August 9 has been declared the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People by the United Nations. It is a good time to celebrate our own, and to recognize that history has been less than kind to them. The Hindi Department organized a meeting yesterday afternoon, with a lecture on The Nomadic and Denotified Tribes: Their Literature and Situation by Shri Laxman Gaikwad, the noted Marathi writer and Sahitya Akademi awardee.
The literature of Adivasi peoples has been made available to a wider audience in the past few years by great writers such as Mahashweta Devi, and the work of Ganesh Devy and the organization Bhasha. The richness of these primarily oral traditions can only be partly captured in translation, so we are witness to the loss of these languages virtually on a day by day basis. My colleague at the JNU, Anvita Abbi who studies the Andamanese languages met and interviewed the last speaker of the Great Andamanese language. This is dramatic, of course, but the statistics is startling- a report in the Hindu says “With 196 of its languages listed as endangered, India tops the UNESCO’s list of countries having the maximum number of dialects on the verge of extinction”.
The Denotified and Nomadic Tribes have other problems as well. Branded by the British as criminals, they are still to be reliably integrated into our society- indeed, in some sense they got their Independence only 5 years after the rest of us did in 1947. The Wikipedia entry says “Denotified tribes are the tribes that were originally listed under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, as Criminal Tribes and ‘addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences.’ Once a tribe became “notified” as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate, failing which they would be charged with a crime under the Indian Penal Code. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification, i.e. ‘de-notified’ the tribal communities. This act, however, was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts, that asked police to investigate a suspect’s criminal tendencies and whether his occupation is “conducive to settled way of life.” The denotified tribes were reclassified as habitual offenders in 1959. The creation of these categories should be seen in the context of colonialism. The British authorities listed them separately by creating a category of castes or tribes labelled as criminal.”
Vestiges of this attitude remain with us to this day.
The University can take some initiatives in the study and preservation of these cultures of ours. In particular, it would be very welcome if we recorded and maintained as much of these languages as we can, both as a record of the oral traditions as well as a way of keeping the memory of some traditions. Of course it is not just these languages that are under threat. I must confess that I was taken by surprise and could not put together a coherent set of opening remarks in Hindi…