Like other aspects of public life in India, the language question, too, is as riven with hierarchy as it is by hankering for some or other kind of official recognition.

The divisions are complex, but, very very broadly, on the one side are two official languages of the Union – English and Hindi – using up a great deal of the available oxygen, and on the other side, all the other languages of the Union. If we try listing them by number of speakers, we might begin with, say, Bengali and Marathi, languages with millions of speakers, thousands of books in every conceivable genre and robust traditions of publishing that go back a few hundred years.

And end, perhaps, with one like Koro of Arunachal Pradesh, mother tongue to a few hundred people, Koro is one of the many “unrecognised” Indian languages which are at the bottom of the hierarchy. and seem relevant outside their immediate habitat only as objects of enquiry of linguists who are constantly afraid their subjects will transition from “endangered” to “dead” in their lifetimes.

The sum total of Indian languages can be filtered through other binaries of course: classical (currently numbering six: Sanskrit, Tamil, Odia, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam) versus non-classical; oral versus scriptal; scheduled (the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution recognises 22 languages, which do not include English); versus non-scheduled, and so on. Elsewhere we’ve discussed the joys of India’s polyglot identity and how state education boards are trying to follow the letter of the Constitution in extending primary education in various languages spoken by small groups.

The Sahitya Akademi, too, has made significant movements towards greater inclusivity. While the Sahitya Akademi award is given to writers working in 24 languages (the 22 Schedule Eight languages plus English and Rajasthani), in 1996 they introduced the Bhasha Samman specifically to honour contributions made to non-Scheduled languages, especially those without any formal structures of power backing them. (These are also given to writers for their contributions to classical and medieval literatures, another less prominent field of enquiry.)

At the Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters 2017, the Bhasha Samman – a copper plaque, a citation and a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh – was awarded to six pioneers and language activists who have been working tirelessly, and often thanklessly, in their respective languages, as well as to scholars noted for their contributions to classical and medieval literatures. A quick look at the six winners for the non-Scheduled languages.

Thupstan Paldan and Lozang Jamspal, Ladakhi

According to the 2001 Census, 1 per cent of the population of Jammu and Kashmir speaks Ladakhi, and while a significant body of philosophical knowledge is embedded in the language, it has been marginalised within the state, where linguistic battles are chiefly four-cornered: Urdu versus Kashmiri versus Hindi versus Dogri (all Schedule 8 languages). The award to Ladakhi thus goes some distance in correcting old imbalances.

One of the awardees is the 76-year-old Thupstan Paldan, who has received formal monastic training from Tibet and Sri Lanka, and is not only a social activist but also an ecological warrior. Thupstan Paldan’s most notable books are Chhags Rabs Nat don Kun Tsang (History of Ladakh Monasteries), the play Tagspa Bum Lde, about the King of Ladakh, Ladakha Luyangs (Modern Songs), Tsom Dungs Norbui Doshal, (a collection of short stories), Ladakhi sky riskyes sRog Chhags (The Wildlife of Ladakh), and several monographs on the fresco painting of the monasteries of Ladakh.

The other awardee is the noted academic Lozang Jamspal, currently the director of the Tibetan Classics Translators Guild of New York and the founder of the Monastic School of Tibetan Studies and Ladakhratnashridipika in Ladakh. The octogenarian scholar and litterateur has Acharya and Shastri degrees from Benares, the Rigschen degree from the Monastic University of Tashi Lhunpo in Tibet, and a doctorate from Columbia University.

In his long and illustrious career, Jamspal has edited, translated and authored a prodigious number of works, in addition to academic papers. He has edited Tibetan Visheshashtava and Abhidhanavistara-visvalocana of Sridharasena, translated One Hundred Spiritual Instructions to the Dingri People, Pratityasamudpada-dayakarikavya-vyakyanam of Nagarjuna, and The Treasury of Good Sayings by Sakya Pandita. His best known original works are the Classical Ladakhi readers, Bod yig gyi slob dpe khag dang po and Bod yig sbyong tshul gyi rim pa.

Nirmal Minz, Kurukh

The Kurukh language, also called Oraon, is spoken in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Bhasha Samman awardee for 2015, 90-year-old Nirmal Minz, celebrated language activist, social anthropologist and theologian, has spent decades trying to mainstream teaching and learning in Kurukh, while advocating the larger questions of linguistic inclusion. Minz is a founder member of Grossner College, Ranchi, which pioneered pedagogical methods in Kurukh and other indigenous languages, and the author of Jharia Pandi and Innelanta Pairi Urubni (both in Kurukh), Kurukh Grammar, Adivasi Problems and their Permanent Solutions, The Tribal Awakening and Hindu-Christian Dialogue. He has also won numerous honours and encomiums for his stellar contributions to tribal languages and literatures.

Sri Harihar Vaishnav, Halbi

Spoken in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, Halbi (or Halabi) has adopted the Odia or Devanagari scripts for use. This year’s awardee, Sri Harihar Vaishnav, a native of Dantewada, spent all his life working in and around the forests of Bastar. Writing both in Hindi and in Halbi, he has done a great deal to preserve the knowledge embedded in Halbi oral traditions in his books, the most notable of which are Bastar ki Maukhik Kathayen, Raja aur Bel Kanya, Bastar ka Lok Sahitya, Bastar ki Giti Kathayen, Bastar ke Dhankul Geet, all collections of folk tales, Chalo Chalen Bastar (a book for children), Mohbhang (a collection of short stories), Bastar ki Adivasi evam Lok Hastshilp Parampara (a treatise on tribal handicraft traditions), Dhatushilpi Dr. Jayadev Baghel: Ek Shikhar Yatra (a biography) and the Hindi translations of Gurumay Kelmani’s Halbi work Lachhmi Jagar and Sonsingh Pujari’s Halbi work Andhakar ka Desh.

TR Damodaran and TS Saroja Sundararajan, Saurashtra

Providing a fascinating insight into the gloriously mixed-up nature of India, Saurashtra, in this context, refers to a minority language, a relative of Gujarati’s, spoken chiefly in Tamil Nadu, around Madurai, but also in other parts of south India, and is a relative of Gujarati. The Bhasha Samman award for 2015 was jointly accorded to two scholars: eminent Sankritist and linguist, TR Damodaran, and poet and educationist TS Saroja Sundararajan.

Damodaran, the author of the unique Tamil-English-Saurashtra dictionary, in addition to several original works written in Saurashtra, was also instrumental in establishing a Saurashtra Heritage Chair at Saurashtra University in Rajkot. Sundararajan, a native of Madurai and a schoolteacher for all her working life, holds the distinction of writing poetry in three languages: Tamil, Hindi and Saurashtra. She is also a recipient of the Saurashtra Bhushan and Saurashtra Meera Awards.

The way forward

There can be no doubt that honouring tireless champions of “unrecognised” languages is essential. And yet, in the immense cauldron of language, politics and the market for books in India, what it represents is an acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of a lifetime’s work of committed individuals whose own grandchildren, perhaps, have embraced the more glamorous alternatives available in the marketplace.

For their work to be counted for anything, and for the languages they served to be heard outside homes and village squares and reach metropolitan capitals, redolent with heteroglossia, is a long shot. For that to happen, we will need an army of publishers and translators – even academics. But to what end? From obscurity to curiosity – the prospects of unrecognised languages in our multilingual country – are not exactly glittering.

In the late 1950s, the great Hindi writer Baba Nagarjuna had written an eloquent adieu to Maithili, in Maithili, while reflecting on his own decision to give in to the temptations of Hindi, which had at its disposal a far far greater readership:

“Ahibaatak paatil phodi-phaadi
Parijan purjan ke chhodi chhadi
Ham jaye rahalchhi aan thaan
Ma Mithilyee antim pranaam.”

(Breaking all auspicious ties, disowning the place where dear ones lie, I am bound for another destination. Ma Mithila, accept my last salutation.)

Therefore, all laudable initiatives aside, I can’t be quite convinced of the larger amplification of these awards.

But then again, who knows?

Baba Nagarjuna, for all his last salutations, did return to write in Maithili every now and then.

Devapriya Roy is the author of three books and one nearly abandoned PhD thesis on Bharata’s Natyashastra from JNU. She worked on developing a new language policy for the country. She tweets here.