Upper Caste Hegemony Through Linguistic Chauvinism: Some Glimpses from Odisha


Sumit Turuk

sumit turuk

“Language enforced by the upper castes of this country on the marginalized communities is just like the Vasuki snake from the Samudra manthan (churning of the ocean episode in Bhagvata Purana) where the Devas (the upper caste linguistic chauvinists) get all control over the wealth and riches (knowledge production, hegemony, perpetuation of their cultures, festivals, narratives, history writing, control over institutions), generated by the churning whereas the Asuras (in this context the Dalits and Adivasis) are conscientized and finally get deceived where the amrit (drink of immortality) is taken away by the Devas (Upper caste deceivers)."


Last December I was at home in Koraput, Odisha and I realized I don't have an AADHAAR card. So, during my stay one fine day I decided to go to a nearby shop where they get you through all the required procedures to get your AADHAAR card made. As I was standing there in the line waiting for my turn, I realized there were some Dom women on one side who had been sitting there for more than an hour since I came in the queue. Suddenly one of the AATAS came up and in DOM language asked the guy inside as to how long they have to wait since all the required procedure had been completed. The guy inside with the so called "Pure Odiya Language" (Khanti Odiya as most of the upper caste folks refer it as) responded with a very disinterested and rude tone not clearly mentioning anything. This got on my nerves and as I went and spoke to the AATAS I came to know all their procedural requirements have been completed more than 2 hours ago and the guy despite asking time and again had not responded them as to what next rather told them to wait. As I spoke to others in the queue I realized once all your procedures are done you are supposed to come and get your AADHAAR CARD after around 15 to 20 days. But here these DALIT AATAS were made to sit there for hours for nothing just because they could not interact with the guy inside in "PURE Odiya".


The reason for narrating this incident is to point out how language chauvinism is one more "BRAHMASTRA" through which caste hegemony is perpetuated. Adding on to that, it is an example of how difficult it is for the millions of marginalized communities to access institutions of all kinds in this country just because their languages and their mode of communication is looked down upon. This form of mistreatment when meted out to marginalized human beings gradually instills a sense of humiliation, shame and enforced inferiority complex that isolates them further from even coming to these places. It also means their access to government schemes, and getting important documents through these institutions gets difficult. Furthermore, taking reference from one of Babasaheb's writings I would add, "Caste even grades languages and forms of human communications in an unequal relationship".


Among the urban educated "liberal elites" this happens at an even deeper level where apart from the "dominant language competency", they would in fact also put your paralinguistic features (gestures, facial expressions, body language) in a measurement scale, by using terms like mannerisms, proper conduct and etiquette, try to conceal their caste practices so deeply ingrained in everyday lives.


I recently attended a talk organized in JNU campus by BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association) and Dr. Sowmya Dechamma (Assistant Professor, HCU) spoke quite vividly about how language controls knowledge production and distribution, on how script is used as a marker for recognizing the validity of language, how over a period of time, it forcefully conscientizes a dominant culture, history and narratives over the marginalized communities through language and the misleading statistics of 45% of Hindi speakers etc.


Most importantly she spoke also about how vernacular languages also impose a certain dominant language and culture on the marginalized communities apart from Hindi. This helped me a lot in retrospecting experience of my people back home and put some specificities to this discourse. So, here talking about ODISHA I can give you ample examples of how language chauvinism and Upper caste and their "Culture " goes hand in hand.


I studied in an Odiya medium state board school till class 5th where our everyday assembly prayer song was "HEY VINAKYAK VIDYAPARA DAYAKA" (Hey Ganesha Lord the giver of all knowledge). The schools officially organized Ganesh Puja, Saraswati Puja and we were made to participate in these events. I am sure all the students coming from ODISHA would have heard of this phrase: "MATRU BHASA MATRU BHUMIRE MOMOTA JA HRUDE JONOMI NAHI TAKU JODI GYANI GONORE GONIBA OGYANI ROHIBE KAHI" (Those who don't love their mother language should not be considered as wise people, if it happens so then where would all the fools go). The reference here is about the love for the "Pure (KHANTI) Odiya" language which is enforced on the Dalit, Adivasi and other minority communities who have their own languages and some also speak variants of Odiya which is looked down upon in ODISHA especially by the 'upper caste people".


Most tribal and Dalit students drop out from schools at primary levels because the medium of instruction is "pure Odiya” (Sanskritized version) and most of the school teachers are "upper castes” who generally don't tend to provide a conducive class room ambience for the Adivasi and Tribal students while Odisha has the third largest tribal population in the country. The pedagogy too is exclusionary, and has a list of "upper caste writers, heroes, narratives, poems, festivals, and cultures" that has almost nothing to do with and far removed from our realities. They encroach forcefully into a very critical and formative period of our lives during school years. All this happens through the medium of "Khanti Odiya" (Sanskritized Odiya) so dominantly enforced through every aspect of our lives starting from the early morning news bulletin, to schools, to colleges, to all the state institutions gradually removing us away from our roots and narratives.


"Language enforced by the upper castes of this country on the marginalized communities is just like the Vasuki snake from the Samudra manthan (churning of the ocean episode in Bhagvata Purana) where the Devas (the upper caste linguistic chauvinists) get all control over the wealth and riches (knowledge production, hegemony, perpetuation of their cultures, festivals ,narratives, history writing, control over institutions), generated by the churning whereas the Asuras (in this context, the Dalits and Adivasis) are conscientized and finally deceived while all the amrit is taken away by the Devas (Upper caste deceivers)........”



Sumit Turuk belongs to the Dom (dalit) community from Tentulipadar, a small village of Koraput in Odisha. He is currently pursuing his masters in Spanish Language in JNU and also works in BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students association) in JNU.

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