GN Devy’s crusade for the political empowerment of India’s numerous neglected languages

03 June 2019
A text written in the Sakal script in The Languages of Maharashtra, the seventeenth volume produced by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a massive documentation project spearheaded by Devy.
ANUSHREE FADNAVIS/INDUS IMAGES
A text written in the Sakal script in The Languages of Maharashtra, the seventeenth volume produced by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a massive documentation project spearheaded by Devy.
ANUSHREE FADNAVIS/INDUS IMAGES

On 3 June, the ministry of human resources development released a revised draft of the National Education Policy 2019, days after the original version of the document caused a massive uproar by making the study of Hindi mandatory in non-Hindi speaking states. The revised draft has removed the requirement, after politicians and citizens across the country accused the ministry of trying to force Hindi upon states, which threatens India's linguistic diversity. In the July 2018 issue of The Caravan, Martand Kaushik, a senior assistant editor at the publication, wrote about the scholar GN Devy's crusade for political empowerment of India's numerous neglected languages. Devy was responsible for organising the People's Linguistic Survey of India, the largest linguistic survey of Indian languages since the one by the British administrator George Abraham Grierson in the early twentieth century.

Just as British political dominance sidelined the major Indian languages, the political dispensations since have marginalised the country’s Adivasi languages. Devy explained in a video interview with Scroll.in, “The 1961 census had listed 1,652 mother tongues. The data of 1971 showed only 108 mother tongues.” Devy said he was curious about what became of those 1,500-odd languages. Plotting the missing ones on a map of India, he found that most of them were spoken in the central part of the country, the zone separating the Indo-Aryan languages from the Dravidian ones. “This zone is populated by tribal communities,” he said, “roughly running from Surat to Howrah, if you were to draw a straight line on the map of India.”

In 1995, at the height of his success as a critic, Devy decided to give up his university job and move to Tejgadh, a village in Gujarat that is home to the Rathwa tribe. He travelled from village to village with a notebook and tape recorder to document and study these languages. “I no longer felt comfortable to draw a salary teaching English literature when languages were dying around us,” he told me.

In Tejgadh, Devy founded the non-profit Bhasha Research and Publication Centre to study and document India’s cultures and languages. Activism in the form of healthcare projects, microcredit, foodgrain banks and water collectives—in Tejgadh and nearby villages—went alongside linguistic and cultural documentation. Three years after starting the foundation, in 1999, Devy launched the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh as an “unconventional learning space.” The academy was meant to do for Adivasi culture, arts and literature what libraries, museums and national academies had been doing for mainstream culture. Around the same time, he collaborated with the writer Mahasweta Devi to form an organisation to fight for the rights of denotified and nomadic tribes, or DNT, who were listed in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 and were later labelled “habitual offenders” by the Indian government in 1952.

“I stopped reading books,” Devy told me. “I started educating myself again.” During the 2000s, he travelled widely across tribal areas. A article by Nandini Nair in Open magazine documented the various projects he undertook at this time, including putting out journals with songs, epics and folklore in several languages such as Knukna, Ahirani, Bhantu, Pawari, Rathwi, among others. These journals, copies of which are still on Devy’s bookshelves, would be sold at nominal rates to the tribal communities whose culture they documented. Devy devoted that entire decade to working in tribal studies.

Martand Kaushik is a senior assistant editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Ministry of Human Resource Development education linguistic minorities
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