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Language and Identity
Language is closely related to identity, especially in a place like India, which is a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic area. While it sounds good to say things like there is unity in diversity etc., in reality, the picture is quite complicated. Language and religion have been the two major symbols of group identity in India, and, in fact, in a majority of South Asian countries. Unfortunately, the interaction of different linguistic, cultural and religious communities has not been entirely peaceful in the past. Different speech communities and religious groups have constantly competed with each other for self-expression and political rights, more so in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting into large-scale political movements, some of which have undermined sovereignties of the existing political units.
To give an example of the power of religious identity of a community, the evocation of Islamic sentiment and unity in the pre-independent India led to a mass movement and violent riots, resulting into creation of Pakistan, and we know that the animosity has not entirely ended even after so many years. Then, the linguistic-cultural movement in Bangladesh broke down the regional unity created in the name of Islam, and caused separation of the East Pakistan and the West Pakistan.
In his classical 1974 textbook, Language Religion and Politics in Northern India, Paul Brass deals with issues of communal consciousness in ethnic groups, state policies, nationalism, separatism, national integration, nationality formation, their cumulative and non-cumulative effects, and raises some important questions on these subjects. One of the central themes of this book is the sentiment evoked by the interaction of abundant ethnic dimensions of India, like caste, tribe, religion, language, culture, etc. For this blog discussion, we may only look at just one of these symbols- the regional linguistic identity of people of different communities in India.
Linguistic Survey of India
One of the first steps of dealing with different language identities is to record the rich linguistic diversity of India. The Linguistic Survey of India, or LSI, is one such attempt. LSI was pioneered in the direction of Griersen in British India. The 2001 census recorded a total of 122 languages in India. Before commentating on this figure, it is important to look at the problems and discrepancies in collecting data through such linguistic surveys.
Linguistic and anthropologists observe and study variation in different ethnic groups from their own perspective. However, there is an enormous difference in people’s consciousness and awareness of a common identity existing different from other groups.This means, there are ethnic groups who are not aware of their identity, and hence, political self-expression is not important for them. Also, there is a strong tendency of speakers of minority, regional languages to learn the standard variety. This is mainly done for rise in social status because standard variety is spoken by rich and prestigious, or to hide their linguistic identity, and many a times, for higher education, etc. In these surveys, it is difficult to seek 100% reliability and co-operation from these ethnic groups. Volunteers need to make sure that they are able to invoke the linguistic pride of such communities before they collect data. On the other hand, there are groups where this group consciousness is enormously self-evident, may be because of literature, a grand historical past or cultural artifacts, and they have been able to move millions of people to make political demands, sometimes leading to confrontations with the opposing groups. Linguistic surveys should not be biased due to these differences.
The ethnic groups vary in size from highly localized caste and tribal groups to large language and religious groups in which no single group and ideology is dominant, and where boundaries are not fixed.
Next, there has been a tendency of exaggeration of problems by both scholars and policy makers in dealing with linguistic-cultural identities. From one end, there is a fight for identity and from the other end, the tendency to suppress it. Also, the demands of self-expression of ethic groups have been interpreted as threats to unity, integrity and nationality of India.
Most importantly, there is no exact criteria basis which one can objectively say that a particular dialect is not a dialect but a distinct language. Language changes every 100 Km, and the changes are gradual, not highly marked. This creates a problem in counting of languages.
People’s Linguistic Survey of India
The People’s Linguistic Survey of India or PLSI is done by The Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, which is based in Vadodara, under the chairmanship of Ganesh Devy.
PLSI claims to be a community based survey, which means that the people from respective communities took part in conducting the survey. A team of 3500 volunteers, which included language experts, schoolteachers, farmers, academicians, activists, etc. helped in completing this linguistic survey.
Unlike LSI and other surveys, PLSI is not a door-to-door survey. This survey was carried out by means of 20-25 page long forms, with slight differences for for the scheduled and the non-scheduled languages (the 8th schedule of India lists 22 official languages in India. All other languages are non-scheduled languages). People from different speech communities filled this form and gave evidence for existence of their language and its grammar. In this way, PLSI has several advantages over a regular language survey.
PLSI identified 780 languages as opposed to 122 in the 2001 census. In a way, PLSI has been like a language rights movement. The identification of language of small communities is a crucial step to the self-expression and development of smaller communities in India.