Mind Our Language

The Koitur community is reclaiming their linguistic identity despite the state’s historical biases

The Koiturs, an Adivasi community of central India, have codified the various branches of their language in a dictionary for the first time in their history. shahid tantray for the caravan
09 August, 2019

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.

Under this system, the Koiturs are divided into 12 groups comprising a total of 750 clans. Each group consists of clans related by blood. As the chants subsided, the gathering paid homage to the Gondi scholar Motiravan Kangali—who passed away earlier that year—one of the most influential Koitur scholars of contemporary times. Pictures of Koitur historical figures—such as Rani Hirai, a Koitur queen of the Chandrapur kingdom from 1704 to 1719, Baburao Shedmake, the first person in central India to revolt against the British in 1857 with his army of 500 Koiturs, and Lingo—occupied the front stage.

Apart from the codification of the language, the workshops had turned into a space for social and political dialogues among the Koiturs from across the country and a site to celebrate Koitur culture. The Chandrapur workshop ended with a visit to a Pen Thana—a sacred space where ancestral spirits reside, which is marked by stones placed in circular shapes, with each stone symbolically representing an ancestral spirit—located deep in the forests of Chandrapur. By evening, the place had turned into a jatra—gatherings of ancestral spirits where Koitur people make offerings and seek blessings through rituals, dances and songs. The men and women were holding hands, dancing and singing Rela pata—Gondi songs usually sung at jatras—till the sun set.

Gondi has been classified as a proto south-central Dravidian language and belongs to the larger Dravidian-language family. It is closely related to other Dravidian languages such as Telugu, Kannada and Tamil. According to a Koitur oral story about the origin of the Gondi language, Lingo was an adept of several musical instruments including the flute and the drum. He first developed the phonetics of the language by imitating the sounds of a damru—a small two-sided drum—and those later became the standard language of the Koiturs. Kangali, the Gondi scholar, argued in one of his pioneering works, Decipherment of the Indus script in Gondi, that the script of the Indus Valley civilisation can be deciphered using Koitur totem signs, which are usually animalistic. Kangali’s claims also correspond with the fact that Brahui—an indigenous language native to the Baluchistan region, which is Dravidian in origin—is closely related to Gondi and other Dravidian languages of peninsular India. Indologists such as Asko Parpola have also argued that there is strong evidence of the Dravidian origin of the Indus Valley civilisation.

Adivasi and tribal—a term that refers only to the Scheduled Tribes of north-east India—languages are considered the most crucial marker of indigenous identity as they carry rich histories, indigenous knowledge systems, literature, and belief systems. These languages also occupy the largest share among the endangered languages in India. In 2014, the ministry of human resource and development identified 42 endangered languages—languages with less than 10,000 speakers. Almost all of these languages were of tribal and Adivasi communities.

The history of tribal and Adivasi languages in India has been no less than a history of cultural genocide. After the fall of the last Koitur kingdom in the eighteenth century, the policy of successive rulers has been to impose the language of dominant communities, and the deliberate neglect of the Koiturs’ mother tongues. Of the 176 extant tribal and Adivasi languages in India at the time of the 1941 census, only two—Bodo and Santhali—have been recognised by the Indian state and that, too, as late as 2004.

The systematic exclusion of indigenous languages has also been a key factor in the denial of rights over land and resources. This is because the state’s official language of administration and the languages spoken by hundreds of indigenous communities are vastly different. 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 the history of our origin and ancestors. Therefore, losing the language meant losing the roots of culture, religion and identity. The deliberate negligence and indifference towards the Gondi language by the Indian state primarily stems from the fact that the Gondi linguistic politics are deeply rooted in the Gondwana state demand that emerged first during the 1940s with Koitur leaders such as Komaram Bheem demanding a Gondwana Raj. The Gondwana area comprises the erstwhile Central Provinces and Berar—or portions of present-day Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The region encompassing Gondi speakers is spread across Gondwana, the ancestral homeland of Koiturs, which was ruled for over three hundred years between the fifteenth and eighteenth century by four independent Gond kingdoms—Garha Mandla, Deogarh, Chanda, and Kherla. According to Usha Kiran Atram, a Koitur scholar, writer and poet, “Gondi was the official language of the Gond kingdoms and the legal, administrative communications were in the language. There was a deliberate de-historicisation of Gondi language and history of Koitur people, after Gond kingdoms lost their power in the region.”

After the fall of the last Gondwana kingdom, the Surguja region—which lies in present-day northern Chhattisgarh—was ruled by the Hindi-speaking Raksel Rajput dynasty from Bihar, for over a century. The Raksels hold that they have ruled the region for over a hundred generations but colonial documents and oral histories of the Koitur people prove that their chief ruled in the region before the Anglo-Maratha war in 1818. The Raksels de-historicised Adivasi ancestral territories, by renaming villages from Gondi to Hindi names. The historian Bhangya Bhukya argues in his book, Roots of the Periphery, that the British extended their control over the Adivasi regions and its resources in central India by following a colonisation policy of mass settlements of non-Adivasi, caste Hindu communities in these regions. The British colonial policy and the imposition of the Hindi language by the subsequent Indian state led to further erosion of Gondi languages and culture over the decades.

Today, of the total Gond community, only about 30 lakh are Gondi speakers. As a native of Surguja, I am aware of the reality that the region has one of the lowest numbers of speakers of the language. Growing up in Surguja, most of us were unaware even of the existence of the Gondi language, as it was never spoken at home. The language now only remains as residues in Surgujia, a dialect of Chhattisgarhi—an Indo-Aryan language—that contains words from Gondi and Kurukh. Gondi and Kurukh are the languages of the two prominent tribes in the region, Koiturs and Oraons. Even speaking Surgujia was regarded “dehati”—a derogatory term signifying inferiority for Surgujia speakers, while speaking Hindi was considered civilised. This led to most Adivasis of our generation unlearning the residual language of our mother tongue and aspiring to speak Hindi. Gondi was alien to me till I reached college and learnt about my community’s history through books and interactions with Koitur elders. The Gondi dictionary workshop was, in a way, my first step towards exploring the mother tongue I never had. The experience contributed significantly to my newly found acceptance and assertion of my Koitur Adivasi identity.

A key factor in the loss of Gondi languages in many regions, such as Surguja, was the division of the erstwhile kingdom of Gondwana into a number of states after the creation of India. In 1940, the first congress of the Adivasi Mahasabha, an organisation working for the Adivasis’ rights, was organised in Ranchi under the leadership of Jaipal Munda—an Adivasi representative from erstwhile Bihar. A resolution was passed at the congress for the recognition of Adivasi languages and culture by the Indian state. On 14 September 1949, during the Constituent Assembly’s deliberations, Munda proposed that the Mundari, Gondi and Oraon languages be included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which lists the languages officially recognised by the state. Mundari is spoken by the Munda people, mainly in Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal; Gondi is prevalent in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh; and Oraon or Kurukh is spoken by the Oraon or Kurukh people, mainly in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattishgarh.

Munda had argued that then Mundari was spoken by 42 lakh people, Oraon by 11 lakh people and Gondi by 32 lakh people and their recognition could be a way forward to extract the Adivasis’ ancient history. Munda also argued that while Adivasi languages were not recognised, outsiders’ languages had been imposed on them. “Has any Bihari tried to learn Santhali, though the Adibasis are asked to learn the other languages?” He added, “Does Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla”—the first chief minister of erstwhile Madhya Pradesh—“tell me that although there are 32 lakhs of Gonds in the Central Provinces he has tried to learn the Gondi language?” Regardless of Munda’s proposal, none of the three languages were included in the Eighth Schedule—they still remain excluded.

The direct fallout of this denial was that when India was reorganising its state borders on the basis of linguistic groupings, in the 1950s, the Adivasis had no locus standi to demand statehood since their languages were not even recognised. In 1956, a formal plea for statehood was made by the then member of parliament Raja Lalshyam Shah, a scion of one of the Gond royal families. However, the State Reorganisation Commission refused. “The demand was turned down on the plea that Gondwana did not have a language or script to unify it. The argument was unfair, because Madhya Pradesh state also did not have a language of its own,” Kangali told me when I interviewed him in 2015. He also felt that efforts towards universalisation of Gondi might help press the long-standing demand for a Gondwana state again.

The movement for statehood was revived with the formation of the Gondwana Gantantra Party, or GGP, in 1992. While the movement is still fragmented almost three decades later, the aspiration for territorial autonomy is still alive within the community. These living aspirations of Gondwana Raj are clearly reflected in the Gondi songs that have become an effective medium of asserting Koitur identity, history and culture.

The denial of an autonomous Gondwana state and its division into new Indian territories also affirmed the imperialist approach of the Indian state, controlled largely by upper-caste Hindus. Gondwana’s history from its prosperous past to the ongoing violence due to counter-insurgency in several parts of central India, and scores of human-rights violations committed by security forces, is a reflection of how the Indian state occupied the Koiturs’ ancestral territories. It fragmented them into alien states, divided and restricted their common places of jatras and festivals that earlier cut across state boundaries, and lastly, it turned one of the oldest and most prosperous indigenous communities into one of the most vulnerable communities in central India.

During the colonial period, various anthropologists, administrators and missionaries worked towards the documentation of the Gondi language and grammar. However, the aspirations and work towards the preservation and the promotion of the Gondi language and culture by the community began when Koitur intellectuals from across Gondwana got together and formed the Gondwana Mahasabha in 1916. This was reorganised into the Akhil Bhartiya Gondwana Mahasabha in 1930.

In 1928, Munshi Mangal Singh Masram, a Koitur scholar of the Gondi language from the Balaghat region of Madhya Pradesh, led the movement for the language’s revival with the development of a script. The script was named after him as the “Masram Script.” Along with the script, he also tried to codify Gondi grammar. After his death, his son Bhavshiva Masram revisited all his scholarship and published it in four volumes titled the Adivasi Gondi Lipi Bodh, in 1957. The books also proposed that the medium of language for the education of Gonds should be Gondi.

In February 1931, the Gondi Punem Sammelan was organised in Chandrapur where Koiturs from Andhra Pradesh, Vidarbha, Kanker, Bastar and Odisha took part. The meeting was led by Yadavshaha Atram, the Chandrapur kingdom’s last king, and a significant figure in the preservation and revival of the language. During this congress, various resolutions for the preservation of the Gondi religion and culture were passed in the Gondi language and sent to all the Koitur village councils in the Gondwana region. “Gondi (Koya) is our mother tongue. If we lose it, we would lose our identity” stated one of the resolutions.

The movement for the Gondi language was taken forward in the 1980s with the publication of the Gondwana Darshan, a monthly literary magazine founded by Sunher Singh Taram in 1985. Taram and his wife Usha Kiran Atram were the editors of the magazine, until Taram passed away in 2018. Atram told me, “Taram was deeply influenced by the Gondi language and religious movement led by Munshi Masram in the region and his vision was to promote the language through the magazine.” Gondwana Darshan has now been running for close to forty years and is one of the longest running Adivasi magazines in the region. It also became a nurturing ground for the Koiturs’ century-old movement for recognition of their ancestral territory Gondwana, their language Gondi and their religion based on Koya Punem.

“The magazine became a foundation for many emerging thinkers and writers. Motiravan Kangali was one among them, who started publishing his works in the magazine and later went on to become the literary icon of Gonds,” Atram told me with great pride. Kangali, a trained linguist, wrote extensively on the history of Koiturs and their culture, religion and language, publishing over ten books.

“The initial foundations towards standardisation of Gondi language were laid in the summer of 2014, when CGNet swara”—a community-media initiative working in Gond dominated regions of central India—“organised a ten-day workshop on Gondi language in Gondia, Maharashtra,” Atram said. Ramesh Kasa, a former member of CGNet, told me that during the workshop they discovered that Gondi-speaking Koiturs from different regions were unable to understand each other. They realised that centuries of fragmentation of their homeland and imposition of regional languages had distorted the original language. As the editor of the Gondwana Darshan magazine for over three decades, Taram, who was also part of the workshop, was aware of these discrepancies and the need to bridge the linguistic gap between Gondi speakers of different states.

Shatali, Taram’s daughter told me that, “Taram, during the discussion suggested that a collective effort towards Gondi standardisation should be initiated, that would help the community as well as CGNet.” Shatali was one of the key persons behind the dictionary. Taram also laid the grounds for the methodology of the standardisation process. The proposed dictionary used a Gondi dictionary of about three thousand words as a skeleton for the new dictionary. This fledgling dictionary was compiled by Mark and Johanna Penny, who were Australian linguists, and a Gond elder, Pendur Durnath Rao, in 2004. It was published by the Integrated Tribal Development Agency in Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh.

Regional variations of Gond dictionaries also exist. Gulzar Markam, a former member of the GGP and a Gondi-language expert who participated in the workshops, said that “the dictionary had been developed previously by the community in different regions. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana had their own regional dictionary.” He added that “a big lacuna was that many of the words in them were distorted due to the influence of regional state languages such as Marathi, Hindi, Telugu and could not be understood by others.”

The standardisation process formally began in July 2014 with the first Gondi dictionary workshop organised at Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti in Delhi. It was conducted and hosted with the assistance of Subhranshu Choudhary, the founder of CGNet, and the ministry of culture. The remaining workshops were organised and conducted by Koitur community organisations in Mysore, Amarkantak, Adilabad, Bhadrachalam, Chandrapur and Hampi. In these workshops, the team of representatives from each state provided word usages in their respective regions—for example, in Maharashtra, three different Gondi words were documented from three different regions and termed as M1, M2, M3. The process thus recorded six to seven variations of a Gondi word from these states. One of the main ideas behind this methodology was to trace the root Gondi words that have mutated over the centuries. The end result was that Koitur Gondi experts, who could not comprehend each other at the first workshop in Delhi, were able to understand and speak to other Gondi speakers by the sixth workshop at Chandrapur.

shahid tantray for the caravan

The entire standardisation process was initially led by Kangali, on the recommendation of Taram. However, after Kangali’s unexpected death in 2015, KM Metry, a professor at the department of tribal studies at Hampi’s Kannada University, took over the leadership and edited the dictionary. The published dictionary is now also available as an Android app. Metry, in the introduction to the dictionary, points out that one of the main objectives behind this initiative was to make a case for the inclusion of the language in the Eighth Schedule. “This demand has been raised over the decades from Gonds of different regions. However, a consolidated demand was raised in 2018, with a letter to the president of India, after the publication and launch of Gondi dictionary in Delhi,” Markam told me.

In addition, the assertion of Gondi religion and languages has grown significantly in the last decade, and as a result, Gondi classes are being conducted by Koitur organisations in many parts where the language has disappeared from everyday use. Vishnu Padda, a Gondi teacher and poet from Bastar in Chhattisgarh, was one of the elders who participated in the dictionary workshops. Padda now teaches Gondi in two districts of Bastar, in schools run by Jango Raaitaar Kalyan Samiti—an organisation named after a revolutionary ancestral figure among Koiturs who fought for gender equality in her community. Padda is also a teacher at another school run by Gonds in northern Chhattisgarh, a region where there are barely any speakers of Gondi left. Similarly, Gondi classes are being conducted by community organisations in Bastar and Surguja of Chhattisgarh and Mandla and Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, among others.

Another key objective of a standardised Gondi dictionary was its promotion in educational institutions. Markam has been instrumental in proposing Gondi language education in schools in Madhya Pradesh. “We pressurised the Congress party and ensured that our demand was included in the party's election manifesto,” he told me. In March this year, the newly elected Congress government announced the inclusion of Gondi in primary education curriculum in tribal-dominated districts of the state.

In Telangana, the first Gondi-language school was established in the 1940s by a British anthropologist, Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. He spent a significant part of his life in India among the Koiturs and is revered as a pen—ancestral spirit—by the community. In 2005, the Andhra Pradesh government initiated a programme to implement the teaching of Gondi in schools with the help of Mark Penny. “The language is now part of primary schools in tribal dominated districts Odisha as well,” Markam told me.

While the Masram script has found relatively wider acceptance within community, another script called the “Gunjala Gondi” was rediscovered in 2006 by the researchers of the Andhra Pradesh Government Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Institute, led by the director Jayadhir Tirumal Rao. Rao’s team found Gondi manuscripts from the Chandrapur kindgom in the Gunjala village of Telangana’s Adilabad district, but could not decipher it initially. Rao, who is now a visiting faculty at the Centre of Dalit and Adivasi Studies and Translation at the University of Hyderabad, began the process of decoding the script and translating it in collaboration with the Integrated Tribal Development Authority of the Telangana state government. It ultimately led to the development of the Gunjala Gondi Lipi Font in 2014. The researchers also discovered that the manuscripts dated back to 1750. The manuscripts were a documentation of the history of the Chandrapur Gond kings and their relationship with the Pardhan tribe. The Pardhan tribe is a part of the Koitur group. They were the traditional bards who recited the oral history of the Koitur community through songs and stories. Interestingly, the manuscripts also revealed the Gond kings relationship with Burma—now Myanmar—and these interactions were led by the Pardhan people as far back as the sixth and seventh century.

All the progress notwithstanding, the future of the Gondi language and Gondwana Raj look uncertain. “Our next step is to document remaining thousands of words,” Markam told me. “The process has already begun and we are planning the extension of dictionary in the coming years.” Discussing the future strategy for the demand for inclusion in the eighth schedule, Markam said, “Since the language is already part of school curriculum in three–four states, now we plan to push for resolution for Eighth Schedule in respective state assemblies. And then a collective demand would be made to the central government.”

Markam believed that language is a key unifier of the Koitur community. “How many languages that are currently in the eighth schedule are spoken in seven states?” He added, “It is unfortunate that a language that is spoken by people in seven states has not got recognition in the Constitution, while regional languages spoken by small population have been included in the Eighth Schedule.” The Brahminical nature of the Indian state is reflected in the fact that Sanskrit—a language of the Brahmin community—has a mere 24,000 speakers but is endorsed by the government and is part of the Eighth Schedule, while the Koiturs’ language, spoken by over 30 lakh people, still awaits recognition.