One evening in 1993, a young Adivasi doctor named Narayan Oraon visited his friend Vinod Kumar Bhagat at a student hostel in Ranchi.

The movement for separate statehood for Jharkhand, then a part of Bihar, was steadily gaining ground during these years. Adivasi communities of the region had long experienced social, economic, and cultural discrimination in their own homeland, and were demanding a separate state where their rights would be safeguarded. Oraon had experienced this discrimination first-hand – he had been called a “jungli” as a medical student at the Darbhanga Medical College in Bihar.

As the educated vanguard of Adivasi society, student leaders were at the forefront of the Jharkhand movement. Oraon’s friend, Bhagat, was one of them.

That evening, Bhagat, one of the movement’s most fiery leaders, grew emotional and confided in Oraon. He said that at times he felt unsure about what they were fighting for, since most institutions of society, like schools, colleges, police stations and courts, would remain the same even after a new state was created. “If the system remains the same as in Bihar, then what are we fighting for? What will the common man gain out of this?” Oraon recalled his friend saying to him. But as their discussion continued, Bhagat answered his own question: “If we save our culture and our languages, the movement will have been successful.”

This was a powerful insight for Oraon. It strengthened his resolve to see through the work he had started in 1989 – to develop a script for Kurukh, also known as Oraon, the language of his community.

The impetus for the project had come from a chance observation. While working as an intern at the Darbhanga Medical Hospital, he had noticed that both rupee notes and packets of contraceptive pills had text written on them in several different scripts – it struck him that if Adivasi languages had distinct scripts that were recognised widely, then they too could be included there. Oraon believed that Adivasi languages possessed a wealth of knowledge and deserved to be recognised like other commonly used languages.

The meeting with Bhagat convinced Oraon that creating a script for Kurukh could be his contribution to the struggle for Jharkhand.

Even though he had no formal training in linguistics, Oraon plunged into the task. He decided, after discussions with community members, to name the script Tolong Siki.

The word “tolong” refers to a traditional garment worn by men from Adivasi communities in the region – Oraon explained that the design for the alphabets were inspired by the styles of wrapping the garment. “Siki”, meanwhile, is a modification of the Kurukh word “sika”, a traditional practice where a piece of red-hot wood is used to mark the inside of men’s wrists to test their endurance.

In the day, Oraon worked as a medical officer for the government. Many nights, he would put in several hours working on the script. A decade later, the script was officially released to the public. In 2003, the Jharkhand government recognised it as the official script for the Kurukh language.

Narayan Oraon decided to create a script for the Kurukh language after he noticed that currency notes and contraceptive pill packets had text in many languages, but no tribal language. Photo: Special arrangement

A medical doctor had pulled off a feat which was rare even for linguistic scholars. The achievement marked Oraon out as a crucial figure in the history of Kurukh culture. He joined the ranks of others who made the same contribution to their own communities, such as Pandit Raghunath Murmu, who developed the Ol Chiki script for the Santali language in 1934, and Rohidas Singh Nag, who in the late 1980s, released the Mundari Bani script for the Mundari language.

In the afterword to a book published by Oraon, titled The Origin and Development of Tolong Siki, the late Bishop Nirmal Minz, a Kurukh leader and founder of Ranchi’s Gossner College, wrote: “Most Adivasis are doubly deprived of their cultural identity. First their mother tongue is not recognised, and they have no script of their own.”

“To be an independent and free Adivasi person and community, they must have their own script and language for developing their literature and culture,” Minz added.

Around the same time that Oraon released his script into the world, deep in the interiors of Gumla district, in a village called Baghitoli, Father Zephyrinus Baxla, a Kurukh priest, started a school for his community in a small mud hut, with 15 students and a teacher.

Oraon’s and Baxla’s paths would intersect. The outcome was nothing short of electrifying – and the impact wasn’t just confined to Jharkhand.

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Even before the movement for a separate state came to fruition, Adivasis in Jharkhand had long been speaking out against discrimination and exploitation.

Just a year after Independence, the Adivasi leader Jaipal Singh Munda made a public speech, in which he lambasted prevalent attitudes towards these communities. “People are so ignorant about the Adibasis in general that they make irresponsible statements about their culture and languages and even religious beliefs,” he said.

He also warned against imposing dominant languages on these communities. “It is said that aboriginal tracts are not worth developing and that in aboriginal tracts the medium of instruction should be Rashtrabhasha” – the national language, he said.

In the constituent assembly debates, Munda had also made a case to include the Mundari, Oraon and Gondi languages in the list of official languages in the eighth schedule of the Constitution. He had said, “My main reason in asking the House to accept these three languages is that I feel that by accepting them we will be encouraging the cause of unearthing ancient history.” But this demand was ignored.

The fear of Adivasi languages and their associated cultures dying out continues to be a prevalent one in Jharkhand. “It’s through language that we have been telling our stories to the next generation,” said Dr Abhay Minz, director of the Center for Endangered Indigenous Languages and Culture at Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee University, Ranchi. “If a language dies, its people’s stories die with it.”

The historical lack of scripts belies the fact that oral languages are rich and complete systems of expression and are key to understanding a community’s identity and history, Minz explained. “Language is a medium of conveying your ideas about your environment and culture,” he said. “Oral languages carry the wealth of knowledge passed through generations. They contain an entire worldview, knowledge and belief system. If you live in the jungle you won’t be thinking of camels, you will think of jal, jangal, jameen,” he said.

Since at least the late 1800s, Adivasi languages have been written, printed, and taught using the Devanagari script or the scripts of other regional languages. But many Adivasis feel it is necessary for the languages to have their own scripts to retain their independence. Oraon noted, “Every language has its own distinct characteristics. It is difficult to capture the unique sounds of one language using the script of another.”

Oraon also argued that Kurukh, a Dravidian language, should not be written using Indo-Aryan scripts, such as Devanagari, since the interaction of Adivasi languages with those from the Indo-Aryan family had had adverse effects on Adivasi languages. “We are made to feel that we can only progress in life with Hindi and English,” Oraon said. “I have nothing against these languages, they’re important to earn a livelihood. But if we want to keep our Adivasiyat alive then we need to know our own languages.”

I met Oraon, now in his early sixties, in late November at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College in Jamshedpur, where he works as a medical officer.

A constant stream of patients kept entering his office as we spoke, seeking his signature on their documents. At times during these interruptions, Oraon paused the conversation, but often he simply continued talking as he attended to his duties.

“You have to look at the community closely and understand it, that’s how I made the script,” he said when I asked him about his approach to his task. “If I had made it anyhow, nobody would have accepted it.”

Oraon received support and guidance from community members in rural areas and prominent Adivasi intellectuals, including professional linguists like Dr Francis Ekka and Dr Ram Dayal Munda. He recounted that these experts offered him advice on the approach he should adopt, including that he should ground his script in the specific phonetics of the Kurukh language. “Tolong Siki was created according to the phonetic principal of ‘jaise boliye, waise likhiye’” or, write the way you speak, said Oraon.

Oraon also benefited from detailed feedback from community members in villages, who had a strong command over the language. He recounted that at first, he had not included the sound “nya” in the script. On showing the script to villagers, they sang traditional songs to him where the sound was used, and thus demonstrated to him that it should be represented in the script.

Even those community members who didn’t speak the language had useful advice to offer. Oraon recalled that he had sought advice from a well-regarded priest and scholar named Father Benny Ekka. With a smile, he recounted that Ekka complained that the correct direction of the short and long vowels in the Devanagari script was a matter of great confusion. “Please save our community from this struggle!” Ekka had said.

Linguists also advised Oraon that the script should be representative of Kurukh society and culture. For this, Oraon, who grew up in the small village of Sainda, took inspiration from the symbols and patterns that he observed in Kurukh society. “To collect symbols for the script, I went to rural areas and noted the symbols present in customary rituals performed by Adivasis, figures made on walls, patterns made in barns and fields, traditional methods used by farmers in agriculture, impressions left by animals and birds,” he said.

The communities’ belief systems also influenced the evolution of the script. Oraon explained that in several Adivasi communities across India, the anticlockwise direction was considered sacred. “Our traditional rituals are performed in the anticlockwise direction, we take inspiration from nature for this,” he said. He noted that several natural phenomena, such as the rotation of the earth around the sun and the twining of most vines, occurred in the anticlockwise direction. Accordingly, he designed most alphabets to be easily written in that direction – he recounted that while he worked with pen and paper, he also occasionally used grass dipped in ink to draft the script.

While most people were accepting of Oraon’s efforts, there were also detractors from within and outside the Kurukh community. Many of these detractors argued that there was no need for a new script and that the Devanagari, Roman or other regional scripts suffice for Kurukh.

But Oraon rejects such arguments outright. “A distinct language needs a distinct script,” he maintains. “If we adopt the Devanagari script for it, then our Adivasiyat will be erased.”

Linguists advised Oraon that the script should represent Kurukh culture. Thus, he sought inspiration from diverse sources, including traditional symbols and patterns made in fields. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On May 15, 1999, after several workshops and public consultations, the Tolong Siki script was released for public use through a press conference in Ranchi. Oraon recalled that two former university vice chancellors, Dr Ram Dayal Munda and Dr Indu Dhan, were present at the conference, along with others, to support him. But it wasn’t a day of great excitement for him – just of the quiet realisation that even as his work was out in the world, it had a long way to go, since it only acquired significance if people used it.

“I was neither too excited nor too happy then,” said Oraon. He recalled how people he had reached out to for guidance had told him, “It takes generations to develop a whole script.”

Unbeknownst to Oraon, months after the launch of Tolong Siki, a Kurukh priest laid the ground for the language to become part of the education system.

Zephyrinus Baxla started the Loordippa Kurukh School in the village of Baghitoli in 2000. Baxla’s vision for this school was unlike any other. He was inspired from his travels abroad, including in Israel, where he encountered the kibbutz, a communal living system. Unlike other schools in the state, where Hindi or English is the medium of instruction, Baxla decided that Kurukh would be used as the primary medium of instruction up to Class 5, with English introduced as a medium of instruction in secondary school, and Hindi offered as a language subject. While the Kurukh community had a traditional residential schooling system, known as the “dhumkuriya”, in pre-Independence times, this was Jharkhand’s first modern-day residential Kurukh school.

“I started Loordippa to save my people. Zubaan chala gaya toh jaan chala jayega,” if the language dies then the community will die, Baxla told me in a conversation on the terrace of the school one evening in early December.

Baxla, who is a native of Anabiri village, in the same block as Baghitoli, explained that Loordippa is a community-owned school. Before setting it up, he called together the elders of 22 villages nearby and discussed how to go about it. “By then, many parents had begun addressing their children in Hindi,” he said. “We wanted to change that. We thought the best medium would be their mother tongue.”

He added that he believed that children who were educated in their mother tongue learnt more smoothly and performed better academically. “Grasping things in your mother tongue is easier than in other tongues,” he said.

This view is echoed in the 2020 National Education Policy, as well as earlier years’ policies, which recommend that children be taught in their mother tongue until at least Class 5, and if possible, even beyond. The 2020 document states, “It is well understood that young children learn and grasp nontrivial concepts more quickly in their home language/mother tongue.”

UNESCO also advocates for mother-tongue education and multilingualism. “Research shows that education in the mother tongue is a key factor for inclusion and quality learning, and it also improves learning outcomes and academic performance,” its website states. “This is crucial, especially in primary school to avoid knowledge gaps and increase the speed of learning and comprehension. And most importantly, multilingual education based on the mother tongue empowers all learners to fully take part in society.”

Around the time Oraon released his script, Father Zephyrinus Baxla set up Loordippa school in the village of Baghitoli, Gumla district, where Kurukh was the medium of instruction till Class 5. Photo: Nolina Minj

Baxla also aimed to instill pride in his students in their identity and culture. They were instructed in the traditional knowledge of their community, in the form of songs, dance, oral history, celebrations of festivals and agricultural practices. “What happens in schools today?” Baxla said. “Leaving the mother tongue behind, children have to listen, speak and write in Hindi. They enter a world which is alien from their family’s world and then they think, oh everything my parents taught me at home was futile, I have to leave that behind and start fresh here to succeed.”

Many people, including community members, ridiculed Baxla’s efforts, arguing that that he was taking children backward by teaching them an Adivasi language. But Baxla stuck to his efforts.

As he worked to establish the school, his mission would intertwine with Oraon’s. Around the time that the school had just started, Baxla came across a booklet at a popular bookstore in Ranchi, which introduced the reader to Tolong Siki. He didn’t personally know Oraon, but decided that the primary section of the school, instructed in Kurukh, would use the Tolong Siki script.

Baxla also felt that adopting Oraon’s script would help bring the community closer together. Specifically, it would help form a stronger bond between the two main faith groups of the community: specifically, those who followed the traditional Sarna faith, and those who had converted to Christianity during the colonial period. “I wanted to unite the community,” said Baxla. Today, the school ground boasts a massive red-and-white striped Sarna flag, and most of its students are also Sarna. Adivasi festivals such as Sarhul, which is a spring festival celebrating the sal tree, and Karam, a harvest festival, are celebrated as enthusiastically as Christmas or Republic Day

Sometime in the mid 2000s, Oraon, who had heard of the school through friends, visited Loordippa and met Baxla. Oraon described Baxla’s efforts for the school as nothing short of “heroic”.

For ten years, the school functioned smoothly. Baxla’s brother, Augustine Baxla, who was serving as the director of the school recounted that students learnt the new script without any hurdles, and that before long, they were writing notes and assignments for Kurukh in the script.

But as the first batch of students reached higher grades, the question arose: would they be allowed to write board exams in the script?

By then, Tolong Siki had a computer font named Kelly Tolong – made by the journalist Kislaya, it had been launched in November 2002. In September 2003, the Jharkhand government had recognised Tolong Siki as the official script for the Kurukh language.

But a challenge arose in a meeting with the Jharkhand Academic Council, which is responsible for granting permission for new languages and scripts to be included in the school system. The council informed the school administration that in order for students to receive permission to write exams in the script, the school would have to submit textbooks to the council that were in the Tolong Siki script and that adhered to the prescribed state syllabus. Until then, Kurukh textbooks were only available in Devanagari. At Loordippa, students would use these textbooks, but learn how to read and write notes in Tolong Siki.

Augustine Baxla, along with Vinod Bhagat, traveled to Gaya to meet Oraon and asked for his support in their efforts to have the script recognised by the Jharkhand Academic Council.

Oraon and Augustine Baxla, along with Father Augustine Kerketta and Vinod Bhagat, worked furiously for the next few months to prepare Kurukh textbooks for Classes 9 and 10 in the Tolong Siki script, transliterating pre-existing ones from Devanagari.

They persuaded a local press to support them with the services of a typist. Oraon recounted that that he told the owner that it was an opportunity to “save the Oraon people”.

The typist first typed out the textbook in Tolong Siki, after which Oraon and Kerketta edited it to prepare the final text. “I had borrowed a laptop by jugaad, and after my work hours, I would sit late every night to work on the books,” he said.

At the time, Jharkhand was under governor’s rule – thus, it was the governor’s office that had to issue the final approval for the use of the script by students at Loordippa. Augustine Baxla and Oraon recounted that to ensure that the issue got attention within the government, several members of the community came together to contact bureaucrats and politicians they knew personally in the Jharkhand Academic Council, the Human Resources Department and the governor’s office to explain what they were seeking and their reasons. Finally, on February 19, 2009, the Jharkhand Academic Council released a notice stating that it had granted the necessary permissions, and that 39 students from Loordippa would be allowed to appear for their Kurukh exam and write it in Tolong Siki.

Baxla argued that children educated in their mother tongue learnt more smoothly and performed better academically, a view echoed in national education policies, and by UNESCO. Photo: Nolina Minj

But the complications weren’t over. The council also expected Oraon and the others to find a teacher who knew the script to correct the papers.

After significant effort, using his networks, Oraon located a teacher who could carry out the task, and who continued to carry it out for the next few years. But by 2013, the number of schools who applied for permission to allow their students to write their Kurukh exams in Tolong Siki had increased – this time, the Jharkhand Academic Council refused their request, stating that there weren’t enough teachers available to correct the papers.

Oraon recalled that the chairman of the Jharkhand Academic Council argued that he should have disseminated the new script first, before seeking official permission for its use in exams. “This is where you have gone wrong,” he recounted the chairman saying. “You should have taught the script to the higher classes first and not the lower ones. We don’t have teachers, who will correct these papers?”

Oraon bemoaned the fact that few members of the community, and teachers, had made the effort to learn the script after it was introduced. “At one point, we couldn’t find even five trained government teachers who knew Tolong Siki to become examiners,” he said.

Finally, in 2016, the government granted permission to students of all schools in the state to write Kurukh exams in Tolong Siki.

In the intervening years, the government had hired around 90 teachers who knew the Kurukh language, some of whom had also learnt Tolong Siki.

In 2017, Kurukh, along with Tolong Siki, also received official recognition from the government in West Bengal. However, it is yet to be included in the eighth schedule as an official language of India. In 2003, the Jharkhand government had sent a letter to the Central government, asking that it be included. But the Central government is yet to accord the language this status – at present, Santali is the only Adivasi language to be included in the eighth schedule. (The tribal Bodo language, spoken by the Bodo community, spread across Assam and Meghalaya, is also on the list – members of this and other tribes in the northeast don’t typically identify as Adivasi.)

Oraon feels the new script along with the language is yet to be wholly embraced by the entire community – but he acknowledged that, owing to his efforts, Kurukh has entered the education system in Jharkhand as a distinct language.

Meanwhile, Loordippa also gained in stature. Over the years, more parents heard of the school and started sending their children to it, including some from Bihar and Chhattisgarh. At present, the school has a strength of around 350 students. “So many people come to see the school and ask questions,” said Baxla.

In Loordippa, students are also instructed in the traditional knowledge of their community, including songs, dance, oral history, celebrations of festivals and agricultural practices. Photo: Nolina Minj

Progress has been made on other fronts too. In 2016, for two key government service exams, the Jharkhand government for the first time included tribal and regional languages, including Kurukh, Mundari and Santali, as options for a language paper.

But considerable ground remains to be covered before the languages receive more widespread official recognition and use: while Adivasi languages are spoken widely across the state, one education official, who requested anonymity, said that it was mostly private schools that continued to use them. He explained that they had not been integrated into the education system at the school level, as they should have been. Most schools, both private and public, still use Hindi or English as their medium of instruction, while madrasas use Urdu.

Adivasi languages are also only rarely taught as an optional language subject. “We are told to promote mother tongues in education, but frankly no such framework exists for this,” said the official. “It depends on the will of the community. There exist private schools which promote certain languages, but they have different rules and regulations.”

Meanwhile, students who do grow up speaking the language at home continue to struggle because of its absence within the education system.

“Our children who speak their mother tongues at home are forced to leave them behind as most schools use Hindi or English as their medium of instruction,” said Baxla. Once these students surmount this barrier by learning the dominant languages, and go on to pursue higher education, employment and social advancement in towns and cities, they typically leave their native languages behind.

“In an increasingly globalised world, we are forgetting our Adivasiyat,” said Dr Anabel Bara, UNESCO’s India representative for the Global Task Force for Making a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages. “We are leaving behind our traditions and languages.”

Kurukh is only one of several languages whose communities are struggling with these dilemmas. “There are 32 tribes in Jharkhand,” Bara said. “From those, the five major tribes – Ho, Santal, Munda, Oraon and Kharia – all have their own scripts, but they are still in the stage of development. In the upcoming generations almost 80% of the youth don’t know their own native tongues.”

While the languages of these dominant tribes are not severely endangered, those of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups are closer to extinction.

These include the Asur language, with around 7,000 speakers, which the UNESCO in 2011 classified as “definitely endangered”, and the Birhor language, with around 2,000 speakers, which was classified as “critically endangered”.

As Bara noted, Kurukh, partly because it is spoken by the dominant Kurukh tribe, and partly owing to efforts like Oraon’s, is not yet among the most threatened of these languages. In the UNESCO’s classification, it is termed “vulnerable”, the category furthest away from extinction.

Dr Abhay Minz argued that the government needed to do more to protect these languages. “Without government support, no language can survive,” he said. “In other states like West Bengal and Maharashtra, everything, including sign boards, are made in the state language.”

He conceded that Jharkhand’s case was more difficult because the state had an official first language, Hindi, and multiple second official languages, including Kurukh, Santali and Mundari. But, he added, the government had an obligation to provide the economic incentive to protect the languages. “You can’t save languages and culture on empty stomachs,” he said. “The solution is that the government needs to protect the languages, fund and promote them right from the ground.”

Some members of the Kurukh community are hopeful about the prospects for their language. Baxla and Bara both believe that the Kurukh language is undergoing a period of revival and resurgence. “I see a ray of hope, especially because the youth are coming forward and taking steps to teach the language, they’re making videos and composing songs,” Bara said. “This will motivate other youth to learn their own language and not feel ashamed of it. We need to do a lot more. But the revival has begun, and I’m hopeful that it won’t stop.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.