The ruling Trinamool Congress has released its 2016 election manifesto for West Bengal in five languages – Hindi, English, Bengali, Urdu and Santhali. The first three are a given. After all, they are the languages of general and official communication in the state. Urdu, too, is expected given the Trinamool’s perceived and stated closeness to Muslims (The party has four Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha – the highest number of Muslim representatives in the Lower House by a single party.) But the fifth is a surprise. This is possibly the first time that any major political party outside of the Northeast has released a manifesto in a tribal language and script – in this case, the Santhali language in the Ol Chiki script.
West Bengal has a significant tribal demographic – more than 7.8% of its population belong to the Scheduled Tribes, according the 2011 Census. Of these, the Santhals constitute the largest tribal group. But no party in West Bengal has put out a party document in Santhali before.
The Trinamool’s move scores on two fronts. First, it indicates that Santhals are an important constituency for the party, and second, (and far more meaningfully), it recognises Santhali as a language in its own right with its own script.
The Santhali language gained recognition in West Bengal only in 1979, and entered the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution – which lists recognised official languages – in 2003. The Ol Chiki script was developed in the 1940s by Pandit Raghunath Murmu and started gaining currency within the Santhali community in the 1960s, the anthropologist Nishant Choksi noted in a 2015 paper. Ol Chiki began to be taught in government schools in Bengal only around 2011. The Trinamool Congress, in its new manifesto, has promised to develop an Ol Chiki syllabus till the Madhyamik or Class X level in the state board.
Language is an important part of identity politics, indeed of identity. Being able to write an exam in your language, or have a signboard in it is much more than a bureaucratic detail. It is external, visible validation for a fundamental essence of your way of life, your universe of habit, those things that constitute what we call culture. And culture and language are so intimately intertwined that its hard to unpick one from the other (Here’s a quick thought experiment, think of a culture without language).
A consistency of sorts
“As a linguist and lover of languages, I am happy to hear this,“ said Professor GN Devy, “but not delighted. Devy is a writer, scholar, and the founder director of Bhasha, a trust devoted to marginal languages recognised as a centre of excellence by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. “Bengal has identified several languages from the Schedule [the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution] as official languages. I would be truly contented if they had released manifestos in Nepali and the Lepcha language as well.”
Two weeks after she was elected Chief Minister in 2011, she notified Urdu, Gurmukhi, Hindi, Nepali, Ol Chiki (Santhali) and Oriya as second official languages in the state. However, five years later, government signboards, at least in Santhal pockets in Birbhum, haven’t incorporated signs in Ol Chiki yet. On the other hand in Kolkata, a new flyover called Ma wears its name in Urdu along with Bangla, Hindi and English.
Similarly, Banerjee’s government has one tribal-identity minister, Sukumar Hansda, who looks after tribal development. The previous Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government had three – Upen Kisku, Debalina Hembram and Manohar Tirkey.
The Trinamool’s Ol Chiki manifesto was an example of good politics, said GN Devy, “Of course, this is politics!” said Devy. “The party is trying to secure the votes of this constituency, the Santhal community… But I like the good politics of it – the politics of recognising a people and their language, (and by implication) their culture.”
Junglemahal, a priority
The Santhals in Bengal are mainly concentrated in the districts of Purulia and West Medinipur, and partially in South Dinajpur, Bankura and Birbhum. The districts of Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura districts are collectively referred to as Junglemahal – a term that the Mughals first coined for the densely forested jungle areas in Jharkhand and Bengal, which the British then adopted.
The Junglemahal region hit headlines in 2008 when a motorcade carrying former Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan was attacked by Naxals. The area sustained media interest till 2010. Interest peaked with the 12-day siege of Lalgarh in 2008 where the Left Front government of West Bengal requested central forces for an operation against a local Santhal struggle. At the time, the state government had accused the Trinamool of instigating and aiding the Maoist attacks in the region. Banerjee made several trips to the region in these months, and organised rallies that led to concerns being raised about her security in Delhi.
After Banerjee took over as chief minister, Junglemahal and north Bengal have topped her priorities, and headlined her talking points. She announced a slew of measures for the Jungalmahal region, the most well-known and successful of which is the wider distribution of rice at Rs 2 per kg. The state has completed two super speciality hospitals in the districts of West Midnapore and Purulia, the only two that it has managed to deliver from its promised list of 34 . In north Bengal, Banerjee established a second secretariat of her government in Siliguri in 2014.
“This Ol Chiki overture is all about Jangalmahal,” said Kunal Deb, a Santhal rights activist in Birbhum and the founder of the NGO Uthnau. “This region is important to her credibility as a chief minister. Didi is underlining her work in the region, and reaching out to people by speaking in their language and asking people to return the favour in votes.” Deb pointed out that Banerjee has been consistent on her initiatives towards Santhals from the start of her tenure when she started celebrating Hul Diwas, a Santhal day of commemoration, as a state function. Observed on 30 June, Hul Diwas marks a day in 1855 when Santhal rebels Sidhu and Kano led a march protesting against the high taxation of the British colonial administration and local landlords, burning the villages of landlords on their way.
But Deb added: “I am not sure she feels as much about the Santhals in Birbhum where they live in smaller pockets. The gram panchayats and panchayat samitis there barely have Santhal representatives, and her party is not making the effort to draw them in.”
Others question the utility of picking Santhali in the Ol Chiki script instead of the Bangla (Eastern Brahmi) script, which is used more widely. “I like the tokenism, but I am also wondering how much it would mean in real terms,” said Ruby Hembram, founder and director of the Adivasi publishing company, Adivaani. “As far as I know, most Santhals in Bengal read Santhali in the Bangla script. I am very fluent in Santhali, but I can’t read Ol Chiki myself. I hear there is a real problem finding teachers to teach in Ol Chiki in government schools and colleges. On the other hand, it does draw people’s attention to the Santhali language, I suppose people would be surprised to hear we have our own script? But wouldn’t it have been much more meaningful if it were published in Santhali language in the Bangla script?”
But the aspiration for sovereign, untenanted scripts is growing among tribal cultures. The Idu, Kman and Taraon tribes from Arunachal Pradesh, and Halbi in Chhattisgarh are in the process of developing their own scripts or getting them officially recognised. Most indigenous languages followed the oral tradition till recently. It was the encounter with colonial modernity that led to these languages being documented in the English (Roman) script initially, and later, in scripts of other Indian languages such as Hindi or Bengali.
The problem, of course, is the obvious administrative one. If there are so many new scripts, who will teach teach them, who will learn and who will use them? Yet as Devy points out, at the time of Independence, the languages which didn’t have their own scripts didn’t get their own states. This movement then is not only about identity, but also a claim to a place in the world.