gonds spoke. However, since then successive governments have promoted Hindi and other regional languages such as Marathi and Telugu in schools and for official purposes. Gondi has suffered as a result. 

"When we learned the script, we didn't know whether it would be of any use in future. But we learned it because of our love for our mother tongue," says Jangu, who has begun writing his autobiography in the Gondi script. 

"If we keep the knowledge to ourselves it might become extinct. It is important to pass it on to the younger generation," he added.  

Jangu's son Vinayak leads the younger generation of learners in the village. He heads a 15-member strong team of Gunjala Gondi script instructors who teach at schools.

"Our mother tongue is important to us. The first time my father was convinced of my learning skills was when, as a child, I wrote him a letter in Gunjala Gondi script," he adds.

According to Professor Jayadheer Tirumal Rao, the former director of the Andhra Pradesh Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Centre, the discovery of the village text and the bid to save the Gondi language is having an effect "in the locality and is expected to spread in other Gondi-speaking areas".

He says an increasing rate of school dropouts among tribal children was a crucial reason behind the introduction of the Gondi script textbook in primary schools. 

Researchers like Rao believe that if children are taught in their mother tongue at primary-level, it can arrest school dropout rates.

"Children speak their mother tongue at home and are made to study in a different language in school, which leads to disinterest and the desire to drop out of school," says Thirumal Rao, who is credited with the discovery of the text during the manuscript survey in 2007. 

"Our policy is not to restrict tribals’ access to their own language. Let them undergo primary education in their mother tongue, after which they are free to learn which ever language they desire."

The argument of the researchers resonates with the children in Gunjala village.

"I can express myself better in my mother tongue," says Ramesh, a sixth-grade student. 

Ramesh is the youngest person in Gunjala who is proficient in the script and has already written around 20 stories using it. He says he picked up Gunjala Gondi script quickly compared to those of other languages like Hindi and Telugu. 

"There is a lot of interest among my friends to learn the script from me, even my old headmaster has asked me to teach him," says Ramesh with a confident smile. 

Meanwhile in order to standardize the Gondi script, a tribal rights group in central India called ‘CGnet swara’ is working on a Gondi dictionary, which is expected to be published in February.

Those leading effort to preserve the language know that it is important for Gondi to find its way onto the list of official languages in India. For this to be done, it needs to meet several criteria of which having a script is an important one. Once a language is on the official list, it brings much needed funds for research and becomes compulsory to teach in schools in respective areas. 

As efforts continue to revitalize the language, Gunjala's elders say the future of the Gondi script likely lies in the hands of the authorities.

“We are old and we have done our part by passing the knowledge to the youngsters in the village. Now, the government must take on the responsibility of taking it forward,” Vittal Rao says.

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