DHARWAD, India — The task was gargantuan: assembling a team of more than 3,500 language specialists, academics and avid amateurs to determine how many different languages still exist in India, a country of astonishing linguistic diversity.
Ganesh Narayan Devy has been obsessed with that question ever since, as a young literary scholar, he came across a 1971 linguistic census that listed 108 native languages spoken by Indians. At the end of the report, at number 109, it said ‘everyone else’.
“I wondered what ‘all the others’ might be,” he said.
It turns out to be a huge number: His team’s research, arguably the most exhaustive attempt ever in India, examined 780 languages currently used in the country, with hundreds more yet to be studied.
In contrast, India’s constitution lists 22 languages, and the last government census in 2011 listed 121 “major” languages with 10,000 speakers or more.
Mr Devy’s findings, which he is gradually publishing in a series of scholarly volumes, come at a sensitive time as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pushes for Hindi to be used as the national language as part of its wider Hindu vision. for India.
As his language research rolls out, Mr. Devy immersed himself in a new project that addresses an even bigger and more controversial issue in India’s culture wars: the country’s long history.
His “The Origins of Indian Civilization and Histories of India” aims to trace the trajectory of the entire subcontinent since the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago. He has recruited 80 historians from around the world to work with him.
The ambitious work is intended to follow up on the Indian ruling party’s campaign to rewrite the country’s history books, including by deleting sections about Muslim rulers and changing Muslim names for places.
“History is being taught to spread political bigotry in this country,” said Mr. devy. “Someone had to show a mirror to the ruling class.”
His passions for both the Indian languages and the rise and fall of its civilization converge in his work with India’s vast population of long-oppressed Adivasis, or “primordial people.”
Adivasi is an umbrella term for indigenous groups in India, with a population of over 100 million people, with enormous diversity in ethnicities, culture, languages and even language families.
Many of these languages are already extinct, or disappearing soon. And when a language dies, not only words are lost.
Language, according to Mr. Devy, is the way a community constructs its ideas about time and space. People who leave their first language to adopt another language often lose this clear perspective along with it, he said.
“The world may be one scene out there, but the language constructs it in a unique way,” he said. “So this unique worldview is lost.”
India has been bleeding out languages for decades, with more than 300 lost since independence in 1947, Mr. Devy, and many more are about to disappear as the speaker count drops below 10,000.
During his research for the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Mr. Devy, it was like walking into a graveyard littered with corpses.
He described how a woman from the Boa tribe in the Andaman Islands who died in 2010 “would talk a lot with birds during her last years because there was no one around to speak her language.”
His research, which received no government funding, has been published in 50 of what will eventually comprise nearly 100 volumes. The books contain the history of a language, examples of songs and stories, and important terms. He started the project with his own savings; the Tata Trusts, an Indian philanthropic organization, has contributed about $100,000 since then.
His linguistic research took him across India, from the Himalayas where he thought the cold would kill him, to hill tribes living in the jungle. And at times his research has put his own worldview to the test.
“As they collected songs from the Banjara community, they insisted that I honor them by accepting the gift they gave me,” said Mr. Devy, referring to a community of nomadic traders. “The highest respect is expressed among them by asking the guest to eat the ear of a roasted goat. I had to accept it, despite being a vegetarian for decades.”
Many of the 3,500 people who contributed to the language project are amateur scholars who understand Mr. Share Dave.
In the state of Orissa, where he collected language samples from tribal areas, a driver from a government office had made it a habit to write down new or strange words he heard from people in villages. “He’d done it all his working life,” Mr. Devy said, “not knowing if his ‘research’ would ever be of any use. He gave me his whole notebook, his treasure trove.”
While Hindi is India’s most widely spoken native language, Mr. Devy that the current government is ramping up the total, saying nearly 50 separate languages under the banner of ‘Hindi’.
“Bhojpuri – spoken by more than 50 million people, with its own cinema, theater, literature, vocabulary and style – is represented as ‘Hindi’,” he said.
Amit Shah, India’s powerful Home Secretary, has often promoted the idea of using Hindi as a substitute for English as the de facto national language of communication.
“If there is one language that has the capacity to bring the nation together in unity, it is the Hindi language,” said Mr Shah in 2019.
The Indian constitution designates both Hindi and English as official languages for government affairs, but some states do not require the teaching of Hindi in public schools, and many millions of Indians do not speak the language.
The government wants to change that.
“It is time to make the official language an important part of the country’s unity,” Mr Shah said in April, taking a position that sparked resentment among Indians who do not speak Hindi.
mr. Devy suggested that the government’s efforts could backfire.
“Whenever there is war in your native language, there is division — and identity becomes strong,” he said.
Many Hindus, Mr Devy noted, do not speak Hindi as their first language. “People in the south do not consider Hinduism to be Hindi-based,” he said. “Far from thinking that the tolerant version of Hinduism they have developed over the centuries is the more authentic Hinduism.”
mr. Devy was born in 1950 in Bhor, a small village in the state of Maharashtra. When he was 10, his father went bankrupt, forcing his son to work at 15.
He worked in a mine in the coastal state of Goa, among other places. To improve his language skills, he recalled, he read 300 pages of English-language books daily.
He eventually earned a master’s degree in English literature and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Sri Aurobindo, a nationalist pioneer in India.
After teaching English at a university level for 16 years, he dropped out in 1996 and soon moved to a village in Gujarat state that is home to many indigenous tribes. There he founded the Adivasi Academy, which has a multilingual school, a health center and a library with more than 60,000 books, including a section devoted to tribal archives.
mr. Devy has long been active in the field of social justice, recently coordinating several peaceful protests against a new citizenship law that critics say is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of religion and undermines the secular base of the state.
In 2015, dozens of writers and poets denounced the Modi government over the murder of Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, an idol-worship critic who spoke out against deadly attacks by right-wing Hindu gangs on Muslims, and who was himself shot and killed by gunmen.
When India’s prestigious National Academy of Letters failed to speak out against the murder, Mr. Devy returned the award – India’s highest literary honor – awarded to him in 1992 for his acclaimed book ‘After Amnesia’.
“They can kill me too,” said Mr. Devy, adding, “I’m ready to die, but I won’t stop.”
For all his social activism, his life’s work remains the languages and history of India.
In his research, he found dozens of secret languages spoken by tribal communities as a way to prevent prying ears from listening to their communications, including researchers eager to decipher the mystery.
He has discovered a form of Portuguese that is spoken in dozens of Indian villages in coastal areas. In the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, there are 16 languages that together have 200 words for snow, including one for “snow that falls when the moon is up.”
mr. Devy is convinced that taking in India’s rich tapestry of languages must play a role in keeping India a multicultural state, as it has been for millennia.
So is the telling of an extensive history that emphasizes evidence over ideology.
“We will restore every bit of history they destroy,” he said. “It will take time, but we will win.”