Linguistic diversity and multilingualism – Interviews with Prof. Ganesh Devy

Devy has worked incessantly to establish the linguistic diversity and numeric strength of subaltern cultures in India. In a politically resonant statement during a public lecture last year in Bengaluru, he said the most beloved stories of mainstream Hinduism start in the mouths of Dalits. It is a suta, both charioteer and bard, who speaks first in the Mahabharat, the Kathasaritsagar claims an older and longer text written in Paishachi, the language of either ghouls or tribal people, as its source. Sanskrit plays are presented to their audiences by actors, an occupation that was always placed low in the scale of social hierarchies. Even the sage Valmiki, composer of the first Ramayan in Sanskrit, is claimed as a member of a Dalit caste by later traditions. Centuries later, when bhakti emerged as the theological fulcrum of Hinduism, it was men and women from Dalit castes who transformed their local languages into literary ones through their poems and songs. […]

Source: Book review by Arshia Sattar, (7 April 2018): Indian Cultures As Heritage— Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company  | Read the full review >>

Casteism [*] is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you.” – Book review quoting Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

“Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. […] And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

~ ~ ~

“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)

~ ~ ~

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)

~ ~ ~

“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2

~ ~ ~

“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)

Prof. Ganesh N. Devy interviewed by Peter Griffin

The Hindu 10-3-18 | Read the full interview >>

[…] His love for teaching was something he discovered early, while in college, where he was a volunteer teacher for leprosy patients. Aside from the university, he has also taught in schools, at a technical university, with tribal students, and with a community that had once been labelled criminal [*]. This diversity, he says, stretched him. “It also taught me the beauty of not segregating life from knowledge. This mix of life and knowledge, city and village, the underprivileged and privileged, the technologically challenged and the technologically gifted: this, I thought, was the purpose of education. I found that not teaching was the best way to teach. I just tried to share what I thought I knew, what I thought they needed to know, or what I thought they knew and I needed to know.”

The story of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a massive survey of languages he launched eight years ago, had its genesis when he was in his 20s, as a research student reading the 1971 census. He found that while the 1961 census listed some 1,652 mother tongues, the 1971 census listed only 108. “And there was one more item, the 109th, which said ‘All Others’. Those two words influenced my life. Everywhere, in everything I have done, I have tried to look at ‘All Others’.”

He thought he would first figure out the ‘where’. “There was no clear map available. From hearsay, gossip, general knowledge, I did a very crude map of the languages that had not been disclosed. I noticed they were in Central India. If you were to draw an imaginary line from Gujarat to Bengal — the Surat to Howrah railway line — [this region was] a hundred kilometres north of it and a hundred kilometres south of it, the entire tribal belt, eastern Gujarat, what is now Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal, Southern Bihar. This was a very exciting thing, because I realised an enormous number of very small communities and languages exist between the Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian groups of languages.”

This prompted questions from the tribal perspective: “Is there something in these languages that kept them strong, and kept their communities undestroyed and non-colonised? Wherever English went — Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand — it destroyed native languages, but in India, tribal communities continued to speak their languages, as did ‘mainland’ Indians. Had tribal languages given strength to the neighbouring Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese?” […]

I ask, is it not natural that languages evolve, die, as they have done for thousands of years? That is true, he says. “But when a language dies, something irreplaceable dies. A complete perspective of the world goes. […]

Devy returns to that moment he chanced upon the words ‘All Others’ in the census document. “That has been a mortal wound in my mind, those two words in a dead page of a census.” […]

The ‘All Others’, at 109th place in the 1971 Census list, opened to me as a door. The rest is madness.”

Source: When a language dies, something irreplaceable dies: Ganesh N. Devy
Accessed: 15 March 2018

An ode to a dying language: on India’s repository of languages

India is one of the great repositories of languages — we need a notion of heritage to save them | Read the full comment by Siv Visvanathan in The Hindu 1 March 2018 >>

One of the tragedies of modern culture is that while all societies mourn the dead, few have mourning rituals for the death of a species, or the disappearance of a language. Modernity needs a mourning wall to bemoan the death of a language or the missingness of a seed. In fact, the collective death of cultures as genocide, extermination and extinction have few rituals of memory, few moments of commemoration. […]

One group that is steadfastly fighting to keep languages alive is the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PSLI). The chairman of the PSLI, Ganesh N. Devy, a literary critic who spent years saving tribal languages, remarked that clerical definitions can be genocidal and facilitate extinction. Mr. Devy said that when the Government of India decided to define a language as a form of life marked by a script, it triggered the erasure of oral languages. India in many ways is an oral society that understands the culture of orality. Today one needs to create a new social contract between orality, textuality and digitality to keep pluralism alive.

Language are under threat all over the world […] indigenous languages are more threatened than other languages. They contain great wisdom about nature and if we want to live on this earth with the earth alive then we need these languages. […]

Linguapax is an organization which is taking great care of language diversity, multilingualism. […] It is trying to teach people linguistic tolerance and appreciation of each others’ languages. It’s a great organization. […]

Source: YouTube video on the occasion of the LINGUAPAX AWARD 2011 [Barcelona]
Address :
Accessed:  27 May 2012

2011: Ganesh Devy and Centro Indígena de Investigaciones Interculturales de Tierradentro (Colombia)

Ganesh Devy (1950), is a renowned activist campaigning for the preservation and revitalisation of threatened languages and human rights activism for indigenous peoples (known as adivasis) and nomadic communities in India. Prof. Devy is Founder of the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh , Gujarat, and of the Himlok Institute of Himalayan Studies in Himachal Pradesh devoted to the cause of indigenous peoples and their languages. The focus of his work has been tribal education and the promotion and documentation of tribal languages, cultures and arts in central India and Himachal Pradesh. These activities have led to setting up of two tribal museums, one at Tejgadh Gujarat and another at Keylong Himachal Pradesh, and also creating a Consortium of 12 tribal museums spread all over the country, to digitize information on all artifacts available in these museums.

Through the BHASHA Research & Publication Centre Baroda, Prof. Devy has been actively engaged in publishing over ninety books in English, major Indian languages (Gujarati, Marathi) and twenty three non-Scheduled languages (not given Constitutional protection). He has edited periodicals on tribal literature; the Journal entitled DHOL “The Drum” has been instrumental in committing at least ten tribal languages of the Bhili group into writing. The BHASHA Centre has been accredited by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, as a “Centre of Excellence”.
Recently the BHASHA Centre has embarked upon a megaproject of Peoples Language Survey of India, under the stewardship of Prof. Devy, to revise and update the Grierson Linguistic Survey of India (1903-31) . A twenty-volume Thesaurus of cultural cartography will be a useful tool for language revitalization as perceived by different sections of society.

A literary critic with deep insights into Indian and Western civilizations, Prof. Devy has authored about 15 books in English, Gujarati and Marathi: Critical Thought (1987), After Amnesia (1992), Of Many Heroes (1997), India Between Tradition and Modernity (1997), Indian Literary Criticism: Theory & Interpretation (2002), Painted Words: An Anthology of Tribal Literature (2002), A Nomad Called Thief (2006), Vaanprastha, Adivasi Jane Che, The G.N. Devy Reader’ ( 2009).

Source: 2011: Ganesh Devy and CIIIT (Colombia) – Linguapax
Address :
Date Visited: Sun May 27 2012 15:10:30 GMT+0200 (CEST)

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A Nomad Called Thief:
Reflections on Adivasi Silence and Voice by Ganesh [G.N.] Devy | Publications >>

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