Going Back to The People: GN Devy

From Literature and Linguistics to Culture and Governance, GN Devy has presented seminal ideas to nurture the fading multiplicity in these critical times

Much before this difficult time of physical distancing started to keep us away from each other, we had already been dealing with unprecedented social, economic, and political issues aggravated by several forms of divisive religiosity. The intellectual community of progressive thinkers in India are being pushed to the edge gradually, diplomatically, and of course, very systematically. The students, teachers, thinkers, activists, performers, writers, journalists, labours, daily wagers, healthcare professionals, and all other public and private sector employees, and also the homemakers – everyone who consist the body of ‘the people’ of India – is being stripped of off their freedom of expression, freedom to disagree and defy, and most importantly, their freedom to voice their protest either in spoken or in written forms.

Tonight, when I am writing this article, the entire surrounding of my house is pitch dark. Even the street lights are turned off to express solidarity with the honourable PM’s appeal that we switch off lights in our homes for 9 minutes at 9 PM, and stand in balconies with a candle or diya, to show our unity and strength in our fight against COVID-19 virus. I wasn’t much surprised, but did feel a sort of despair to witness first-hand that a systematic diplomacy practiced by the state machinery is supremely capable of capturing the attention of the anxious people and swipe it at a direction away from the real-life problems – like how the lockdown is affecting the lives of daily wagers, blue-collar workers, homeless, the seniors, people with disabilities, people with young children, people suffering from terminal illness, people on lifesaving drugs, people in remote places without any healthcare facility and so on. The number of people who raised their voices questioning this appeal was not many. It was rather only a counted few. It had happened before; it will happen again. So, this number matters much more now than ever.

GN Devy is one of those counted few who have been asking questions, actively taking steps to show solidarity towards an undeterred, dedicated, and innovative India which didn’t forget that it is the world’s largest Sovereign, Socialist, Democratic, Secular, Republic.We recognise the fact that as individuals, as a community, and as a nation, we’re now standing at dangerously conflicting crossroads where true leaders are needed to guide us. It is not the politicians whom we depend on during these restless times but the people who could lead innovatively and make their steps count towards transforming our thoughts, bringing a reform of any sort towards creating an all-inclusive society which will not discriminate against people based on any criteria or condition.

This hope for a brighter future led us to feature Ganesh N Devy as our Renaissance Person in this edition of Interactions themed PUBLIC. Who could be a better fit than the man who has presented a seminal way of understanding and engaging with the people of India, especially the de-notified and nomadic tribes of India, who have been some of the most marginalised cultures? Bhasha (language) is the first step towards the freedom of an individual—an integral part of a society, a race, a nation. Bhasha is the prime evidence of our humanity, and at the same time, it is also the non-linear, symptomatic boundary which distinguishes the humans. Ganesh Devy has been tirelessly working for the past 23 years to assert the significance of different languages spoken by the Indian diaspora.

G N Devy once said, ‘when a language dies, something irreplaceable dies.’ Because, the language is where the soul is, and which language a particular individual will choose does not only depend on the location of their birth or upbringing. An individual can choose a completely different language to reveal his thoughts at an acceptable age, and the language gradually starts to influence his/her philosophical attitude, social behaviour, political ideas and concepts, economic inclinations and many other absolute and compulsory everyday perspectives. A language prepares a person very systematically to follow the root culture and lifestyle associated with that language. It may either nourishes itself more from the dynamic practices of that culture, or like Latin, Sanskrit, or Pali—the static culture-aspects associated with those languages might diminish the very existence of those languages. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, human cognition, perception, phonological representation and distinction guide their reality.

And then we speak what we think, which according to Mr. Devy owes to, “the peculiar structure of the human brain, which is described as the recursive brain, that is, it can think about thought.” Following this philosophy and passion, he went on to build People’s Linguistic Survey of India, the Adivasis Academy (Tejgadh), Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (Baroda), etc. and also created initiatives like Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Groups. In 1996, he liberated himself from the professional responsibilities as the Professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In 1998, he co-signed a petition with the internationally acclaimed writer and activist Mahashweta Devi, and renowned novelist Laxman Gaikwad, demanding an investigation in the death of Budhan Sabar, a tribal belonging to Kheria Sabar community of West Bengal, who was brutally murdered in police custody. That was the beginning of a carefully thought-out strategies dedicated to the well-being and development of the tribes of India, especially those historically settled in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

A very interesting and relevant theory we learn from Mr. Devy is that intolerance and violence are rising because the languages are in a declining state, and not the other way round. The solution to this condition might be there in the largest survey of languages, which was conducted by him with the help of nearly 3,000 volunteers. The research survey was published in 50 multilingual volumes.

The Bhasha Centre took off with an aim and passion to improve the overall life of the marginalised people. Mr. Devy told us that his involvement with the marginal tribes of India has enriched his character with humility. As a voice of strong resilience in India against all forms of injustice and intolerance, Mr. Devy returned his Sahitya Akademi Award in the year 2015. This happened as a part of the Dakshinayan Movement launched by him in response to the murders of the intellectuals and several other incidents of explicitly growing intolerance which was being encouraged by the right-wing government.

An admirer of the philosophy of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, GN Devy continues to connect his ideology of equality and freedom with the urban as well the rural and marginal Indians. His Dakshinayan movement has reached several states of India and has gained power to register the resilient voices, and protect its people by giving them a choice to unite their languages and cultures by foregrounding the vastness of India—the cauldron of linguistic heritage and practices it already is. Under the rapidly changing circumstances, it is important to look at the ideas shared by Mr. Devy, which make us aware of the lingo-cultural diversity of India, as well as the possibilities of co-existence between them all.

We congratulate him for his upcoming books scheduled to be published in the year 2020.

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