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Bishop Continues Christian Tradition Of Promoting Tribal Languages

Updated: May 15, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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A Protestant bishop´s involvement in efforts to preserve tribal languages in eastern India continues a tradition he says missioners began long ago.

Retired Bishop Nirmal Minj of Ranchi-based Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church played a leading role recently in two scholarly gatherings dedicated to the preservation and promotion of tribal languages.

Both meetings took place in Ranchi, the nerve center of the tribal Church in eastern India, 1,160 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. The city is the capital of Jharkhand, a state created five years ago to help the socioeconomic and cultural advancement of tribal people in the region.

Despite such goals, however, Bishop Minj charged at a meeting of about 50 scholars he chaired on May 8 that the state has been indifferent to tribal literature and languages. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people´s party) heads the state´s coalition government.

The Protestant tribal bishop told UCA News May 11 that he convened the "urgent" meeting since the Jharkhand government "has fully neglected the issue of tribal languages." For tribal people, he added, "this is a vital issue."

Participants discussed ways to implement recommendations that emerged from the April 26-28 national conference in Ranchi on tribal literature. Bishop Minj was an organizer along with the federal Kendra Sahitya Akademy, or central academy for literature, All India Tribal Literary Forum and New Delhi-based Ramanika Foundation.

Two conclusions that emerged from the national conference, which was called "Andekha Bharat" (unseen India), were that the country´s mainstream literature has ignored tribal languages, but that tribal literature has sufficient resilience to survive.

Bishop Minj reported that the scholars and writers at the follow-up meeting formed a front to promote tribal languages in Jharkhand. They plan to pressure the government to set up a tribal literacy academy and separate departments for tribal languages in state universities. A delegation is to meet soon with the state´s governor and secretary for human resources development, and the vice chancellor of Ranchi University to press the front´s demands.

Credit for the survival of tribal languages in the state goes to Christian missioners, according to Bishop Minj. "It was the Church that managed to save the tribal languages," he asserted. The major tribal languages in Jharkhand are Ho, Kharia, Kurukh, Mundari, Oraon and Santali.

"From the beginning the Church gave its full support to the tribal languages. Many missionaries worked hard to develop the main tribal languages. Presently, the Bible is found in most tribal languages spoken in Jharkhand," the bishop said.

Kendra Sahitya Akademy secretary K. Satchidanandan said the national conference provided a forum to assess tribal literature and its subsequent assimilation in mainstream literature. He pointed out that mainstream literature could use translations and transcriptions to preserve written and oral tribal traditions. His academy has published 10 such translations and 10 more are in the planning stages, he added.

Tribal scholar G.N. Devi said in his presentation that India has about 90 tribal languages, each with "traditional literatures of a glorious past." Yet he acknowledged "they are badly striving for recognition."

According to Devi, India has more than 150 million tribal people, including 60 million who lead a nomadic lifestyle. The government census, however, says tribal people form only 7.8 percent of the country´s 1.02 billion people.

Sylvanus Lamera, a sociolinguistics expert from the northeastern state of Meghalaya, said at the conference that various tribal languages could survive if they are translated or transcribed into major languages. He said many of those languages have been forgotten because they have no associated script.

Speaking about the "future of tribal literature," Vaharoo Sonvane from the western state of Maharashtra called for preservation in written records of tribal songs and oral art traditions. Several tribal traditions use rhythmic verses to pass on art patterns to new generations.

H.R. Meena, a scholar from Rajasthan state, blamed outsiders who invaded India over the centuries for the neglect of local languages. He said the invaders pushed local people into interior areas and made them untouchables.

"Those who fled developed their culture as distinct from the attackers," he noted. He wants tribal intelligentsia and their sympathizers to consolidate tribal culture. Learning tribal history would "help create masterpieces in the mainstream literature," he maintained at the national conference.

Ram Dayal Munda, another organizer and a Protestant, told UCA News more such meetings would "help push tribal literature to the fore."


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