In the village of Mohagaon, deep in the thick forests of Maharashtra’s easternmost district Gadchiroli, each day starts with the sounds of children singing traditional Gondi songs.

“Dharti Yayal Aval Nima,
Jivang Pose Kevan Nima,
Podade Veche Nede Vata,
Narka Piyal Roje Anta.

Dear Earth, you are our mother and our father.
You are the nurturer of all living beings.
Each day we experience cycle of day and night,
navigating through the darkness,
until the light of the sun blesses us anew today.”

Mohagaon is home to a community-run Gondi-medium school. Gondi is the language of the Gond Adivasi community, the original inhabitants of the Gondwana region in Central India, spread across parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Despite being spoken by nearly three million people according to the 2011 census, and claimed to be even more than that, Gondi is not formally recognised by the Indian state.

As a result, Gondi children are schooled in other languages, thus losing touch with their native cultural language and practices.

In recent years, a community-wide struggle has arisen to reclaim the language and the cultural heritage tied to it. “State neglect puts both the language and the rich culture and customs it represents in danger of extinction,” said Devsay Atla, a member of Mohagaon gram sabha. “We are forced to take action to protect our legacy because of this disregard.”

The school in Mohagaon village came into being after 15 gram sabhas, or village councils, met in October 2019 and passed a special resolution that asserted their rights to reclaim their language. The outcome was the establishment of the “Paramparik Koya Dnyanbodh Sanskar Gotul” – literally, the traditional Koya gotul for knowledge and culture. Most Gond Adivasis identify themselves as Koya or Koitur, and a gotul serves as a traditional educational institution within the Gond tribal community, where younger members are trained and instilled with traditional knowledge.

The mission of the Mohagaon school is to provide children with primary education in their first language, Gondi. It is a symbol of the resolve of the local Gond community to uphold their culture within the bounds of the Constitution, despite official neglect. Ironically, however, the state, instead of supporting the initiative, has opposed it. But the community is determined not to back off.

A history of neglect

The Gonds have historically been the native, natural owners of the region. However, their cultural environment has been deteriorating for generations.

British colonisation forced cultural displacement through the education system, which continued in independent India. For instance, Gadchiroli’s Gond families are forced to enroll their children in Marathi-medium schools. They are instructed in a language that they are unable to speak or comprehend. They perceive the language, the curriculum and even the teachers as foreign.

Adivasi languages, culture, festivals, and history hardly make an appearance in government-run schools. Right from elementary school, students are compelled to internalise every aspect of the dominant group but not of any of their societies.

Despite a wealth of evidence demonstrating the value of teaching indigenous languages to preserve culture, India has not yet come to terms with its indigenous identity. Adivasi leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns about the post-colonial education system’s negative effects on Adivasi populations and the absence of cultural competency in the school itself.

“The younger generations genuinely know very little about their language, culture and customs, and the proportion of our people speaking the language is declining,” said Bavsu Pave, a Mohagaon Gram Sabha member. “This is a serious problem that could endanger our existence.”

Courtesy Bodhi Ramteke.

The sounds of Gondi

The establishment of the Gondi school in Mohagaon is the result of the power conferred on gram sabhas under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996.

The law vests decision-making powers in village councils in Adivasi-majority areas, often called the Fifth Schedule areas since they are listed in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, thus operationalising the tribal autonomy envisioned in the Constitution. In Gadchiroli, the 15 village councils invoked these powers while setting up the school.

The gram sabhas established their own treasury, funded through the proceeds generated from the sale of tendu leaves and other forest produce. Five per cent of these annual profits are allocated for the administration of the school.

Each Adivasi family extends their support by ensuring a regular supply of essential food items to the school. Through collaborative efforts deeply entrenched in their cultural heritage, the school has emerged as a beacon of empowerment for the tribal community, ensuring its effectiveness and sustainability.

The school, simply known as gotul, has been built in a traditional style resembling a typical gotul that has spacious hut-like structures. Adorning its walls are portraits of Adivasi revolutionaries such as Birsa Munda, Veer Baburao Shedmake, Jaipal Singh Munda, Rani Durgavati and others, symbolising the rich history and spirit of resistance among the Adivasis.

The school’s pedagogy is crafted with inputs from experts in tribal communities across India, ensuring alignment with cultural customs and traditional values, said members of the Mohagaon gram sabha. Teachers are selected from within the community based on their willingness to contribute, as identified by the gram sabhas. These educators undergo intensive training in Gondi language at Jango Raitar Society School, Sarona in Kanker district of Chhattisgarh to ensure effective communication and instruction.

Students receive instruction in subjects such as arithmetic and other disciplines exclusively in Gondi, with equal emphasis on acquiring proficiency in English. Students are also trained in writing the Gondi script.

The curriculum is focused on imparting traditional knowledge, encompassing various aspects such as cultural practices, traditional festivals, farming techniques, village administration, traditional medicines, forest management, and the history of their community.

Classrooms adapt to needs, occasionally utilising forests, farms, and sacred places as alternative learning environments. Students also learn traditional instruments and songs as part of their education.

The school blends traditional and modern educational delivery systems, with a foundation rooted in traditions and culture. The very name “gotul” reflects this essence.

Courtesy Bodhi Ramteke.

Struggle with bureaucracy

The school that the community considers a cultural revolutionary step has been entangled in bureaucratic complexities since its establishment in 2019.

Within three years of its establishment in June 2022, the block education officer issued a closure notice saying the school was “illegal” under Section 18 of the Right to Education Act, 2009.

This section prohibits the establishment of schools without obtaining a certificate of recognition. The officer also imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh and threatened further fines of Rs 10,000 per day for the school’s continued operation.

The gram sabhas, however, are firm in their resolve. “We, gram sabhas, are the State, and are empowered to run schools and protect our culture,” said Atla.

He said that Article 350A of the Constitution directs the state to provide education to children in their mother language. The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act and the Forest Rights Act confer special powers on gram sabhas to protect culture and traditions, he added.

It is the state’s failure to fulfil this mandate that constitutes a violation of the Constitution and statutory provisions, said Atla.

Bureaucratic hurdles stem from the tendency of educational policies to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and the bias among government officials against Adivasi communities.

The country lacks clear-cut policy provisions tailored to the education of Adivasi children that align with their socio-cultural needs. Additionally, executives tend to view Adivasi cultures and traditions through a lens of ignorance while labelling them “uncivilised”. This failure to recognise the richness and complexity of Adivasi cultures can result in a dismissive attitude towards their efforts and demands to protect their language and culture.

Since 2019, the gram sabhas have reached out to Maharashtra government officials, including the governor and ministers. With no satisfactory response to their pleas, the gram sabhas felt compelled to seek judicial intervention.

In December 2022, they took the bold step of filing a writ petition before the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court seeking to quash the notice declaring the school illegal and requested appropriate directions to uphold the rights of the gram sabha over the management of the school, which operates within the constitutional framework. Maharashtra has not yet filed its response even though 18 months have passed.

The gram sabhas have also submitted a proposal for recognition to the Integrated Tribal Development Project in Gadchiroli, which has assured assistance and indicated that it will be forwarded to the higher authorities for further processing.

The school is still awaiting recognition.

Instead of relying on executives and bureaucrats, the school community is placing its trust in the judicial system, patiently awaiting a favorable court order.

Their journey to seek justice is fraught with challenges – economic constraints, geographical barriers and the constant threat of disruption to the students’ studies. Despite the challenges, a group of teachers and gram sabha members make the journey to the High Court and district offices month after month.

Simultaneously, they diligently endeavour each day to fortify the school. Their struggle is as a beacon of hope, potentially setting a precedent for future cases.

Bodhi Ramteke is a lawyer and an Erasmus Mundus Human Rights Scholar at University of Deusto, Spain. His email ID is and his handle on X is @bodhi_ramteke.