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Bastar’s Bijapur Speaks Over Nine Languages. But, Are You Listening?

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“Who are you? What are you doing here?” asked a tall, clean-shaven man, wearing a grey safari suit and carrying an air of authority along with a gunman. We were at the administrative headquarters of a district in Chhattisgarh.

A wave of utter weariness passed through my body. Even though I had an oven-ready script to offer, I didn’t want to say anything. 

It had been over a month of justifying my presence in the region. I had started to feel lost in my own identity, and the obligatory act of explaining my existence. Yet, I wasn’t paying as rich a price as Bastar.

The region’s richness is its curse. It reminds me of a ferocious animal trapped in a zoo cageresilient and wild, yet far from free. 

Bijapur Had Only One Road

The administrative headquarters of the Bijapur district, of the Bastar region, is situated in the middle of nowhere.

There is only one road in the city that splits the district into two identical slices of dense, dry forests. They say that it took many years and the lives of half a dozen contractors to build this road. 

The road is strangely symbolic. If one looks as if: the city is the road and the road is the city. Almost all the government offices, markets, a couple of hospitals, and a skill development college are settled on either side of the road.

The dense forests a few kilometres off the road are under Naxal control. Bastar’s Bijapur, along with Sukma, are known for being the most violence-torn districts in the country. 

Bijapur is located in the southwestern corner of the Chhattisgarh state, bordering the Dantewada district (Chhattisgarh) in the east, Narayanpur (Chhattisgarh) district in its north, Gadchiroli (Maharashtra) district in the west, as well as Khammam and Warangal districts (Telangana) to its south.

It is a quiet, unknown land of wonders. And, it shall remain unknown, until it finally becomes like the rest. 

Bijapur Was Colourful, Not Just Red

The Bastar region, now broken into several divisions, is larger in size than Kerala and even Belgium. Bijapur, a small part of it, boasts of half a dozen tribes that speak over nine languages. 

It is a unique junction of two of the largest linguistic families of the Indian subcontinent: the Indo-Aryan and Dravadian. But, in the world where only the “Roman” reigns, some of these languages with an oral heritage—where history, mythology, literature and law has been transmitted orally—are at the verge of extinction. 

Bijapur is a kaleidoscope of sounds, colours and patterns. It is not just red: as is seen from the outside. 

As a 22-year-old, I saw the world with curious eyes. It was the curiosity that brought me to Bastar. CGNet Swara, a citizen journalism platform, was working on a project involving training tribal citizens to report news and create radio programs in their local dialects.

The reason was simple: The national news is exceptionally apathetic to tribal or rural communities at large, and their content is irrelevant to the majority of these communities. The idea was to create a platform run by local, tribal people, who will raise relevant, local issues in their local dialect.

A platform that could also become an oral library of endangered languages, different from the pervasive car and real estate advertisements disguised as radio. 

I Lead A Pilot Project In Bijapur

But since there is either scarce or no network connectivity (but enough presence of mobile phones) in the “dark zone” of Chhattisgarh, the transmission chain was to be supported by Bluetooth. Hence, the project was calledBultoo Radio”. I was leading the pilot in Bijapur. 

During a meeting with one of the senior administrative officers of the district, an alum of a premier institute, I was stunned to see the power in the hands of those who are ignorant and malicious.

“What are your views on ‘their’ culture? Do you really think these languages have a future? English is the new Sanskrit, it is the language of the learned. If they don’t follow, they won’t survive, as simple as that…” continued the 10-minute monologue, with more patronizing remarks.

Every time a language goes extinct, we lose a part of human understanding that can never ever be retained. With it, goes the dazzling possibility and diversity that humanity is. With, it goes a culture’s memory… Alas! The mic was off.

He did all the talking and made sure to interrupt me every time I spoke. 

He reminded me of an essay by Thomas Merton, where Merton calls the coloniser the “one-eyed giant”. Driven by a rudderless voyage of  “progress”… Breaking into ancient civilizations without any understanding or insight. 

I Thought Things Will Never Change

I remember my young self feeling absolutely heartbroken. “Probably, nothing will ever change here,” I noted in my journal that night. 

The next day, sensing my disappointment, the local team took me to the weekly haat (market). It was set up in one of the four blocks of Bijapur. People from far-off, interior villages had come in humongous numbers. It was a splash of colours.

“It is not just a market. It is where people come to socialize, meet their relatives, convey messages, dance, drink, and enjoy,” said a local colleague to me. Another friend called these haats the local “social media”.

“We don’t have Facebook here, this is our ‘social media’.” I had never seen something like it before. What a beautiful platform of real-life communication… Of coming together. 

Yet, communication was also cursed… Both within and with the outside world. There were days in Bastar when I, along with my team, remained totally cut off from the rest of the world. At times, the network connectivity took three to four days to get restored.

I had heard that there are villages in India where people climb up trees and hills to get signals to make or receive a phone call. I realised it when I once took a 25-km bus ride to call home. 

Unfortunately, even after withstanding such trials and tribulations, and bigger threats and risks, the project didn’t sustain because of the dearth of funds and support. All the hope that I felt while arriving in Bastar was turning into something else. I could feel a strange tension in my body. 

My Last Day In Bijapur

It was my last day in Bijapur. We were waiting for the local bus to leave for Dantewada, when a huge car stopped in front of us.

Its tinted window was rolled down. It was the same tall man in the grey, safari suit (whom I had met a while ago), with more gunmen in the back. He offered to drop us. We complied hesitantly. He turned out to be a senior officer at the CRPF’s (Central Reserve Police Force) CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action).

After hearing about our project and experience he, offered us a “better communication intervention”. It was: a “television and cable network in every home” in Bastar. “The insurgency will die down eventually,” he tried to assure us.

I could not believe my ears. It seemed like an excerpt from “Walking With The Comrades”, where a superintendent offers the same solution to the Maoist problem. “Is this part of Bastar officers’ training curriculum?” I wanted to ask, but kept quiet, and reacted with the human version of a thumbs-up emoji. 

Two years later, I again got an opportunity to travel to Bastar. “You. You are from Srinagar, right?” claimed an officer. An assertion disguised as a question. I responded, “No, I am not.”

“Yes, you are,” he retorted sharply.

What followed was a string of questions and comments on my first language, identity, facial features, etc. I revisited my journal—not much has changed, indeed. I could feel the strange tension engulfing my body again. 

Featured image, a still from the Bollywood film Newton, is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: imdb.com
All other images have been provided by the author.

Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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