Participants from Gond tribe attending a workshop on Gondi language standardisation at IGNCA , New Delhi  23 March, 2018. Different versions and dialects exist, specific to the geographical areas that the Gond Adivasis reside in. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Participants from Gond tribe attending a workshop on Gondi language standardisation at IGNCA , New Delhi 23 March, 2018. Different versions and dialects exist, specific to the geographical areas that the Gond Adivasis reside in. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

First Gondi dictionary of over 3,000 words to help bridge administrative gaps

A unique initiative supported by IGNCA seeks to standardise the Gondi language spoken varyingly across six Indian states

Gondi is spoken by nearly 12 million Gond Adivasis, that reside within the six states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh. And yet, there is no one standardised Gondi language that unifies them all. Different versions and dialects exist, specific to the geographical areas that they reside in, with influences of the regional languages seeping in.

It is for this reason that a teacher from Adilabad, for instance, can’t understand what a government employee from Bhopal is saying—in spite of both speaking in Gondi. But now, thanks a to a unique initiative, efforts are being made to standardise the language in order to bridge these communication gaps. For the past four years, 80-100 people from within the community have been working together to create a standardised dictionary of Gondi language. “This is a project for the Gond Adivasis by the Gond Adivasis, thus making it one of the most unique public participation projects," said K.M. Metry, a professor at the department of tribal studies at Kannada University, Hampi, who hails from the community as well.

The group has held eight meetings so far—the recent one was held in Delhi between 19 and 23 March, and supported by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts—during which it has standardised 3,000-plus words. At the meeting in Delhi, one could see 80 people, hailing from all walks of life—from retired school teachers and journalists to forest dwellers and farmers—having animated discussions about the language. Such was the passion for the project that they had to coaxed out of the room to break for tea and lunch. One also got to meet one of the biggest champions of the cause—Sher Singh Achala, who is the youngest at heart at 78 and has attended all the meetings held so far. In spite of his physician insisting on rest, Achala has been working non-stop for the past three months.

These meetings are week-long workshops, during which members sequester themselves within a room, and work for hours together. “We look at one word and the many different versions of it in different dialects. These are then listed alongside," says Shubhranshu Choudhary, founder CGNet Swara, an Indian voice-based online portal that gives people in the forests of Central Tribal India a platform for expression by reporting local news and stories through a phone call. The dictionary project has also been started by CGNet Swara as a mode of according Gondi the respect that it deserves, and prompt the government of India to include it in the eighth schedule of languages—given the vast numbers that speak it.

However, the eighth meeting, in Delhi, presented a breakthrough, when one word was chosen to denote all these different versions. “We have also started work on the audio dictionary, as part of which this standardised word will be recorded," says Choudhary. There is also a possibility of a collaboration with Microsoft Research on an oral dictionary and a transliteration machine from Hindi to Gondi and vice versa, but discussions are still at a nascent stage.

The significance of the project goes beyond just enabling interpersonal communication -- rather it is about looking at ways of brokering peace in a region wrought by conflict. And to understand how that can be achieved, it’s important to go back to the genesis of the project. It all started in 2004, when Choudhary quit his job as a BBC journalist to move back home in Chhattisgarh (part of Madhya Pradesh till 2000). “I belong to a family of refugees from Bangladesh, which had moved to these parts. I studied in a tribal welfare department school, the only one in the area, where my classmates belonged to the Gond community. When I visited my hometown again on work, I found that a lot of my classmates had joined the Maoists and taken up guns," he says. He realised that, say, out of the 99 Adivasis that had joined the Maoists, 98 were Gond and 90% of them were dropouts. The reason was simple: there were no local teachers, and the ones coming from outside only spoke Hindi.

The Gond community was also disconnected from the administration as no information on governance was disseminated in its language. “The Maoists did two things – spoke their language, and lived with them. They told the Gond community that tumhe kuch nahi mil raha hai, and people assumed that to be the truth. There had been a communication breakdown between the administration and the Adivasis. They felt no one wanted to listen to them," he says. And thus began the dictionary project. “If everyone has a standardised dictionary, then journalists, administrators or teachers can emerge from within the community. They don’t need to dropout of schools and take up the guns. They could work with All India Radio to start a news service in Gondi," says Choudhary. “It’s a slow process, but if we believe that Naxalism is the biggest internal security threat, then we need to look into this."

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