Why would a linguist speak of the rivers, mountains and forests?


Small tributaries carry water from the basin to a river just like the way minor linguistic varieties contribute to the major regional languages. In both the cases, the varieties and differences get intermingled with each other while paving their ways through a new trench. The terrarian elevation, slope, and settlements remain crucial in determining the rest of the course of flowing. Tributaries and varieties are forgotten in spite of their immense contribution in maintaining all mainstream trenches and terrains. We celebrate major languages and major rivers. We make them national. With increasing focusing of attention towards the major emblems of national significance, the small languages and tiny rivulets fade away in the darkness of anonymity.

Ganga, Tista, and Suvarnarekha – they are not just rivers. A river is the memoir of not only its tributaries and basin but also of lifeworlds along its sides. The terrestrial and riverine socio-physical infrastructures no doubt leave lasting impressions on the river trench while forming unique hydro-social cycles for “making and remaking of water and the society”. In the intertwined tapestry of life, Ganga, Tista, and Suvarnarekha have become an integral part of daily rituals and customs, known and revered by almost everyone. But how many of us are aware of the existence of smaller streams like Khadkai, Roro, Kanchi, Harmu, Domra, Karu, Chinguru, Dulung, or Khaijuri in spite of their immense significance in maintaining the general health of SuvarnarekhaLachen, Rangpo, Rangit nourish the flow of Tista. The Ganga basin contains Mayurakshi, Ajay, Damodar, Kansabati and their small tributaries like kunur, Tanaban, kushakarnika etc. Similarly, Sylheti, Bhojpuri, Khotta, Mahali, Toto, Mech, Turi and others contribute to the mainstream language like Bengali. In the national context, the mainstreams of languages and rivers receive more attention than the countless unknown streams and catchment areas that support them. While efforts are made to save the Ganga or promote the Bengali language, it is equally crucial to recognize the importance of Dulung river or Bhumij language.

Although the deteriorating condition of major rivers and their pollution becomes a cause for national concern, small rivers and their tributaries fail to draw enough attention. Similar types of negligence can be observed in the case of small languages as well. Despite spending billions of rupees for the promotion of major Indian languages and rivers, the fate of their decay could not be avoided. This is because of adopting two different strategies for writing the stories of ‘making and remaking of water and society’. When for major rivers and languages, the promotional strategies remain instrumental, provision for preservation is opted for the world of minors. For minors, provision for preservation is enacted primarily through documentation. The policy of preservation, no doubt, is an effort to prepare specimens. These specimens are critical for research, teaching and most importantly for the memetic production of identities. In other words, in the life of a nation, both of them remain significant as long as they are being conceived as resources. In reality, we are least concerned about their survival.

India is multilingual and river-centric. However, not all rivers hold equal importance; languages are also of no exception. While billions of rupees are allocated for the development of the Ganga, is there any clear indication of the impact on the overall river conservation or overall hydrological health of a region? The hydrological health of rivers is not limited to the flow dynamics or its navigability alone. It encompasses the factors like bio-cultural diversities and patterns of settlements in and around the catchment area. These factors are crucial in determining the overall health of rivers within a comprehensive framework. To be specific, the projects like Namami Ganga will remain ineffective unless an inclusive attitude for the nameless faceless sahasradhara is taken. Not only the survival of Ganga depends on the survival of the rivulets like Kushakarnika or Kunur or Kopai, the fate of the linguistic communities settled nearby those minor flows are also decided. Since speech as a noospherical event is grounded in the biospheric geological substratum, it is now easier to see why the chances for the survival of a minor languages like Kodwa or Toto are inversely related to the increasing numbers of dams, mining activities, deforestations etc. In this regard,  Promod Gupta’s report “Socio Economic Impact Study of Mining and Mining Polices on the Livelihoods of Local Population in the Vindhyan Region of Uttar Pradesh” (2017) submitted to the Policy Commission of the Indian Government is of worth mentioning since it indicates the role of mining in the disappearance of languages. Another instance of the destruction of biospheric geological substratum leading to the loss of regional linguistic varieties is the establishment of the Haldia port in late 1990s. This time Haldia has not only eroded Ghoramara, Lohachara, and Bedford islands but also cause a change in the pattern of sedimentation resulting into the drying up of smaller waterbodies in some places of Sagar island. This in turn destroys the habitate of crabs on which the survival of the local communities depend. Consequently, migration took place with the high probability of loosing their mother tongue. Under the pretext of dam construction, deforestation, ecotourism etc. the increasing incidents of linguistic shifts as the only choice is getting promoted. When United Nations expresses its concern by saying that “[f]or over a century, conservation has resulted in cultural destruction and large-scale displacements of tribal people from their ancestral lands” one need to realize how grave the situations are with Gond and Baiga tribes due to the policies of wildlife conservation in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park. Needless to say, this is not just India’s story – it’s the story of the whole world. The struggles of the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, the Yanomami in Brazil, or the Penan in Borneo are not very different from the struggles of indigenous peoples in India.

Let the concerns of language and cultural loss blend with the commitment to protect rivers, forests, and mountains. It is not just for the sake of major rivers, mountains, forests or languages only, but in opposition to any majoritarianism in general, let us pledge to protect all rivers, mountains and forests along with the languages for the sake of humanity.

Samir Karmakar is a linguist by profession. He is working in Jadavpur University. His earlier contributions to Counter Currents include “Language, Map, Currency etc.” (2013) and “Linguistic Right and Language of Politics” (2012). He could be reached at [email protected].

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