Today, the Taiwanese indigenous people’s first language is as insignificant as several dying native tongues in several Latin American nations as well as in North America. The same can be said of the tribal communities in India who are more marginalised with the movements of labour and capital becoming ever more commonplace.
Few years back, a major broadcasting house ran a documentary film on alcohol abuse among the aboriginal people in New Zealand. One among the several interviewees was quoted: ‘When you know that everything about you has been obliterated, including the sense of identities, you discover a huge hollow inside, something like the loss of inheritance. Filling this hollow isn’t easy; even the very attempt is painful enough that it haunts you. For those who cannot cope up with it, they just resort to drinking as an escapade.’ To revive a dying long-practised culture is painstaking and is a long process, but to live with the clear knowledge that nothing remains of it except for the fading remnants is sufficient to create a hollow.
Indigenous peoples are the inheritors and practitioners of distinct cultures and they have their ways of relating to people and environment. They are those who have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are different from those who dominate the societies where they reside. Indigenous peoples around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.
Such concern or rather the loss of inheritance has caused enormous distress among the marginalised indigenous communities. Today, the Taiwanese indigenous people’s first language is as insignificant as several dying native tongues in several Latin American nations as well as in North America. The same can be said of the tribal communities in India who are more marginalised with the movements of labour and capital becoming ever more commonplace. It’s obvious that people shed, voluntarily or involuntarily, a large part of their culture and language for the sake of economic survival or financial advancement in a different environment or in their own turf. An adivasi, who has migrated to Mumbai for economic reason, has a lot to lose than those in his village who are faced with a market force.
This trend has become ever more rampant with globalization having penetrated almost every nook and corner of the world. The language of commerce being one force and the atmosphere created by commerce being another. For instance, in a corporate setup of a multi-national company, there is little room for a person’s indigenous language and culture. Though such a setup cannot be held entirely responsible, it, however, can try to create or provide a diverse platform which encourages the use of one’s distinct language and culture.
Indigenous people speak majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. We cannot afford languages in Arunachal Pradesh or in Haryana to die, nor can we afford to disown the cultures widely practised among the tribal communities. This is even more critical in a country like India where diversity, in terms of culture, language and religious belief, is the chief factor that defines the very essence of the country. Today, more than half of the languages spoken by India’s 1.3 billion people may die out over the next 50 years, says a finding by People’s Linguistic Survey of India. What’s critical is that each time a language is lost, the corresponding culture also dies. Most at risk are the marginalised communities whose children receive no education or, if they receive, are taught in officially recognized languages.
According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. Not doing enough to ensure the survival of their cultural practices as well as their languages indicates our lack of concern for our ecosystem and the indifference towards humanity. Also at risk are the arts, crafts, vocational skills, folklore, and customs of many traditional and indigenous peoples. At a juncture when the collective understanding is hooked on conserving the ecosystem to ensure our future, the world needs the perspectives and wisdom of indigenous peoples now more than ever.
N. Bobo Meitei