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Droupadi Murmu rise brings back tussle between Santali scholars and Ol Chiki govt lobby

After being written in Roman, Bengali, Devanagari, Assamese, Nepali scripts for a long time, Santali got its own indigenous one—Ol Chiki.

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Much has been said about Droupadi Murmu’s nomination as the BJP candidate for the upcoming Indian presidential elections. Few know that her hometown of Rairangpur in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district has been the omphalos of the Santali language and cultural movement for more than a century. But there is a new conflict emerging. Modern Santali is written in the Ol Chiki script, which the government has legitimised. And that’s all well and good. But those who learnt the language in other vernacular scripts are now feeling ignored.

Rairangpur also witnessed a ghastly but less-discussed Jallianwala Bagh-like massacre of tribals in 1949 when police opened fire on a mass gathering of Santals in Gunduria village on the outskirts of the city.

Incidentally, the BJP’s Presidential nominee Murmu, who began her political journey from Rairangpur after being elected as the councillor of the local Panchayat in 1997 and subsequently winning the assembly election from the constituency twice—in 2000 and 2009—has not only broken the glass ceiling but is also a feather in the often-ignored and predominantly inconspicuous Santali language’s cap.

“If she is elected, our ancient language will get a chance to have its own identity outside the plethora of Indian languages primarily divided into two primary linguistic groups of Aryan and Dravidian,” says Dr Palton Murmu, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Santali in Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University (SKBU) in Purulia, West Bengal.


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The genesis of Ol Chiki script

Murmu’s mother tongue, Santali, is not an Indo-Aryan language like Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Gujarati, Sindhi, Kachchi, Marathi, Odia, Sanskrit, Assamese, Urdu or a Dravidian language like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. It’s part of the Austro-Asiatic subgroup of the Austric language group spoken in places such as Vietnam and Cambodia. “Indic scripts do not have letters for all Santali’s phonemes, especially its stop consonants and vowels,” explains Dr Sudip Bhui, an anthropologist who teaches at SKBU.

The language was christened after two of the most iconic Santal heroes Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu who had valiantly fought against the British. They fought along with their brothers Chand and Bhairav, while leading the Santal rebellion or the Santal Hool against the British just before the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny.

After being written with Roman, Bengali, Odia, Devanagari, Assamese, and Nepali scripts for a long time, the Santali language got its own indigenous script when Raghunath Murmu developed Ol Chiki (‘Ol’—‘writing’ and ‘Chiki’—‘learning’) script way back in 1925. However, it was exhibited for the first time when the first book in Ol Chiki script, Hor Sereng, was published in Mayurbhanj in 1936.

“They believed in Santali that ‘puthi reak’ sorso then khon thuti reak’ sorso’, which in English means, ‘It’s better to learn by listening than reading from the books’,” adds Dilip Kumar Dutta, a noted researcher and author of Santali literature.


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Norwegian influence

The language had been written in seven different scripts over the last couple of centuries, but it was a predominantly oral language until the missionaries came to the Santal-dominated areas in Bihar (now part of Jharkhand), Odisha and Bengal in the 19th century.

Dr Murmu explains that missionaries started learning the Santali language in order to understand and improve their communication with the tribe. American missionary Reverend Jeremiah Phillips was probably the first person to publish a Santali language book, Saontali sereng ar gidrau bauli puthi, written in Bengali script, way back in 1845. Reverend Philips also wrote a Santali grammar book, An Introduction to the Santali Language, incorporating around 5,000 Santali words in Roman, in 1852.

“However, documentation of the Santali language received a huge impetus thanks to two Norwegian Lutheran missionaries-cum-linguists. Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, the founder of the Norwegian Santal Mission (Den Norske Santalmisjon), came to India in 1863 and was the first to introduce school education in the Santali language. He wrote several Santali school textbooks and published A Grammar of the Santali Language with the Roman script from Varanasi in 1873. That ushered in a new beginning for written Santali,” Dr. Murmu said.

Skrefsrud was followed by another missionary, linguist and folklorist Paul Olaf Bodding, who published two Santali grammar books apart from compiling A Santal Dictionary, a five-volume Santali dictionary written in Roman, comprising more than 30,000 words.


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Challenges ahead for Santals

According to Boro Baski, who works for the Ghosaldanga Adibasi Seva Sangha, among the South Asian Adivasis, the Santals, a Munda ethnic group native to India, are the largest homogenous group. “More than 10 million people belong to these tribes in India’s eastern states as well as in Bangladesh and Nepal. However, they have historically been marginalised in the Hindu caste system.”

In that sense, Murmu’s nomination is a great moment for the Santal community and their unique language, which is one of the oldest Indian and Asian languages. It’s one of the 22 languages Included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Her role in its inclusion in 2004 after decades long-demand for recognition of a language spoken by 7.6 million people is an achievement of its own.

But despite having their own indigenous script, the Santals, spread over several eastern Indian states, are facing some daunting challenges today. Baski says things have become even more complicated in the past two decades with state institutions starting to approve Ol Chiki, designed to more accurately represent Santali phonemes.

“They now consider it the only legitimate way to write in Santali. Those Santali scholars, who learnt the language in other vernacular scripts, are often ignored by the Ol Chiki lobby in government agencies,” he says.

In 2013, the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced Santali to the National Eligibility Test (NET), allowing lecturers to use the language in colleges and universities. “But the results are unconvincing. To put it mildly, it is ironic that many well-educated Santals who assertively endorse Ol Chiki as a token of Santal pride prefer sending their children to schools that teach in Bengali or English. They know their kids will have more opportunities in life if they are taught in Bengali, Hindi or English,” Baski says.

BJP candidate Droupadi Murmu’s Santal identity and her likely elevation to India’s highest constitutional office could bring both the community as well as the language under the national spotlight. After all, the former Governor of Jharkhand could become the first tribal President and the second-ever female President of India, after Pratibha Patil. But her nomination also comes at a time when the hot topic of an alleged Hindi imposition by the BJP, predominantly branded as a “party of upper-caste Brahmin and Baniya communities from the Hindi heartland,” is being debated in a slew of non-Hindi-speaking states.

It’s safe to say, for now, that the fate of the Santali language is far from sealed.

Suvam Pal is an independent media professional, author & documentary filmmaker. He tweets @suvvz. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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