India: Government officials ordered to learn local tribal languages

[The inability of government officials to communicate with millions of adivasi (tribal) people has long been a feature of the non-existent relations over the great divide in India.  The communication gap is rooted in the officials’ lack of language skills, and in their political disdain for the poor.  But growing attention to the powerless majority and their waves of rebellion and revolutionary struggle, has embarassed the government of the self-proclaimed “largest democracy” to announce new plans for communication with their oppressed peoples.  What they fail to mention is that Maoists, over several decades, developed the written form of the Gond language and others, thereby enabling literacy campaigns, educational programs, and publications which have become accessible to the people.  Now, some government officials, if they follow their directives, will be reading Gondi books published by Maoists, or using Maoist literation systems.  It remains to be seen if these officials will make somewhat friendly conversation, or will be only measure these verbal encounters in counter-insurgency terms — by how clearly government and military orders are barked at and understood by the victims of Operation Green Hunt and other attacks on tribal people.  — Frontlines ed.]


Speak the same tongue

Suvojit Bagchi, The Hindu, April 25, 2013

Grassroots communication: Imperative for better problem solving. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
[The Hindu Grassroots communication: Imperative for better problem solving. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury]

Now it is mandatory for IAS and IPS officials posted in Chhattisgarh to learn at least one local tribal language

The Communist Party of India (Maoist) had made local tribal language learning mandatory for its cadres in Chhattisgarh (erstwhile Madhya Pradesh) soon after they arrived from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh in the early Eighties. Hence, in the next decade, all its Bengali, Telugu or Marathi speaking cadres picked up at least two main languages of the Gond tribals in Dandakaranya — Halbi and Gondi.

Thirty years after the CPI (Maoist)’s dictum to learn tribal languages, the government has decided to coach its administrative officers in tribal languages of Chhattisgarh. IAS probationers now will have to learn at least one of the local languages to “communicate more effectively at the grassroots,” Sunil Kumar, Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh, told The Hindu.

Cultural sensitivity is mandatory to counter the guerrillas militarily or to introduce various welfare programmes in the rebel strongholds, especially if the State officials are ethnically alien to the local people. The fact is, the tribal languages of Chhattisgarh are alien to most of the IAS or IPS officers who would carry the State-sponsored schemes. In this context, the State government has decided to impart training in oral communication skills in all dialects of Chhattisgarh.

According to Mr. Kumar, the State Academy of Administration has already been advised to “strengthen necessary language laboratories with facility to impart” language training. However, it would be limited to oral communication.

“This could be the dialect of the district where the officers would be posted for field training,” said Mr Kumar. A workshop conducted more than a year ago at the Academy initiated the process. “We believe that this exposure would make communicating at the grass roots more effective, thereby equipping the civil servants with better problem solving skills,” he added.

The first batch of IAS officers receiving language training is in the pipeline. The Director General of the State Academy of Administration, Narayan Singh, told The Hindu that once the present batch is posted after training, the course designers would be able to assess the relevance of the short course. He claimed that Chhattisgarh is the first State to introduce a “need-based tribal language training course among civil servants”.

The course material provided to The Hindu, however, looks quite elementary at this stage. Few photocopied pages with Hindi on left and the local language, written in Hindi script, on right, may only help the officers to ask some basic questions to the office staff. The informal course material has pages ‘Conversation with Guests’ written on top. Evidently, the course is developed so that an outsider, presumably the Collector, can exchange a few greetings and ask about the weather condition, village head’s name or inquire about the routine problems to her or his staff or residents of an area. Dorli, Chhattisgarhi, Sargujiya, Gondi and Halbi are the languages introduced so far.

Mr. Singh said they are trying to figure out how the course can be developed over the years. “Once we get some feedback from the first batch of trainees, we may be able to develop it further.” The Academy will train the IPS and Forest Department’s officials in a “phase-wise manner”.


a related article, from 3 years ago:

maoist_illusThe word is Revolution. Maoists give a leg up to tribal languages.

Debarshi Dasgupta

It’s not just guns that keep the engine of the Maoist rebellion revving. Away from the battlefield, in the quiet of the camp schools, textbooks developed by the “people’s government” are becoming crucial tools in the next war, the one for young minds. The books may be focusing more on the Maoist worldview, but to children in the tribal regions of Chhattisgarh they are often the only means of education. Outlook met with a few outsiders who had a chance to look through the texts, and asked them about the greater role it plays in the Maoist heartland.

Gautam Navlakha, consultant editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, spent about a fortnight deep in the Dandakaranya jungles in January this year and got a close-up look at the way the Maoists function. He says the “people’s government” in the Dandakaranya division already uses four textbooks for mathematics, social science, politics and Hindi for classes I to V. The books are written in Gondi, which is the language of instruction (also referred to as the “lingua franca” of the Naxal movement). There are about 2.7 million speakers of Gondi, according to the 2001 census, and it is a “non-scheduled” language. Published by the Janathana Sarkar from an undisclosed location in Dandakaranya, the books are mostly in black-and-white with sparse use of colour illustrations.

Besides textbooks, the Maoists also use DVDs to screen films on science and history and draw inspiration from the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme, a now-folded, highly popular science-teaching approach that stresses on learning by doing. Another four textbooks are in the works which will cover the history of Dandakaranya, culture, biology and general science. Of course, the Maoists are likely to tint the forthcoming history textbook with “their version” of it. “It’ll obviously comprise their understanding of who they are as a people and what they have experienced at the hands of the Indian state. I would be surprised if it’s treated any other way,” says Navlakha.

Shubhranshu Choudhary, a journalist who recently helped set up a news service available on cellphones in Chhattisgarh, has also seen some of the textbooks. “There is obviously a lot of emphasis on the history of the tribal people with pictures of leaders like Gundadhur and Birsa Munda. There is also the predictable familiarisation with icons like Mao and Marx and Indian leaders like Charu Mazumdar and Kanai Chatterjee,” he says, talking of images from the books. But it’s not just ideology—the social science textbooks are replete with practical tips, for example, on basic hygiene. “There are pictures that ask children to wash their hands before eating, boil water before drinking it and to sleep under a mosquito net,” he adds. Details of the text are difficult to ascertain as most outsiders who have visited the areas, including Choudhary, did not read or understand Gondi.One thing they all agree on, though, is the fact that these textbooks fill a gaping linguistic and literacy gap. State-run schools are hard to come by in these regions and government teachers anyway rarely speak the tribal languages. Also, given the utter official neglect of tribal languages, the Maoists have become, some say, the guardians of Gondi.

An indication of this, according to Navlakha, is how the Naxals are now veering towards creating a new script for Gondi. “But I really don’t know when they’ll have one ready,” he says. Some claim that Gondi had a script, but those claims are still unsubstantiated. The language earlier used the Telugu script and presently employs Devanagri. While there are linguistic reasons for a switch as some Gondi sounds cannot be transliterated into the Devanagri, one of the main reasons for developing a new script is to reassert an independent tribal identity.

Drubbed convincingly in this game of linguistic one-upmanship, the state and the Centre have finally realised it must give up its indolent approach to tribal languages and cultures if the people have to be weaned away from the Naxals. On cue, the government of Chhattisgarh—where most Gondi speakers live and which has had no textbook either for or in Gondi—has brought out for the first time a textbook to teach Gondi, Chhattisgarhi, Korku, Halbi and Surgujia in classes III, IV and V. “This will send out a positive message to the tribals that the government wants to reach out to them. It may be late but better late than never,” says Subhash Mishra, GM at the Chhattisgarh Textbook Corporation.

Meanwhile, the HRD ministry has also got into the act, with a roundtable in March this year to help preserve tribal languages and knowledge systems. “The thinking is that in the many-pronged approach to deal with Maoism, protecting the tribal languages and culture is an essential one,” says Ganesh Devy, an authority on tribal affairs and member of the roundtable.

In sync, the Mysore-based Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) is organising a major conference in June to kickstart training and development of manuals in various tribal languages. Census data shows that two tribals out of three do not speak their native tongue. “Language loss is not an act of volition. If we have to stop the tribals from feeling dispossessed, we have to reinvest in their culture, language,” says CIIL deputy director Rajesh Sachdeva.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s