On September 22, 2023, Professor G.N. Devy joined CSAS to discuss his two initiatives to combat the ongoing politicization of language, community, and history in contemporary India.
India’s constitution lists 22 languages. There are another 100 considered “major” languages spoken throughout the country. But literary scholar and cultural activist Devy knew there were hundreds more. His studies have identified 780 languages, with many hundreds yet to be recorded.
When Devy, also a former professor of English, started this search for India's languages, he expected to find that many of them had been silenced.
Surprisingly, he found a "dense forest of voices," with almost every state he examined presenting many varied languages.
“I learned that if people speak, history can be revived,” said Devy. “No history can remain silent.
“Silent histories can be brought back to life if they have been silenced by replacing the truth with the use of terror, intimidation, propaganda, and misinformation.”
Devy’s first project is the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a 50+-volume survey of more than 780 languages currently spoken in India today, many of which now struggle for recognition and preservation, as perceived by the people who speak them.
The second, The Indians: Histories of a Civilization, is a seven-part history of India spanning more than 12,000 years, with contributions from more than 100 of South Asia’s most prominent historians and ethnographers, including two U-M faculty members (professors emeriti Thomas Trautmann and Madhav Deshpande).
Both projects describe the relationship between democracy and diversity. They work against contemporary political efforts to homogenize India’s cultures and sanitize India’s pasts.
"I feel sad every time a language dies," adds Devy. "Our languages have survived tenaciously. We are truly a linguistic democracy. To keep our democracy alive, we have to keep our languages alive."
Devy is a scholar, educator, activist, and the Obaid Sidiqqi Chair Professor at the National Center for Biological Research, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore. He is a writer, having authored or edited 109 books in literary criticism, anthropology, education, and philosophy. From 1980 to 1996, Devy was a professor in the Department of English at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda.
In 1996, Devy gave up his academic career to work with Adivasi and Denotified and Nomadic Tribal (DNT) communities. Devy went on to find the Bhasha Research and Publication Center in Baroda, the Adivasis Academy at Tejgadh village, and the DNT Rights Action Group, among several other initiatives. Professor Devy also received numerous national and international awards, including the Padma Shri (India’s fourth-highest civilian award) in 2013. In 2003, Devy received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for his pathbreaking book of literary criticism, After Amnesia. In 2015, Devy returned this award in protest over the “growing intolerance towards the differences of opinion” in India.