Translating India’s constitution into a tribal language
When the coronavirus lockdown started more than two years ago, Sripati Tudu kept himself busy by working solely on one of his dream projects: translating the world’s longest constitution into his tribal language, Santali.
Tudu, an assistant professor at the Institute of Language Studies and Research in eastern India’s West Bengal state, was born a Santhal, a tribal community native to the region, with a sizeable population also found in neighbouring Bangladesh and Nepal.
While he spoke Santali at home, West Bengal’s education system left him with no choice but to continue learning in Bangla.
As a result, Tudu would often struggle with learning in school. “I had to put extra effort to understand words, to formulate sentences,” Tudu told Al Jazeera in Bengali.
Education, therefore, was an uphill battle for the tribals. Until Tudu discovered learning in his mother tongue.
A few years before he was supposed to write his secondary school exams, one of his friends “brought a pamphlet with Ol Chiki scripts written on it,” said Tudu.
Ol Chiki is the name for the script of the Santali language, which was added to the Indian constitution as an official language in 2003.
Tudu said he had heard of the word before, but did not know its meaning. “I was so excited to see the sounds of my mother tongue printed, so excited that I learnt the Ol Chiki alphabets within a week,” he said.
So, what began as a stroke of serendipity influenced Tudu so much that he decided to dedicate his life to the language. It has now been nine years that he has been teaching Santali.
“There is a different kind of satisfaction when you learn your own language and then you teach it to your own tribe,” said the 33-year-old. “I always wanted to do alada dhoroner kaaj (different kind of work).”
Translating India’s constitution
The constitution of India gives special rights to the tribal and Indigenous people. This, Tudu had heard. “But I never got the access to read it.”
When he read the document in English, he realised it was “too complicated to understand”.
“Even the translation in languages like Bangla is complex. How will people know about their rights if they cannot understand the basic guidelines which provide them those rights?”
Tudu decided to translate the constitution into his mother tongue – “for my people”. A publisher also agreed to publish the draft. But it was not going to be easy.
“There were so many words for which there was no translation. I referred to every available Santhal dictionary but all in vain,” said Tudu.
He said the preamble to the constitution turned out to be the most difficult part, with words such as “sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic”.
So, Tudu said he decided to expand the jargon, not just translate them. It took nine months for him to complete the translation project towards the end of 2020.
“One of the first reasons why tribals are so underdeveloped in the country is language. The languages that tribals use are limited to their communities and are not extended to education or elsewhere,” Hansraj Meena, a tribal rights activist and advocate, told Al Jazeera.
Meena said it was a “failure of 75 years” of India’s independence that tribal languages were disappearing in absence of recognition and support by the government.
Dr Anna Belew, outreach coordinator at Endangered Languages Project, a United States-based organisation that promotes global linguistic diversity, told Al Jazeera it is “a very difficult time for Indigenous languages all over the world”.
“We are currently seeing the rate of languages being silenced that are higher than at any known point in human history.”
Belew terms languages as “vehicles for culture, knowledge, science, wisdom and everything about the way people exist”.
Commenting on Tudu’s feat, Belew says: “It will go a long way, not only for making other Santali speakers more aware of their rights and their position as citizens, but also towards preserving Santali script, which is pretty cool.”
Keeping a language alive
Though Santali is an ancient language, it was never recorded in text till the 1800s. A Christian missionary group tried to develop a written script for the language, but it was mostly inspired by Roman characters.
It was not until 1925 that Santali got a script which could reproduce the phonemes, or sounds of its people.
Pandit Raghunath Murmu developed the Ol Chiki alphabets with 30 characters inspired by nature like the sun and earth, irrigation tools and actions pictured as shapes that the people of the Santhal tribe used.
Despite having a script, Santali continues to struggle and the language barrier continues. “There are not enough teachers in schools nor a sufficient school infrastructure,” said Tudu.
However, Santali is still privileged compared with the fate of many other tribal languages in India.
“In India exist multiple tribal societies, all distinct from each other, with distinct languages. Seventeen to 21 very distinct tribal communities can be found in the eastern coast of the country alone. But most of them are without any script or written record,” Sathupati Prasanna Sree, a linguist and professor at Andhra University, told Al Jazeera.
“[Tribal] children often find it difficult to switch from their mother tongue to a foreign language to learn new things or attend school,” said Sree. “Distressed, they usually leave the education system and join the workforce.”
Meena adds: “And the ones who struggle to continue education in foreign languages often migrate to cities, leaving their land, culture and language behind.”
Linguist Belew says the loss of languages is usually a “sign of other problems” faced by a community.
“People don’t lose their languages when everything is going okay for them. It’s usually a corollary of other kinds of suffering, oppression and dispossession,” she said.
“You generally see language loss happening when folks are facing things like forced relocation, forcible assimilation, being pushed out of traditional livelihoods by other cultures or societies or states.”
Tudu, Sree and Meena have high hopes of the government. “Local NGOs and tribal people are doing so much to preserve their culture and traditions, but without external support especially from the government, the impact might not be much,” said Meena.
But Belew has a warning. “It’s never the role of outsiders to tell Indigenous people what to do with their languages. It’s all about making their own goals possible from the outside providing support. And that support can look like legal frameworks for defending language rights,” she told Al Jazeera.
“People have right to education, to healthcare, to legal provisions in their own languages. But it can also include things like showing people what is possible. Community wellbeing overall is tied to a language’s wellbeing.”
The United Nations has declared 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.
“If governments don’t take action, then such celebration of decades might only remain in words,” Meena told Al Jazeera.
However, Tudu is positive and hopeful of change. “Things might be different for tribals if there is education in their mother tongue, even if it’s just primary education, or some small course, anything. The languages can be saved, there is still time.”
Tudu says translating the Indian constitution in Santali is only a beginning for him. He now wants to translate classics from mainstream literature and other such documents for his community. He says it is his way “to bring the world closer to his Santhal tribe, rather than forcing them to leave their own to understand it”.