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Seeking a Santhali niche

Seeking a Santhali niche
As a posthumous gift to Raghunath Murmu, a well-known proponent of the Santhali language and the founder of its most widely used script (Ol Chiki), the first Santhali daily newspaper is in the works. Hopefully, the newspaper will be launched later this year to honour Murmu’s lifelong love and activism for the language. Titled “Khobor Kagoj”, the name has been recorded with Registrar of Newspapers in India and an earnest hunt for investment is ongoing.

Commandeering this initiative is Surya Singh Besra, a Jamshedpur-based leader of the Jharkhand People’s Party. Will he make it? Besra has a financial puzzle to sort out first. “There is a lot of investment when it comes to acquiring tribal land but none when it comes to protecting tribal languages and cultures,” he says, referring to the struggle he has undergone to bring investors on board. He remains hopeful, though. “We are a family of more than one crore Santhali speakers who want to read the news in our language. Why won’t there be a market for such a paper?” Besra adds.

His campaign is one of the many that Santhali speakers across the country have led at the grassroots, to demand greater recognition of their language. The Constitution recognises Santhali as one of the 22 official languages in Schedule VIII. However, its speakers do not enjoy many of the promised rights, including the use of Santhali language as a medium to impart formal education. It is a struggle that has gone largely unnoticed. Moreover, it is central to how the state plans to tackle the spread of Maoism.

Last year, amidst the euphoric din about the resurgence of Hindi, the Santhali campaign in the Parliament was overlooked. Two MPs, the Biju Janata Dal representative from Mayurbhanj in Odisha, Ramachandra Hansda, and Trinamool Congress candidate from Jhargram in West Bengal, Uma Saren, took their oaths in Santhali. It was their attempt to bring the tribals closer to the “national mainstream”. The last time an MP took the oath in Santhali was in 2004, when CPI (M) leader Rupchand Murmu was elected from Jhargram. He was also the first to do so because Santhali was included in the VIII Schedule only in 2003, along with Bodo, Dogri, and Maithili. This had come after a longstanding campaign by its speakers and supporters that began in the 1980s.

As is the case with several lesser known Indian languages, many would imagine Santhali to be spluttering. On the contrary, this Austro-Asiatic language - which is written in as many as five scripts including one of its own - has seen a major revival in recent years despite state apathy. If it finds itself in a relatively vibrant shape today, it is because of the determined campaign of its speakers. The 2001 Census recorded over 6.4 million individuals who identified Santhali as their mother tongue, compared to the 5.2 million in 1991. Most speakers are spread across West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, and Bihar where the majority of Santhal tribals live. Their language today is expressed through at least 400 journals. Moreover, it has a rising number of postgraduate degrees, a film industry of its own and a population that is more determined than ever not to let the language stultify.

But these states have not chipped in with the requisite support. Education is a state subject and in most cases primary education in Santhali remains out of reach for most children - simply because there aren’t enough teachers and textbooks available. Such a scenario is especially and ironically true of Jharkhand, a state carved out of Bihar in deference to calls for greater tribal rights. The Jharkhand government has made little progress in the promotion of the language, including in appointing 1,000 Santhali teachers as per its plan. “Another problem is that many textbooks are simply unusable because they are printed in scripts other than the ones used in Jharkhand,” says Joy <g data-gr-id="86">Tudu</g>, promoter of Calcutta-based tribal literature publishing house Adivaani. “While we have the right to sit for the UPSC exams in Santhali, our children have to struggle to study it in their schools,” Besra adds.

Santhali has a distinct disadvantage as its speakers are divided across different states and as many as five scripts. Written in scripts of the dominant local language - these include the Devanagari, Bengali, and Odia scripts - Santhali is also expressed through Roman alphabets in areas of Jharkhand where missionaries have a strong influence. But it is its indigenous script – Ol Chiki - that has got official recognition amidst continued resistance from several quarters.

State apathy for tribal languages and cultures is a key but often overlooked factor in the tribals’ growing alienation. This alienation has been exploited by Maoists across the country, including in West Bengal where they have sought to piggyback on the Santhali language campaign. Several tribal groups have repeatedly demanded the right to educate their children in the Santhali language right up to the postgraduate level. These include the Adivasi <g data-gr-id="80">Moolbasi</g> Janasadharaner Committee and the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (suspected to have close links with the Maoists). The latter had started breast-beating on the issue in 2009-2010 when the Maoist struggle was at its peak in Jungle Mahal, a wide expanse covering three districts of West Bengal and a stronghold of the rebels. “Language is a very sensitive subject and it is easy to mislead people by telling them that the government isn’t sensitive to tribals. The task becomes easier if the government’s promises remain unfulfilled,” says Boro Baski, a Santhali language activist based in Bengal’s Birbhum district.

Realising this very fact, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, while on a visit to the region in July 2011, promised to set up 900 Santhali-medium schools and hire 1,800 teachers. Four years later, the gesture remains a just a promise. “Had something like that been done, we would have seen it,” says Dukhiram Hansda, a Santhali language proponent and general secretary of the West Bengal chapter of the Adivasi Socio-Educational Cultural Association. “A few para-teachers were hired, but that’s about it.” A somewhat sardonic Boro Baski adds that tribals have learnt to see through such promises. “The Santhals realised it was a political move and did not take it seriously,” he says.

Unfortunately, there’s this persistent line of thought that perceives India’s “biggest internal security threat” – the Maoist conflict – entirely as a result of lack of development. Amidst a push to throw in jobs, roads, schools, and hospitals for tribals, what gets overlooked is their linguistic and cultural alienation. Tribal children have to drop out of school because they grasp little of what’s being taught in a foreign language. It only exacerbates the problem. If the state is sincere about tackling the Maoist problem, promoting marginalised languages, including Santhali, ought to form a core part of our strategy.

(Debarshi Dasgupta is a media fellow with the National Foundation for India, exploring linguistic aspects of the Maoist conflict. Views expressed are personal)
Debarshi Dasgupta

Debarshi Dasgupta

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