In March 2018, the first ever standardised dictionary of the Gondi language was published by the Kannada University, situated in Karnataka’s famed town of Hampi. Gondi is the language of an Adivasi community known as the Gonds. Adivasi is a term used to describe the Scheduled Tribes who are the indigenous inhabitants of peninsular India. In a stark marker of the history of suppression and successive alienation visited upon the Adivasi groups of central India, the term Gond itself is an outside imposition. The community, which is the second-largest tribal group in the country with a population of over one crore, identifies itself as Koitur, which broadly translates as “people.”
The Gondi dictionary was the outcome of a historic initiative led by the community to revitalise their mother tongue that has been deliberately excluded and rendered invisible in the policies of the Indian state. This was achieved by a series of seven workshops, held between 2014 and 2017, which saw the participation of hundreds of Gondi language experts and volunteers from the seven states—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka—which have been the ancestral homeland of the Koiturs.
In November 2015, I attended the sixth workshop, held in Chandrapur in Maharashtra, as a volunteer. As I walked into the venue, the assembly hall echoed to the chants of seva johar, Lingo and Persa Pen. “Seva” or “seva johar” is a greeting in the Gondi language while Persa Pen is the supreme deity of the Koiturs. Pahandi Pari Kupar Lingo or Lingo is an ancestral figure, who is also considered a deity, who organised the Koitur society and religion. He founded the existing Koitur clan system of Koya Punem, which is also considered to be the Koitur community’s religion.