Lord Jagannath at the ISKCON temple, Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Lord Jagannath at the ISKCON temple, Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When India decided to create states on the basis of language, it had no precedent to go by. There are countries where language has been a source of identity and fractures but an experiment of this scale had never been tried before.

Belgium still struggles to balance its two linguistic groups. If we talk of scale, China has regions that speak different languages but language has not decided political and administrative borders as they have in India. Bangladesh proved that language can be a bigger bond than religion. So, in short, it is complicated.

Once we understand the uniqueness of the experiment, we are better positioned to analyze the ways in which languages in India have shaped identities and protected regional literature and cultures. In ways not fully comprehended, regional languages have also worked as a defense against imposition of a majority and uniformity. Without overestimating the importance of this factor, we can safely say these languages have protected the very essence of Indian polity, which is, diversity.

As we near the 2019 general elections and the debate around nationalism reaches a midpoint, one can’t help but notice that the strongest pushback to majoritarianism has been from strong linguistic states, such as Kerala, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. But it would be naive to say that all regional languages have the same impact on their speakers and their sense of identity.

Let’s talk about the state that started it all – Odisha. It was the first linguistic state that was created by the British on April 1, 1936. But how has the first linguistic state fared in fostering a regional identity? How well have the regional cinema and literature done? Did language strengthen other cultural identifiers of Odisha? How does Odia, as a language, enable or inhibit the imposition of Hindi and majoritarian uniformity?

Culture and identity

Odia movies were serious business until the 1980s. Socially relevant stories, memorable music and poetry came together to make that the golden period of Odia cinema. After that decade, Odia cinema went into a spiral, just like Hindi cinema. But unlike Hindi cinema, it never recovered. Today, Odia TV and movies are cheap imitations of Bollywood and no one is working on a revival. The biggest revival is coming from digital – be it in the form of an Odia wiki, fonts, archiving old books or developing software for scripts.

Even at its peak, unlike Bengali cinema or Marathi theater, the highs of the Odia entertainment industry were never too high. The Marathis have won eight Dada Sahib Phalke awards, India’s highest cinematic honor. The Bengalis have 11, the Tamils eight, and even Assamese, which faces an identity crisis in the mainstream Indian consciousness, has won it. None for Odia cinema yet.

When it comes to national awards for best feature films, Malayalam has won 11, and Bengali 22. Odia has none. The numbers are a little better when it comes to literature. There have been four Jnanpith Awards for Odia, six for Bengali, four for Marathi, 10 for Hindi and eight for Kannada.

Beyond the awards, it is also about the nature of content. Both Marathi theater and Bengali literature are known to be progressive, debating about social ailments, acting as agents of churn

Awards can’t be a fair measure of a language, but they can be taken as an indication of its impact. Beyond the awards, it is also about the nature of content. Both Marathi theater and Bengali literature are known to be progressive, debating about social ailments, acting as agents of churn. They were not just establishing the contours of regional identity, they were also continuously redefining it.

In the eastern state of Odisha, the regional form of the theatre is known as jatra. It is massive business; some jatras earn more than a super-hit Odia movie, but they remain caricatures of theater. The themes range from regressive family dramas to outrageous copies of movie plots with mega-villains and their comic dialogues. The women are never more than mere props.

If it’s not cinema, television, theater or contemporary literature, what serves Odisha as the vehicle for social change and discourse? Or will it be a case where language does not become a tool to instill progressive ideas and, instead, perpetuates fault lines?

Language is also a carrier of culture and religion. Within the grand Hindu religion, language can be used to trace local variations in culture and practices.

The Bengalis worship the goddesses Durga and Kali. Both not only stand out but also do not confirm to the traditional male-dominated Hindu pantheon. Both are powerful depictions of the female form and both were invoked into existence to save the day by and for the male gods. Odisha worships Lord Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The place of women in these two societies are as different as the gods they worship, at least in the social expectations and convention. It can’t be denied that language has helped establish the identity of Bengalis as a different people with unique religious and social beliefs.

Then there are the Malayalis, Tamils and Kannadigas, all with strong regional identities built around language. While one offshoot of a strong Marathi identity was the son of the soil movement, in all these other instances, language has enabled people to stave off attempts at majoritarian imposition.

The Hindu beef-eating Malayalis and the Ravana-worshiping Tamils are interesting examples of a diverse Hinduism. Language has strengthened these identities and beliefs.

The recent attempts to impose Hindi on states have been rejected outright. It would be wrong to say Odias lack a strong sense of unity, but a unified opposition to any outside interference or alien idea has never been seen in Odisha.

Language vs Hindutva

Identity also rallies around a cause. Apart from the annual Ratha Jatra, there is hardly any common platform for Odias to rally around. No wonder it remains the defining feature of being an Odia. Jagannath is Odisha and Odisha is Jagannath. And that is where we should look to see what troubles the Odia identity.

More than 22% of the state is populated by tribals. Most of them do not speak Odia. The different districts of Odisha speak versions of Odia that are hard to understand by the others. If you put an Odia from Sambalpur, Phulbani, Ganjam and Baleswar in a room, they might need a translator to understand one another.

Apart from different versions of Odia, there are numerous dialects and languages with significant following within Odisha. Bodo Parja, Matia, Bhuyan in southern Odisha; Kondhan, Laria, Bhulia, Ahghria in western Odisha; Kurmi, Sounti and Bathudi in northern Odisha are all different languages spoken within the state.

The 62 tribes of Odisha speak 72 mother tongues that can be divided into 38 languages. The tribal communities are trying to save their languages by developing software and getting them included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution. Similar efforts are under way for the Sambalpuri/Koshali and Ho languages.

So, whom does the Odia language represent?

In a major way, coastal Odisha. For many Odias from the coast, Odisha ends at the coast. The other regions remain largely absent in collective memory; there is no one identity that ties them and there is no shared music or literature.

The many Odishas have dulled the influence that a linguistically assertive group could have in a region. Seen in the larger context, Odisha is the midpoint between strong linguistic states such as Bengal and Kerala, and the new resource-as-origin states such as Jharkhand and Telangana.

As the 2019 elections come closer, Odisha will be one of the most unpredictable states. Given that Odias are conservative and traditional Hindus, Hindutva is on easy ground here. But once the narrow band of Hinduism is imposed in its entirety, along with language and food restrictions, it remains to be seen if Odia society will stand up to protect its own.

The government of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has done well to pull Odisha out of the poorest-state league and has remarkably improved on human-development indices. But can the Bharatiya Janata Party turn the election into a communal debate in a state where less than 2% of the population is Muslim? Communal riots have not been hard to ferment, but the jury is still out on Odias and their attraction for Hindutva.

Om Routray

Om Routray works with an IT industry association. He has a keen interest in food, fiction and politics and blogs at The Young Bigmouth.

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