Language route to tackle Maoist issue in tribal areas

Language route to tackle Maoist issue in tribal areas
Highlights: 
Gondi remains an oral dialect spoken by nearly 1.2 crore tribes in MP, Chhattisgarh,Odisha, AP, Telengana and Maharashtra

Remember, Newton? The movie that was India's official entry to the Oscar awards in 2017. While portraying how voting is done in the forests of Chhattisgarh, the film provides a window to the difficulties its protagonist Newton (aka Nutan Kumar) faced when he tried to communicate to the villagers. Hindi was an alien language to the tribe, but it was the only language known to the government and security officials.

The portrayal was apt. For years language remains one of the barriers for the administration to penetrate the forests. The government can't talk in tribal languages and doesn't understand what's the largely Gondi-speaking sons and daughters of the soil wished to convey. The tribes on the other hand consider Hindi as a language of the upper caste. Because of the language divide, welfare schemes don't percolate to them in forests.

The division benefits the gun-totting guerillas who rule the jungles in central India.

With almost 99% of Maoist cadres being Gondi-speaking tribes, it is the lingua franca of the Maoist movement, dubbed as India's biggest internal security threat.

Still no education, administration and journalism are possible in Gondi. Till date All India Radio hasn't broadcast even a single news bulletin in Gondi, which is ironical because the state has a large enough tribal population to acquire the status of a separate state on that criterion alone. Unfortunately, Gondi remains an oral dialect spoken by nearly 1.2 crore tribes in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra.

"Gondi is spoken in a variety of regional dialects reflecting diversity in tribal culture. Such tribal language needs to be conserved in order to understand the hidden knowledge," Keshari Lal Verma, professor and head, School of Studies in Literature and Languages at Pt Ravishankar Shukla University, Raipur, told DH.

Four years ago, a motley group of language researchers, non-governmental organisations and tribal leaders came together to create a standard Gondi dictionary. With a bit of government funding, eight workshops were held since 2014 to understand more about the language.

There are 11 dialects of Gondi. As there are differences in the meaning and pronounciation of words, a common platform was created to deliberate and decide on a standard version of a particular word. The script chosen was Devnagari as the Gondi script is near extinct and not known to more than hundred. Finally, a dictionary was compiled by K M Metry, a professor at the Department of Tribal Studies at Kannada University, Hampi.

But having a printed dictionary has very limited use for the tribes, most of whom are not literate in a conventional sense.

Non-governmental organisation CGNet Swara, which was coordinating the Gondi dictionary making activity, now roped in Microsoft Research to record each of these 3,000 words. The aim was to create a smart phone application (App) that will enable even a poorly literate, Hindi-speaking person to converse with the tribes. The App will carry Gondi to Hindi translation of these words so that a non-Gondi- speaking person can also make out what is being conveyed in the tribal language. If it is realised, primary schools in Bastar can have some teachers at least. Also welfare schemes will stand a better chance to enter the forests.

As a starting point, Microsoft Research recorded each of the 3,000 words at a recent workshop. Creating the app, however, would take time as legal formalities are to be made.

The need for standardising Gondi language was felt by CGNetSwara when it began its citizen journalist project way back in 2010. Its community radio network connected to an online platform changed the concept of news in central Indian forests that are not covered by any big newspaper, TV channels and AIR.

Former BBC producer Shubhranshu Choudhary conceived the idea of the locals reporting their own news for a wider audience that include other villagers and administration. The platform was created by Microsoft Research's Bill Thies, who was a doctorate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston ,in 2008 when he met Choudhary.

CGNetSwara works on a very simple technology involving an internet connection, a phone number, and an interactive voice response system.

"The scope of doing education, administration and journalism in Gondi language is enormous. We petition the government and political parties to start using Gondi in official work," said Choudhary.

The former BBC hand, who also authored a title on the Maoist movement, felt that language barrier is one of the keys to overcome the left wing extremism.

"Most of the Maoists are Gondi adivasis, who dropped out of school because of the language. An App will allow even students from other parts of Chhattisgarh to teach the tribes in a distant learning mode," said Choudhary. "Naxalism grew in areas where illiteracy is concentrated," added Metry. The Gondi App (once it is ready) may just be the beginning of a change.

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