How 1,500 languages disappeared from Census data in ten years

The three-part lecture on ‘India as a linguistic civilization’ was part of the Obaid Siddiqi lectures by Archives at NCBS

Updated - July 19, 2023 06:37 pm IST

Published - July 19, 2023 12:33 pm IST - Bengaluru

Writer and Historian G N Devy during interacting with The Hindu in Bengaluru.

Writer and Historian G N Devy during interacting with The Hindu in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

When the 1961 census of India was completed, data showed that 1,652 mother tongues were spoken in India. Ten years later, in 1971, the next census took place. This time, circumstances had changed.

The Bangladesh Liberation War broke out in 1971. The uprising by Bangladeshi nationalists to attain independence and self-determination was also a war of two languages – Urdu and Bangla.

(Known as East Pakistan until then, Bangladesh was separated from West Pakistan geographically and located about 1,600 km away. The region comprised a majority of Bengali Muslims who were infuriated by attempts of suppression from West Pakistan including efforts to erase Bangla from administrative, political, cultural and educational spaces.)

This got the Indian government nervous about displaying the country’s language diversity. Subsequently, a condition was introduced that a language would be recognised in the census only if more than 10,000 people spoke it. As a result, the 1971 census had only 109 languages.

That was one of the fascinating excerpts from history that Dr. G.N. Devy, renowned literary scholar and historian, presented before the audience on the second day of Obaid Siddiqi Lectures by the Archives at NCBS.

The three-part lecture by Mr. Devy, who is the recipient of the second Obaid Siddiqi Chair in the History and Culture of Science at the Archives at NCBS, looked at ‘India as a linguistic civilization.’

“Multilingualism and language diversity started receding from the government records in the 1970s. In 10 years between 1961 and ‘71, about 1,500 languages were knocked out from the data, and today when you look at the government data, they recognise only 122 languages. Out of those, 22 are scheduled languages,” said Mr. Devy.

The multilingual spirit

Prof Devy, who established the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and founded the Adivasi Academy and Bhasha Research Centre, also pointed out that it was nations such as Italy and Germany that advocated for one language one nation that ended up as fascist nations in the middle of the 20th century.

“Those who fought for India’s independence were inspired by the idea of non-monolingual nations… And so, when India became independent and the constitution was to be drafted, all the constituent assembly debates except one saw the question of language coming up,” he said.

When the Constitution was prepared finally, it had 14 scheduled languages.

“Our Constitution truly reflects the multilingual spirit and history of our country. And therefore, it is one of the greatest constitutions…India is a union of states and this union of states was allowed to manifest itself in terms of linguistic states,” he pointed out.

The shrinking diversity

According to Mr. Devy, while 1,369 mother tongues were identified during the last census, they were all compressed into 122 ‘boxes,’ resulting in some ‘very ridiculous social engineering.’ He pointed out how Bhojpuri was put under ‘Hindi’ despite it being the fastest-growing language claimed as the mother tongue by around five crore people.   

“The most comical was the case of Pawri, a language partly spoken in Maharashtra and partly in Madhya Pradesh. They showed Pawri as part of Hindi. I ran a magazine in Pawri for many years, and I know that Pawri speakers do not understand Hindi. Pawri and Hindi are not mutually easily intelligible,” he added.

Headed to zone of silence?

During the lecture, Mr. Devy observed that the ability of humans to perceive the world through visual symbols like emojis is increasing.

For future humans who may be looking at colonising other planets, the voice that the air on Earth carries may prove to be an insufficient medium to communicate. Therefore, perhaps, digits which are not ruled by earthbound physical laws could be rapidly replacing voice-based speech, Mr. Devy said.

“We are moving into another order of silence which won’t be human, which perhaps will be the silence that homo deus understand…Language diversity in India explicitly presents to us a possibility of society, life and culture which could generate a critique of new scientific technological vigour that’s threatening human beings.”

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