Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Centre pays lip service to languages facing extinction

(Published in The Pioneer dated March 17,2010)
Rajesh Singh

196 endangered tongues listed in UNESCO atlas not even recognised in Census

Languages facing danger of extinction provide crucial link to cultural past

Although close to 200 Indian languages that provide a crucial link to our cultural past are in danger of extinction, the Central Government appears to pay only lip service to the cause of their revival.

When the Human Resource Development Ministry’s attention was drawn to the issue through an un-starred query in the Rajya Sabha on March 12, HRD Minister of State D Purandeswari brushed aside the issue saying the endangered languages were not even recognised as ‘languages’ in the Census of India Report, 2001.

In response to the question in the Upper House by RC Singh, the Minister said the UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger (2009) had listed 196 Indian languages under various categories of endangerment. “However, all these languages… are not recognised as languages in the Census of India Report, 2001,” the Minister replied.

But, while the Minister stated the Indian languages mentioned in the UNESCO atlas were not recognised in the Census of India Report, 2001, the atlas provides the 2001 Census numbers for many of these languages. For instance, the 2001 Census figure for Deori — a ‘definitely endangered’ language — is 28,000 speakers; Bhadravahi language — again ‘definitely endangered’ — has 66,918 speakers left; another ‘definitely endangered’ language Kinnauri has 65,097 speakers; while Godabov has just 26,262 speakers left in Koraput (Orissa). There are more such languages in the list that carries the 2001 Census figures. If, as the Minister said in Parliament, these were not recognised as languages, why then did Census 2001 engage in collecting data on them?

In a show of magnanimity though, Purandeswari went on to mention that the Mysore-based Central Institute of Indian Languages, which functions under her Ministry, had been documenting and digitally recording several of these periled languages. The CIIL was constituted in 1969 with the primary aim to develop and promote Indian languages.

Nearly a dozen of the endangered Indian languages are of Dravidian origin, Purandeswari informed, adding that CIIL had initiated an array of activities to preserve them. She said that the Centre had “documented/digitally recorded many of these languages. Moreover, it had implemented various programmes on data collection….in which NGOs are involved”.

The atlas was presented on the eve of the International Mother Language Day (February 21), carrying the grim warning that nearly 50 per cent of the world’s 6,500 plus languages were at various levels of criticality.

The Indian languages in the ‘danger zone’ are spread across the country, from the far north in Jammu & Kashmir to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and the North-east in Assam and Manipur. In fact, of the five Indian languages already declared extinct by the UNESCO atlas, three — Ahom, Andro and Sengmai — belonged to the North-east, while Rangkas and Tolcha were spoken in Uttarakhand.

If one goes by the Minister’s reply, 11 languages spoken in and around Andhra Pradesh alone are endangered. These are: Gutob, Gondi, Irula, Konda, Kolami, Korwa, Kui, Kurru, Kuvi, Kuruba and Naiki.

Gutob belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family of languages and is spoken in Koraput district of Orissa and Srikakulam and Visakhapatnam districts of Andhra Pradesh. With no authoritative estimates available of the number of speakers — with the Government unconcerned about the statistics — the figure is said to vary between 32,500 and 54,000.

The Gutobs began shifting to the more modern version — the ‘Desiya’ language - some six decades ago. As things stand now, reports estimate that as high as 80 per cent or more have cut their links from their heritage tongue and no longer speak the language.

An observer remarked that the younger generation avoided speaking in Gutob lest they are branded as ‘outdated’.

Similar is the case with Kolami language. Of the 2,00,000 people who speak the central Dravidian languages, Kolami has the largest number of speakers, approximately 1,22,000, and has borrowed heavily from Telugu. Yet the language continues to languish and die for want of patronage.

One language used — though its patronage is rapidly shrinking — in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, besides the Dravidian belt, is Korwa. The Korwa-speaking people are tribals who live in the States' forests and hills. They are socially and economically poor (it is estimated that 60 per cent of Korwa people are below the poverty line) and outsiders often look down on them because of this.

Many of these languages sound exotic today, but they will not even be heard of in a few years' time. When that happens, a vital connection of the Indian people with their rich cultural history will be gone forever.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sita as an empowered Indian woman

Rajesh Singh

The other day Rahul Mahajan got married on a reality TV show. His marriage was of course for real, and one wishes him well in life. Some one remarked that the show was a tribute to the new Indian woman who had taken the unconventional path to choosing a life partner. He said that it was the coming of age of the Indian Woman.

As I watched the final scenes of the show, I was reminded of a comment a young woman had made some months ago in connection with the Ramayana. "I do not wish to be a Sita -- meek and submissive. I am the new Indian woman!"

Three 'new Indian women' stood decked in bridal finery, fluttering nervously and waiting to be chosen in the final episode. The 'new Indian women' felt nothing wrong in being commoditised and rejected in front of a live audience of lakhs across the country. As for the mythological Sita to whom our young friend had disparagingly referred, remember that she had chosen her groom on her terms. If this is not women empowerment, what is!

It should be clear to the reader, if he or she were under some illusion, that the character of Sita in the epic was never meant to be submissive in the face of injustice – to her personally and to the female gender. One must realise that she could not have become the icon she is by being a frail figure, forever manipulated and bent by a patriarchal system. And, as events were to prove, her devotion to her husband and willingness to be his partner through thick and thin could not be interpreted as a sign of subordination. Let us look at some of the instances where her dominance is undisputed.

 At her father’s home before marriage, Sita would routinely lift Shiva’s bow with her left hand while mopping the floor. It is the same heavy bow that several strong princes failed to move even an inch from the ground at her svayamvara. Only Ram succeeded and married her. Thus, Sita actually set the ground rule for choosing her groom. Is this a sign of a weak woman?

 When Rama was exiled for 14 years, Sita insisted on accompanying him. Her husband told her categorically that she should not do so as the exile order was only for him, but she overruled him in the presence of a number of people. Does this indicate her ‘meekness’?

 Abducted by Ravana and surrounded by adversaries, she successfully fobbed off his advances and threats made directly and through others. The Lankan king failed to persuade her despite using all means at his disposal. Does this not show her determination and resolve in the face of a grim situation?

 Banished from the kingdom by Ram, a then pregnant Sita later brought up her two children as a single mother, imbibing in them the qualities of valour and fair play. And when they in their boyhood captured her brother-in-law Laxman, she rushed to get him released, keeping aside her grief at having been wronged by his family. Surely, this is a sign of a strong and very mature woman.

 In large parts of north India, the standard greeting is: Jai Siya-Ram. Sita gets preference while Ram is the suffix. Again, most bhajans and kirtans end with the cry: Bol Siyavar Ramchandra ki jai!. Ram's identity is thus as the groom of Sita. Are these not indications of the prominence that Sita has, even in relation with her husband?

 Finally, it was her decision to leave the world as a rebuttal to a demand to prove she had not been ‘defiled’ while away from the kingdom. Given her wrath over the humiliation and determination, it is unlikely that Rama would have been able to persuade her to change her mind even if he had tried. In the end, Sita set and lived by her own terms. It is not easy to find a better example of determined womanhood.

The book, In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology/Edited by Malashri Lal & Namita GokhaleYatra Books/Penguin Books/Rs 399/- provides excellent interpretations of the mythological character. Sita has been in the country’s subconsciousness for centuries largely as the ideal Indian Woman.

What makes the book even more special is the ideological space it provides to writers with different bends of mind. So, if there is Meghnad Desai and Indira Goswami, there is also Tarun Vijay and Karen Gabriel – the latter weaving for the reader an interesting Sita-Draupadi syntax in a gender context.

In Search of Sita is, thus, in many ways a tribute to an ancient icon by modern India.