The late 80s Hindi movie Goonj, shot mostly in Goa and starring Kumar Gaurav and Juhi Chawla opens rather dramatically—with a Fiat blowing up even as the person who rigged it up as a car bomb is scurrying for cover. At first sight, it appears to be a run-of-the-mill crime caper. But five minutes into the movie, one realizes it is anything but that. The movie is centred around a very serious issue that gripped the Goan landscape in the mid-eighties—the language battle between Konkani-speakers and Marathi protagonists.
Not many know that between 1985 and 1987, Goa witnessed a protracted confrontation on the issue of Konkani or Marathi as protagonists on both sides came to blows over the official language issue in Goa. This had been a long-festering problem that had regularly come into the limelight since the Goan liberation of 1961. Between 1985 and 1987, the final chapter of this battle was fought.
The language and its origins
Konkani is spoken all along the Malabar and Konkan coasts and it is a language closely related to Marathi. Besides Goa, Konkani speakers are an influential minority in Karnataka and Kerala too. Many linguists opine that Konkani branched off from Maharashtri Prakrit and Apabhramsa earlier than Marathi and came to acquire a distinct and separate identity as opposed to being a mere “dialect” of Marathi. This is likely to have happened around 1,000 AD. But, firm evidence of a language called Konkani dates back to the 263rd abhanga of the Marathi poet Namdev (1270-1350), where he refers to “Konkani cowgirls”. In fact, Namdev has written a complete Konkani verse stanza that is attributed to the Konkani milkmaid and a separate verse for the Marathi milkmaid.
Prior to this, there is no mention of “Konkani” though there is an inscription written in the Devanagari script in what scholars agree is Konkani-Marathi, found in Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, dating back to around 975 AD. The first line of this inscription reads, “Shri Chaundaraja got it done” and refers to Chaundaraya, the minister of the Ganga king Rachamalla IV (974-979). The second line of the inscription is dated to around 1,100 AD and reads, “Shri Gangaraja got it done all around” and refers to Gangaraja, the minister of the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana (1108-1152). The hyphenated Konkani-Marathi identity is an indication of the close relationship shared by the two languages.
Besides this, there are a few more inscriptions (one of them in the old Kannada script) dating to the 13th century, but no other written record of Konkani exists prior to the Portuguese invasion of Goa in 1510. It is important to understand that the Portuguese did not capture the complete territory of Goa in 1510. In 1510, Portuguese rule extended only to the taluks of Bardez, Tiswadi, Salcete and Mormugao (Old Conquests). Harsh treatment of the Hindu population in these areas followed, which resulted in their leaving these areas. A policy of conversion was also followed in these Portuguese territories which reduced the Hindu population considerably.
In the territories adjoining the Old Conquests (outside Portuguese control) that the population moved to, Marathi priests officiated in religious ceremonies of the migrant population and also acted as teachers, which resulted in Marathi being taught and thereby becoming a second language of sorts for many Hindus. Konkani continued to remain the spoken language. The close Konkani-Marathi connection obviously helped. Marathi was also a well-developed literary language by this time and used as such by many Konkani speakers who were now educated in Marathi. In 1788, Portugal extended its conquests by incorporating the remaining areas of what is today Goa. This comprised of the Bicholim, Canacona, Ponda, Pernem, Quepem, Sattari and Sanguem taluks (New Conquests). This resulted in the Konkani population in Goa now being consolidated in a single territory.
In such a situation, various contradictions surfaced. The Old Conquests region was more Christian, spoke Konkani and had little or no use for Marathi. In the New Conquests, predominantly Hindu, while Konkani was spoken, it was regarded as inferior to Marathi, a situation that the renowned Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo says resulted in many people making a peculiar claim: we speak Konkani, but our mother tongue is Marathi.
There were Konkani speakers outside Goa too at this point, but their history in those areas follows a different trajectory as opposed to the Konkanis who were now living together in Goa under Portuguese rule.
In Kerala, the migration of Konkani speakers dates back to the 12th century. The migration of Konkani speakers to the Mangalore region began in the 15th and 16th centuries. Both these initial migrations appear to be economic. The final migration (from the Old to the New Conquests) is clearly due to Portuguese oppression. Owing to the spread of Konkani speakers all along the Konkan and Malabar coasts, all living in different linguistic zones, Konkani came to be written in as many as five scripts: Devanagari, Kannada, Malayalam, Roman and Perso-Arabic (this was by Konkani-speaking Navayath Muslims).
The Portuguese did not encourage either Konkani or Marathi and instead attempted to make Portuguese the language of Goa. This achieved extremely limited success, with only a tiny elite opting for Portuguese. The late 19th century however saw a Konkani revival spearheaded by the Saraswat Brahmin community mostly centred in Bombay. That Konkani was a distinct language was also repeatedly asserted and evidence marshalled to disprove the contention that it was merely a “dialect” of Marathi. In Goa itself, Konkani remained the spoken language though the Marathi influence was also evident in many walks of life. This remained the state of affairs till 1961.
Post 1961, a dichotomy of sorts emerged with the Saraswat Brahmans (traditional landlords) and the Christians batting for Konkani in newly-liberated Goa and the lower Hindu castes (Bahujan Samaj) batting for Marathi and, in fact, actively pushing for integration with Maharashtra (the Konkani as a Marathi dialect presumption made this a plausibility). This was in spite of many from the Bahujan Samaj being Konkani speakers. But, a presumption of Marathi superiority (and the “dialect” belief) dating back to their migration from the Old Conquests territories had resulted in this sentiment being predominant among a section of the population.
In 1967, an “opinion poll” that (actually, a referendum) took place to settle the question of Goa’s integration with Maharashtra decisively tilted the scales in favour of a “separate” Goa. As a young writer, Damodar Mauzo was a part of this movement and remembers that much pamphleteering was done then to further the Goan and by extension, the Konkani cause. The final result was clearly a vote in favour of retaining a distinct Goan identity and with Konkani very much a part of the Goan culture and ethos, the language issue ought to have been settled once and for all. But, it was not to be and over time, the language issue came to the fore yet again. In such a scenario, the presumed superiority of Marathi was a sentiment that came in useful for Marathi protagonists.
The Konkani-Marathi debate post 1961 was polarized on three binaries: Hindu-Christian, Brahmin-Bahujan Samaj and landowner-agricultural labourer (bhatkar-mundkar). In 1985, a group of Konkani writers, among whom Damodar Mauzo was also prominent, floated the Konkan Porjecho Awaz (KPA—the voice of the Konkani people) to fight for “official language” status for Konkani. Marathi protagonists responded with the Marathi Rajya Bhashya Prastapanan Samiti (MRBPS—the committee to establish Marathi as the official language). By late 1986, the confrontation entered a violent phase, resulting in the deaths of seven people and the army eventually being called out to control the mobs. In February 1987, Konkani was accorded official status and later that year, Goa graduated to full statehood within the Indian union.
The Konkani-Marathi issue is effectively settled now. Devanagiri has come to be the predominant script of Konkani though the Roman script continues to be in use, especially by the Church. The Kannada script too is used in Karnataka. The usage of Perso-Arabic script remains though it has reduced considerably and the usage of Malayalam script by Konkanis in Kerala has been replaced by the usage of Devanagiri.
Konkani has not been standardized though the process of standardization (by integrating Konkani’s various dialects) is on and hence, many forms of Konkani continue to be in use in both speech and writing. Given the politics of standardizing a language (the subject of a forthcoming article), this is perhaps just as well.
Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com