Indians very often speak of their country as a melting pot of cultures, old and new, foreign and indigenous. They frequently use the expression, ‘Unity in Diversity’, attributing to it the success of Indian democracy and the tolerance of Indian society. However, things are not as rosy in real life as they are on paper. The Indian Republic has lived through violent episodes through seven years of its existence, on account of conflict between adherents of different religions, sects, castes, regions and ethnic groups. Some have emerged victorious and gone on to dominate the country while others have been pushed to the margins, and suffered a precipitous decline.

The best example of the latter category are India’s aboriginal communities, the Adivasis (a term that translates as ‘First Inhabitants’, much like Canada’s ‘First Nations’). They had their lands taken away from them in the name of development (the establishment of urban settlements, highways, farms, mines, dams, power plants, and industrial complexes). Some (like those in the Northeast and Central India) have been slaughtered in conflicts between security forces and insurgent groups. Their religious beliefs, livelihoods and homelands have suffered grievously on account of government neglect and apathy. No wonder then that even the languages of many of these communities are disappearing, like their speakers.

Recently, articles appeared in the Indian press pointing out the sad state of as many as 42 languages spoken in the country. These have very few speakers left and are said to be on the course to extinction. Given below is a report from The Hindu newspaper’s article ‘Over 40 Indian Languages, Dialects Heading to Extinction’ (dated February 18, 2018):

According to a report of the Census Directorate, there are 22 scheduled languages and 100 non-scheduled languages in the country, which are spoken by a large number of people — one lakh or more. However, there are 42 languages which are spoken by less than 10,000 people. These are considered endangered and may be heading towards extinction, a Home Ministry official said. A list prepared by UNESCO has also mentioned about the 42 languages or dialects in India that are endangered and they may be heading towards extinction, the official said. The languages or dialects which are considered endangered, include 11 from Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Lamongse, Luro, Muot, Onge, Pu, Sanenyo, Sentilese, Shompen and Takahanyilang), seven from Manipur (Aimol, Aka, Koiren, Lamgang, Langrong, Purum and Tarao) and four from Himachal Pradesh (Baghati, Handuri, Pangvali and Sirmaudi). The other languages in the endangered category are Manda, Parji and Pengo (Odisha), Koraga and Kuruba (Karnataka), Gadaba and Naiki (AP), Kota and Toda (Tamil Nadu), Mra and Na (Arunachal Pradesh), Tai Nora and Tai Rong (Assam), Bangani (Uttarakhand), Birhor (Jharkhand), Nihali (Maharashtra), Ruga (Meghalaya) and Toto (West Bengal).

The languages mentioned, and their categorization according to region (where they are spoken), and language family (to which they belong) reveals the plight of India’s First Inhabitants. One will notice that Dravidian, Austroasiatic and Sino-Tibetan languages account for a significant number of languages and dialects disappearing from the country.

  • Himachal Pradesh: Baghati (Indo-Aryan), Handuri (Indo-Aryan), Pangvali (Indo-Aryan) and Sirmaudi (Indo-Aryan)
  • Uttarakhand: Bangani (Indo-Aryan)
  • Arunachal Pradesh: Mra (Sino-Tibetan) and Na (Sino-Tibetan)
  • Assam: Tai Nora (Tai–Kadai) and Tai Rong (Tai–Kadai)
  • Manipur: Aimol (Sino-Tibetan), Aka (Sino-Tibetan), Koiren (Sino-Tibetan), Lamgang (Sino-Tibetan), Langrong (Sino-Tibetan), Purum (Sino-Tibetan) and Tarao (Sino-Tibetan)
  • Meghalaya: Ruga (Sino-Tibetan)
  • Bengal: Toto (Sino-Tibetan)
  • Jharkhand: Birhor (Austroasiatic)
  • Odisha: Manda (Dravidian), Parji (Dravidian) and Pengo (Dravidian)
  • Maharashtra: Nihali (a language isolate)
  • Andhra Pradesh: Gadaba (Dravidian) and Naiki (Dravidian)
  • Karnataka: Koraga (Dravidian) and Kuruba (Dravidian)
  • Tamil Nadu: Kota (Dravidian) and Toda (Dravidian)
  • Andaman and Nicobar: Great Andamanese (Great Andamanese), Jarawa (Jarawa–Onge), Lamongse (Austroasiatic), Luro (Austroasiatic), Muot (Austroasiatic), Onge (Jarawa–Onge), Pu (Austroasiatic), Sanenyo (Austroasiatic), Sentinelese (unknown affiliation), Shompen (Austroasiatic) and Takahanyilang (Austroasiatic)

The island territory of Andaman and Nicobar is a special case. Some of the islands’ tribes are unrelated to any other ethnic group in South Asia, and are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the region (descendants of the first anatomically modern humans to have arrived in the subcontinent from Africa). I will be writing about these tribes and their languages in the near future. However, all of them, regardless of their linguistic affiliation and time of arrival, have suffered greatly on account of recent settlers from the mainland. Which is why as many as 11 of the 42 languages and dialects counted as endangered happen to be those spoken by the archipelago’s original inhabitants.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and based on an illustration appearing in ‘Observation on the Neilgherries, including an account of their Topography, Climate, Soil & Productions on The European Constitution’ (1834) by R. Baikie. It shows the Toda people (who are of Dravidian provenance, and live in the Nilgiri Mountains of South India) whose language is also one among the 42 identified as endangered by UNESCO.