Tribal Week Special: Preserving Identity; The Battle to Save the Fading Santhali Language

Advocates call for the reinstatement of Santhali language teachers in schools, the return of Santhals to education volunteer roles, distribution of textbooks in Santhali, and the establishment of postgraduate studies in the language at Sadhu Ramchand Murmu University in West Bengal.
ASA has been demanding the state govt to recognize Santhali as the first language in Jharkhand
ASA has been demanding the state govt to recognize Santhali as the first language in JharkhandASA

Jamshedpur— In the heartland of Jharkhand, a quiet struggle is underway—a battle not fought with weapons, but with words and determination. The Santali/Santhali language, a cherished tapestry of culture and heritage, is under threat. While spoken by a considerable population, this linguistic gem is facing a crisis that could erode its existence. Despite being understood by many, the absence of dedicated teachers and support in schools has led the newer generation to drift away from its embrace. The Ol Chikhi script, a vital link to its past, has not received the attention it deserves. As communities grapple to preserve their linguistic identity, the future of Santali hangs in the balance, urging all to join hands in this race against time.

The Santhali language, spoken by the Santhal tribe—one of India's largest tribal communities—is at the heart of this movement. Advocates passionately emphasize the significance of recognizing Santhali as not only a language but also a vessel for preserving the identity and heritage of the Santhal community.

A key demand of the movement is the designation of Santhali as the first official language of Jharkhand, alongside Hindi. The movement also advocates for Santhali to be recognized as the second official language in West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, and Orissa, reinforcing its cultural importance beyond state boundaries.

Santali, primarily written in the Ol Chiki script, is spoken by approximately 6.4 million individuals as per the 2001 census data, predominantly in regions such as Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, and Assam within India. Beyond national borders, it resonates in the linguistic tapestry of Bangladesh and Nepal.

Spearheading the Santhali language movement is Salkhan Murmu, President of the Aadivasi Senegal Abhiyaan and a pivotal figure in the push to include Santhali in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Murmu stated that Santhali's recognition should extend to becoming the official language of Jharkhand under Article 345, as well as the second official language in the aforementioned states under Article 347.

The movement encompasses several vital components. Advocates call for the reinstatement of Santhali language teachers in schools, the return of Santhals to education volunteer roles, distribution of textbooks in Santhali, and the establishment of postgraduate studies in the language at Sadhu Ramchand Murmu University. Moreover, proponents are demanding a comprehensive integration of Santhali cultural elements into educational curricula to help maintain the community's cultural identity.

ASA volunteers demand teachers to teach Santhali Ol Chikhi script in schools.
ASA volunteers demand teachers to teach Santhali Ol Chikhi script in schools.File Pic

"I can speak Santali, and so can thousands of us within the community, as it is our native language. However, we face a significant hurdle—reading the Ol Chiki script. In our schools, there's a glaring absence of teachers who can guide us in mastering the script. While children are taught Hindi and English, they often choose Sanskrit as their third language due to the lack of guidance in Santhali. But given the opportunity, many children would readily opt for learning Santhali," shares Kalicharan Kisku, a passionate youth activist from Bokaro.

The movement's calls for recognition have also extended to cultural institutions. Advocates have sought the creation of a dedicated Santhali Academy and the release of Santhali language books in Ol chikhi script, which is central to the community's linguistic heritage.

The impact of this movement has been felt far and wide. Bandhs (localized shutdowns) and protests have taken place, compelling authorities to take note of the pressing demands. Traditional attires and weapons have been wielded by the participants, adding a visual dimension to the movement's fervor. Roads have been blocked, and railway tracks have been disrupted, all serving as powerful symbols of the community's determination.

However, the movement's leaders assert that their demands are yet to be met by the state government. Youth leaders at the forefront of the movement, express frustration over the lack of progress and warn of escalated agitation if the demands continue to be disregarded.

The Santhali language movement is emblematic of a resilient community's desire to secure its linguistic and cultural heritage, pushing for recognition that extends well beyond words on paper. As the movement gains traction and captures the attention of the nation, its advocates remain steadfast in their pursuit of preserving the essence of Santhali identity for generations to come.

ASA has been demanding the state govt to recognize Santhali as the first language in Jharkhand
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The Resilient Journey of Santhali Language

The Santali language, a treasure trove of cultural heritage, has stood the test of time for thousands of years. With its roots embedded in the Munda subgroup of the Austro-Asiatic language family, this language distinguishes itself from the more widely known Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages. Spoken by over seven million people, primarily across Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, Bangladesh, and Nepal, Santali embodies a unique linguistic and cultural identity.

According to Shefali Hembram, a researcher from the Santhali tribe in West Bengal, Santali's journey towards recognition and preservation, historically as an oral language without a script, has been remarkable. Through the efforts of scholars and institutions, the language found its way into the written word, represented by five scripts: Ol Chiki, Devanagari, Bengali, Oriya, and Roman. Yet, it wasn't until 1925 that Pandit Raghunath Murmu, a Santal teacher and writer, introduced the ground breaking "Ol Chiki" script. His contributions extended to songwriting, playwriting, and educational materials, igniting a significant turning point in Santali's history.

During the colonial era, missionaries played a pivotal role in drawing attention to Santali. Missionary organizations such as the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, Church Missionary Society, and Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church dedicated themselves to recording and preserving the language. Their efforts yielded collections of Santali words, songs, rhymes, and vocabularies during the mid-19th century.

Santal leaders and scholars continued to champion Santali's cause, demanding official recognition for the language. Their dedication culminated in a historic triumph on December 22, 2003, when Santali was enshrined in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, becoming an official language of the nation. This achievement marked a turning point, securing the language's place and safeguarding its cultural legacy for generations to come.

Santali's journey towards official recognition was not without its challenges. The language's oral tradition kept it alive for centuries before being written down. Despite this rich history, the passage of time had reduced acceptance, and some elements within the community struggled to preserve its purity. Moreover, regional disparities and the influence of adjacent languages led to linguistic diversification.

Nonetheless, recent years witnessed Santali's resurgence. Both the Jharkhand and West Bengal governments declared Santali a second state language. The University Grants Commission's inclusion of Santali in the National Eligibility Test provided educators with the means to teach the language in colleges and universities.

However, challenges remain. Santal tribes have faced the shadow of inferiority, stemming from the dominance of non-tribal communities over their language and culture. Though strides have been made, there is a need for stronger infrastructure in Santali medium schools to ensure quality education and attract more students. The language faces competition from dominant languages like English, Hindi, and Bengali, considered vital for professional success.

ASA has been demanding the state govt to recognize Santhali as the first language in Jharkhand
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Interesting Facts:

  1. Pioneering Radio Jockey: In November 2017, 24-year-old Shikha Mandi achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first radio jockey (RJ) to host a show in the Santhali language. The program is broadcasted on Radio Milan 90.4, reaching listeners in West Bengal's Jhargram and West Midnapore districts.

  2. Class 10 Board Examinations in Ol Chiki: In a historic move, hundreds of students wrote their Class 10 board examinations under the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education (WBBSE) using the Ol Chiki script for the first time in 2018. This step signifies a major recognition and integration of the script in the formal education system.

  3. Global Recognition: The Santhali language made its global debut in March 2018 during the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Geneva. Uma Saren, a 33-year-old doctor and Member of Parliament (MP) representing the Jhargram constituency, addressed the conference in Santhali. This marked the language's presence on an international platform.

Santhali was the first tribal language of India to get its Wikipedia edition in 2018.
Santhali was the first tribal language of India to get its Wikipedia edition in 2018.Adivasi Resurgence

Wikipedia Chronicles: Santali Language's Triumph in Native Script

Santhali created history by becoming the first Indian tribal language to have its dedicated Wikipedia edition in its native script. The Santhali Wikipedia was officially launched in August 2018, marking a significant step in preserving and promoting the language. The language committee of the Wikimedia Foundation granted approval for the project on June 28, followed by its live debut on August 2. Jayanta Nath, representing the Indian chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation, shared the exciting developments.

Contributors from India, Bangladesh, and Nepal collaborated to curate content for this unique Wikipedia edition. Currently, the Santhali Wikipedia boasts an impressive collection of about 70,000 words, showcasing the dedication and passion of those involved.

Among the articles gracing the homepage of the Santhali Wikipedia edition is a tribute to Raghunath Murmu, the visionary who crafted the Ol Chiki script—a testament to the language's rich history and its creators' enduring legacy. This milestone reflects a dynamic synergy between technology, culture, and linguistic heritage, exemplifying the power of digital platforms in preserving indigenous languages.

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