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Scripting Their Stories

The first Gondi font developed by a Bhopal-based undergrad student seeks to empower the Gond tribals of central India.

The first Gondi font developed by a Bhopal-based undergrad student seeks to empower the Gond tribals of central India.

If the struggle of the subaltern is essentially of memory against forgetting, its lone weapon is language. Not a fading, fumbling dialect, but words sealed in a well-defined script, expressed through love letters as well as academic discourse.

A father-son duo, belonging to the Gond tribe, is trying to take their language online by developing a font for Gondi script. This could fundamentally alter the Gondi-speaking zone and the conditions of tribals across the central Indian forests.

Guided by his father, Sangram Singh Markam, a 23-year-old mathematics undergraduate student, has developed the font. Having used it effectively on the computer, he is now devising its Unicode. Once done, anyone can type Gondi words using popular fonts, say Arial or Times New Roman, and it would get transliterated into the Gondi script. An online Gondi-Hindi/English dictionary follows next, where if you type, say, iggewara in Gondi, you will get its meaning, “come here” in English or “yahan aao” in Hindi.

The technological strides will enable Gond tribals to narrate first-hand the most authentic accounts of their lives, their fables and parables, the tragedies and dreams drowned in the din of the police-Naxal conflict in the last few decades.

The Markams have found a techno-social collaborator in former South Asia BBC producer Shubhranshu Chaudhary and his project, It is the first-ever site to use the Gondi script and the font developed by Sangram. A Hindi translation accompanies the script.

“My father came up with the idea of developing this font. Almost all languages are on the computer today. We have already developed the beta version of the font, the bigger challenge is now to develop a Unicode font for Gondi. We hope to get it in a few months. It will then make Gondi accessible to all,” says Sangram.

Among the most prominent tribes of central India, Gonds live across Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Six MPs of adjoining tribal constituencies, cutting through these states, and forming a continuous belt — Nabrangpur, Koraput, Araku, Bastar, Gadchiroli-Chimur and Mandla — are Gond tribals. One of them, Araku MP KC Dev, is the Union cabinet minister for tribal affairs. Together, these constituencies form a geographical area bigger than several states, and this excludes several other adjoining reserved tribal constituencies like Kanker and Sundargarh represented by non-Gond tribes.

“There are 27 lakh people who speak Gondi, but the language is not recognised. Few know about our tradition and oral literature,” says Sangram’s father, Gulzar Singh Markam. While Sangram studies in a Bhopal college, Gulzar is a leader of Gondwana Gantantra Party, a party working for the rights of Gondi people, and works in BHEL, Bhopal.

Gonds have had a glorious past as local chieftains across central India. They fought several battles against invaders, be it medieval kings or the British, to protect their territory, from Bastar to Nagpur. They got caught between the Naxal conflict that dominated their zones and industries that discovered their resource-rich lands. The tribal zone is also the most deprived in India in terms of basic amenities and faces extreme government apathy.

“Many languages are getting extinct because their speakers have been marginalised. Gond tribals will be empowered and can assert their rights if they have their language. This ancient language should be preserved,” says Gulzar, who has been studying Gondi for decades.

The Gondi script was prepared around the 1930s, since then mostly written by longhand. In 2004-05, Gulzar printed the first Gondwana calendar and saw the challenge, and opportunity.

“We realised that if we have to get it printed on a large scale, we need to have it on the computer, in the form of a font. We also realised the powerful message the written language would send across. I told my son that we will help others learn and understand Gondi,” Gulzar says.

The collaboration between the Markams and Chaudhary’s team has linguistic challenges as none in the technical team of Chaudhary knows Gondi. “We have a few Gondi speaking colleagues, they translate the phone calls but they don’t know the script. For every sentence, we go back to Gulzarji,” he says.

In February 2010, Chaudhary, who has been working with central Indian tribals for over a decade, launched the first Gondi news portal,, for Central Gondwana tribes. A tribal can call up, register his complaint, submit a news item or simply share experiences in Gondi, and Chaudhary’s team would verify, translate and post it on the website in Hindi for the entire world to take note of. Last year, for instance, a local called to complain about the absence of a bus service in the remote village of Pedamidisileru in Khammam district, bordering south Chhattisgarh. It is one of the 26 districts that are affected by Maoist activities. A New Jersey-based NRI Suresh Adiga took note of it on Chaudhary’s portal and put it on his Facebook. Eventually, volunteers pitched in, submissions were made to the transport officials and in January the village saw its first bus.

Chaudhary and his team began working in Bastar (south Chhattisgarh). Today they receive 500 calls daily and have spread across the tribal zone of Central Gondwana. Chaudhary was among four persons, including Edward Snowden, nominated for the global digital activism award of Index on Censorship. The award will be announced on March 20.

They know that the stakes are high. Any qualitative change in the life of tribals could decisively impact the red insurgency. But Maoists have appreciated the phone portal system, calling it a pro-people experiment. “Maoists leaders also tried to use the platform but we did not release their messages as we need to crosscheck the authenticity of news and the number they use is never available for a call-back,” says Chaudhary.

Chaudhary believes this form of grievance redressal in the Maoist zone could be an effective tool to curb violence. “The idea is to democratise communication/media from the current aristocratic/top-down/one-way model to a bottom-up/dialogue model where power is with more people rather than few. This communication model can bring peace to central India. A majority of ‘Maoists’ are people whose grievances have not been addressed over the years and who were pushed to the Maoist fold rather than being pulled by their philosophy. Many of their problems were not addressed due to linguistic and spatial gap, and not corruption.

If we can resolve them by tools like mobile and internet and radio, one can bust the myth that the entire system is hopeless and the only way forward is guns,” says Chaudhary.

Tribals form the foot soldiers of the Maoist brigade, many of them disillusioned with both the administration and the guerrilla life. Such initiatives will help empower the tribe by giving them a voice of their own.

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