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.

Martand Kaushik is an associate editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Ministry of Human Resource Development education linguistic minorities
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