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How Disappearing, Endangered and Extinct Adivasi Languages Affect Adivasi Identities

The Adivasi Awaaz Summit, organized by Adivasi Lives Matter, witnessed a rigorous discussion surrounding Language and Identity, on the 8th of August 2022, at St. Paul’s High School auditorium, Ranchi. The summit was part of the event organized on the occasion of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. A melodious Munda song sung by the students of St. Paul’s College inaugurated the summit. The summit consisted of cultural performances, article writing and video making competitions and two panel discussions.

Panelists are answering the questions during AA Summit

The panel discussions centered around protecting and preserving Adivasi languages for the preservation of Adivasi identities. It is astonishing and unfortunate to witness that even after 75 years of India’s independence, Adivasis are still fighting and struggling for their survival both as individuals and as a community. They still live under the insecurity of losing their identities as Adivasis, duie to the oppressive mainstream structures. They are still fighting to assert their identities and to live a life of dignity. The most fatal consequence of oppressing Adivasis in India, has been the loss of their native languages and mother tongues. Dominant languages, spoken by the socio-economic and politically powerful sections of the mainstream society, like English and Hindi, have colonized Adivasi/tribal/Indigenous languages, thereby threatening the very identity of the Adivasis.

Who Is To Blame?

“Language is the soul of a community”, stated Karma Paljor, a journalist by profession, who has played a key role in bringing the lesser known facts of the north eastern communities to the public at large; at the panel discussion on ‘Adivasi/ Tribal Identities through Languages’. Language is at the core of identities and histories of varied communities, social groups and societies. Language is a necessary tool for knowing, understanding, analyzing and preserving art forms, literature, culture, traditions and other aspects of various communities. This has resulted in the Politics of Language, as dominant languages preserve and document histories of cultures, art forms, literatures, traditions etc., of mainstream, hegemonic and dominant societies and communities. This combined with the oppression of marginalized sections, ensures an attack on every aspect of their lives and identities, including language. An attack on the language of a community is an attack not only on their identities but also their existence as a social group.

Humans have multiple and intersectional identities. One among them is their lingual identity. For Adivasis in India and for indigenous populations across the globe, their identities as indigenous persons is directly linked to their lingual identities. While the Oraons speak the Kurukh language, the Santhals communicate in Santhali and so it goes on. Hence, language becomes synonymous to the Adivasi community/ tribe they belong to and thereby becomes their identities. Vandna Tete, an eminent writer, journalist, publisher and activist from Jharkhand, speaking at the panel discussion, argued that while some claim language to be an aspect of personal life and choice, one has to understand that for Adivasis, language is a question of their identities. If they lose their language they lose their knowledge systems- cultures, traditions, folklore, stories, forms of governance, closeness to nature and the like, as most indigenous societies do not have a script for their languages and hence everything is passed down to different generations through oral narrations. Their histories too are preserved by passing them down to different generations orally. Hence, it becomes important to preserve Adivasi languages, a good number of which are either extinct or endangered. Preservation includes passage of languages to future generations as well. However, due to British colonization, forced migration and mainstreaming of Adivasi societies, languages like English and Hindi have colonized Adivasi languages.

Keeping this colonization in mind Dr. Bikram Jora, Regional Coordinator of South Asia Region, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a linguist by profession, and one of the speakers for the panel titled ‘Preserving Adivasi Languages Through Digital Media’, urged Adivasi parents to encourage younger generations to learn their mother tongues. Apart from Dr. Jora, other panelists such as Dr. Jaganadhan, Mukhim and Konyak, also emphasized on the importance of learning their mother tongues.

However, one needs to understand that while in pre-independent India, English was the dominant and colonizing language for the entire Indian society including the Adivasis, post-independent India witnessed an equal lingual oppression on Adivasis through Hindi. Land grabbing, eviction of Adivasis from their natural habitats in the name of ‘development’, forced migration and mainstreaming along with institutions and structures running solely on the Hindi and English languages, proved challenging for the survival of Adivasi communities, resulting in the loss of their cultures, languages and their way of life. It was never by choice that the Adivasi communities gave up their languages, the very basis of their identities. As they were assimilated into the mainstream through migration, educational systems, governance, etc., they were forced to leave behind their languages for survival and in expectation of lives with dignity. It is an unfortunate reality that Adivasi languages have been ridiculed, discarded and looked down upon by the mainstream societies. The AAS 2022 winner of the Article Writing competition, Alisha Horo, mentions her personal experiences, about how she had been bullied and questioned about the origin of her mother tongue in a disregarding and invalidating tone. Moreover, once the Adivasis are forced to leave their lands, forests and way of life due to varied reasons, they enter into employment (unorganized and organized sectors) and educational structures that favor English and/or Hindi languages. Therefore making it necessary for them to prioritize languages. Due to this ongoing historical chain, languages have already been lost. As a result a large number of youth, especially in urban India, from varied Adivasi communities do not speak or understand their mother tongues. Who is to be blamed for this? The Adivasis themselves? or Governmental policies or the socio-political and economic structures that have ensured oppression and marginalization of the Adivasis?

Eric Falt (2022), the Director of UNESCO, New Delhi, had stated, “When we lose a language, a community loses its unique vision- its history and culture, we lose the local perspectives and stories. It is tragic that, with loss of their mother tongue, people find themselves unable to speak their first language. It is an irreplaceable loss.” The Adivasis of India, unfortunately are undergoing this loss.

Attempts To Preserve Adivasi Languages:

According to Mohanty (2020), during the census of 1971, the Indian government had decided not to include languages in the official list that were spoken by less than 10,000 individuals. This in itself proved to be a discriminatory step towards the Adivasi communities, multiple of which had very little population and therefore less than 10,000 speakers of their mother tongues. Due to the exclusion of such languages from the official list, the challenges to preserve them increased manifolds. At present there are 22 languages recognized and included in the official list which includes Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Maithili, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu ( Out of these only Bodo and Santhali are Adivasi/ tribal/ indigenous languages. Koya (2020) argues that some indigenous languages, despite having more than 10,000 speakers, are not recognized by the government. While Gondi has around 298,4453 native speakers, Koya/Koi has around 13,48,423 native speakers and yet remain excluded from the official list of languages (ibid.).

The PIB in its report published on Dec 2nd, 2022, talks about the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages of India or SPPEL ( Under this scheme, ‘the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore works on the protection, preservation and documentation of all mother tongues/ languages of India’, spoken by less than 10,000 people (ibid.). The report emphasizes the need to protect these languages as they fall under the category of endangered languages. However, in a PIL filed by Adivasi Lives Matter with regard to the number of endangered languages in India, the response was inconclusive. Hence, it is hard to gauge the success of SPPEL.

On the other hand, endeavors of Adivasis, such as Sripati Tudu, Shikha Mandi and Ganesh Birua, have proved to be milestones in the protection and preservation of Adivasi languages. Aljazeera (2022) reported that the translation of the Indian Constitution into an Adivasi language, by Tudu, is a remarkable step in the protection and preservation of indigenous Indian languages. Shikha Mandi, the first radio jockey to host a show in Santhali, has been an inspiration for the young Adivasis of India. She is not only a Santhali jockey, but has also worked in various Santhali short movies. While speaking at the panel discussion on ‘Preserving Adivasi Languages Through Digital Media’, she discussed the need to take Adivasi languages to the non-Adivasis as well and talked about the role of means such as radio and digital media in preserving Adivasi languages. Ganesh Birua, a digital content creator, who is known for teaching six different Adivasi languages through social media platforms, spoke about the need for better technological facilities in rural India and to increase accessibility of resources for Adivasis, in order to preserve their languages through digital media. Tudu, Mandi and Birua have been immensely successful in their attempts at safeguarding their mother tongues. They are not only recognized by the Adivasi communities but have global recognition for contributing to the protection and preservation of Adivasi languages. Birua is a part of the Warang Chiti 2030 project that aims to provide international recognition to the Ho language, while the language has been introduced in Braille, due to his consistent efforts. In my conversations with Shikha Mandi and Ganesh Birua, ‘Adivasi Consciousness’, was an important point of discussion, where we also deliberated upon how its lack has reinforced the loss of Adivasi languages.

Patricia Mukhim, a Padmashree awardee, a gender activist and an Editor at the Shillong Times, spoke at the panel discussion on ‘Adivasi/ Tribal Identity Through Languages’, discussing how the Adivasi/tribal consciousness has eroded gradually and how we have ‘graduated from eating in kitchens to eating on dining tables or other spaces. She argued that in Adivasi/tribal communities, the families traditionally ate together in kitchens and the elders like grandmothers discussed the Adivasi/tribal way of life. This helped in passing down the Adivasi/tribal knowledge systems from one generation to the other. This was one of the ways in which ‘Adivasi Consciousness’ and languages were preserved.

Another speaker at the panel, Phejin Konyak, an independent researcher from Nagaland, actively writing, documenting and preserving tribal heritage and cultures, discussed how contemporary educational institutions and other structures contribute in creating unawareness and unconsciousness surrounding the identities, languages and cultures, of young Adivasis/tribals; through her personal experiences. Both these dynamic tribal women have actively participated in the protection, documentation and preservation of tribal languages, heritage and culture in Northeast India. Mukhim has served as a member of the National Security Advisory Board, GoI, and has worked extensively on issues beyond military security, while Konyak has worked on Konyak communities of India and Myanmar. One of her major works include, ‘The Konyaks: Last of The Tattooed Headhunters.’


Thus, it is evident that there are attempts to protect and preserve Adivasi languages at organizational and individual levels. It is worth noting that many of these endeavors are coming from the Adivasi youth. There is a resurgence of awareness and consciousness among the Adivasi communities of India, although much needs to be accomplished in this domain. This was also the crux of the panel discussions held at the Adivasi Awaaz Summit. Nonetheless, one has to credit the above-mentioned figures and many more for fighting to retain identities, histories, cultures and ways of life, through the protection and preservation of Adivasi/ tribal/ indigenous languages.

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