The children in this school are all under the age of 10. But already they “know” that some languages are “worth” more than others and the one they speak at home is “worth least”.
Cultural chauvinism doesn’t always come in violent forms, bearing trishuls, donning saffron scarves. Mostly, it is a silent, relentless war waged on entire peoples by suppressing their history, culture, values, and languages over long spans of time. Other times it comes in the adoption of a script while using another language.
Language debates in India have been going on since Independence, with questions about “national” and “regional” languages and identities associated with them having “troubled” different governments. Even as a new state- Telanganga was created on linguistic lines as recently as in 2014, in the far flung area of Belpahari in Jangalmahal, West Bengal, a tribal school intended to impart education to its Santhali students in their own tongue and script, struggles to make ends meet. In most schools here, there aren’t enough teachers who can teach in the Santhali language and the course material continues to be Bengali, simply written in the Ol Chiki script. Ol Chiki was created in 1925 by Raghunath Murmu for the Santhali language which up until then did not have its own script.
Niytananda Hembram, 81, head of Bharat-Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal, highest body of the Santhal community, explained, “What these tribal schools do, is that they teach these children in Bengali. But the script is Ol Chiki. At the same time, during the exams, they’re given the option of writing their answers in Bengali or English. Throughout, it is stressed upon that the Santhali language is inferior and the children obviously end up moving away from the study of Santhali.”
Mamata Banerjee, in a bid to appease the adivasi population of West Bengal (7.8%) announced as soon as she came to power, that she would build Santhali schools across the state with Ol Chiki as the script and Santhali as medium of instruction. Four years down the line, not much has changed except that in the ongoing assembly elections, token gestures such as the printing of the TMC manifesto in Ol Chiki script are used by the party to reflect their commitment to the upliftment of the adivasi communities in West Bengal.
Education continues to be in the dominant language Bengali. The history, culture, stories, and values taught at schools in the state are all Bengali. Maoists had championed the cause of Santhali language and they recognized the need to support adivasi languages and scripts. Maoist leaflets and pamphlets were usually written in the Ol Chiki script. It appears that the state’s decision to build Santhali schools has been nothing but lip service and historically in line with dominant groups’ practice of patronizing the marginalized minorities.