On learning and language – a photoessay

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”.

Schools in West Bengal continue to "prefer" teaching in Bengali. Slots for Santhali teachers continue to go empty.
Schools in West Bengal continue to “prefer” teaching in Bengali. Slots for Santhali teachers continue to go empty.

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Teachers at the Nayanagarh Primary School say that they make do with what they have, elders from the Santhal community helping with instruction in their native tongue.
Teachers at the Nayanagarh Primary School say that they make do with what they have, elders from the Santhal community helping with instruction in their native tongue.

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.

Raghunath Murmu, who first penned down the Ol Chiki script, is revered alongside Gandhi and Nehru in these schools but there is no Santhali syllabus or textbooks in the language.
Raghunath Murmu, who first penned down the Ol Chiki script, is revered alongside Gandhi and Nehru in these schools but there is no Santhali syllabus or textbooks in the language.

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Cultural chauvinism comes in different forms the most dangerous is perhaps when children grow up learning that their language and culture is inferior.
Cultural chauvinism comes in different forms the most dangerous is perhaps when children grow up learning that their language and culture is inferior.

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.”

Nityananda Hembram, head of the tribal organization, Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa Juan Gaunta, said that these textbooks have merely translated Bengali into Ol Chiki script.

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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.

Most children here come from extremely poor families - beedi workers, forest workers, khet mojur (landless laborers).
Most children here come from extremely poor families – beedi workers, forest workers, khet mojur (landless laborers).
The mid day meal, usually a simple fair of rice and fish or rice and egg is perhaps Jambani Primary School like many others in Belpahari was perhaps the only reason keeping children in school when these areas were affected by violence until 2008-2009.
The mid day meal, usually a simple fair of rice and fish or rice and egg is perhaps Jambani Primary School like many others in Belpahari was perhaps the only reason keeping children in school when these areas were affected by violence until 2008-2009.

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.Santhal 11

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Tanushree Bhasin Written by:

Tanushree Bhasin is a Delhi based independent photo-journalist

One Comment

  1. June 25, 2016
    Reply

    This is only half the truth! The barriers of state boundaries have not heeded for the language barricades created by the division of the country federally, as dialects have been promoted locally which are blend of neighbouring languages. The culture of dividing the country on these lines has permeated over the years and is well settled. Therefore the formation of Telengana cannot be despised in isolation. The system of education needs a thorough upheaval and churning and that is agreed by all means!

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