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Santali people should select their own ethnic script, not any others

Published : Saturday, 16 March 2013
Dulal S Tudu
The Santals are a well-known ethnic community in the sub-continent. They have a colourful history and culture and also a language. The Santali language is spoken in Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Nepal. An interesting thing is that the numbers in the Santali language are divided into three types, such as singular, dual and plural.

The dual generally indicates two things or persons, but sometimes it indicates only one person depending on the relationship; and the plural is also used in the same way. Its tense is very complicated. You cannot classify this language in different tenses clearly. Every language has its uniqueness, and Santali is no exception. It is a very old language, and its many words have penetrated different languages —- not only the languages in the sub-continent such as Bangla, Hindi [1] but also the Japanese [2] and English languages [3]. For this reason, a noted linguist has shown how Santali words have entered different languages of the globe in his book titled ‘Santali, the Base of World Languages’ published from Kolkata.

The most well known proverb in Santali is, “puthi khon tuthige sorosa” meaning expression by mouth is preferable to book [4]. This is the main reason why the Santali people have not ‘written’ anything and all the varieties of their culture and literature are oral. After 1757, many missionaries came to this sub-continent to preach, but they were unfamiliar with the different local languages. They learnt a few languages, of course, for their own interest and Santali was one of them. In 1863 Dr. J. R. Laplace published the Santali script, which was a modified form of the Roman script. Till now, the Santali language and literature are practised in that script in Bangladesh, India and Nepal [5]. Mr. Campbell and P. O. Bodding have done a great job by editing a Santali dictionary. The Santals are indebted to them. Later, Santali was written in different scripts such as Devnagri in Bihar, Bangla in West Bengal and in ‘Ol Chiki’ Santali characters. Why Santali has been written in various scripts? Are all the scripts suitable for the Santali language?

What happened to the language in Bangladesh? It is true that at first the Christian missionaries established the ground for Santali education in 1904 in the Naogaon district [6]. They did it so that these people could read the Bible in their own language. Some Santals did not confine themselves only to reading the Bible, they also published for their own interest newspapers such as ‘Abowak Kurumutu (from Birampur, Dinajpur), ‘Godet’ (from Dinajpur), ‘Dharwak’ (from Dhaka) to practise literature [7]. All these newspapers are written in Roman script. In spite of irregular publication due to financial problems, these papers played an important role in founding the base and the practice of Santali literature in Bangladesh. Many researchers and intellectuals willingly or unwillingly avoid these Santali contributions. What is the reason? Do they present themselves as the pioneers of practising Santali language?

The Bangla script used for writing Santali was introduced in 1999 at Barshapar Adivasi School in Rajshahi with the assistance of Grameen Trust for Pre-primary Education [8]. Later, Adivasi Unnoyon Sangstha founded by Oxfam also published a Santali book. One of the local left wing parties’ leaders was behind this new idea [9]. The supporters of the Bangla script, though few in number, are the members of Jatiyo Adivasi Parishad, which is a left party-led organisation, not a Santali forum. After 1999, many researchers, intellectuals and consultants have become involved with the project of Santali language and education, but, surprisingly, nobody can speak or write in that language [10]. Many people are eager to unearth the secret of their involvement in this scheme.

On the other hand, ‘Ol Chiki’, the Santali script invented by the Santal Pandit Roghunath Murmu, is totally unknown in Bangladesh. It was approved by the West Bengal government in India about thirty years ago. Some Santals are working to establish it as their own (Santali) script in India. It is a good attempt, but the script has some grammatical limitations —- yet it is better than any Indic scripts [11]. This writer has not found any researchers in Bangladesh who are interested in ‘Ol Chiki’. This leads to many questions. Do they not want the Santal people to have their separate (own) script? Devnagri is also not familiar in Bangladesh, but it is approved by India’s Bihar government.

Santali is written in various scripts, because Santals are forced to do it by some political parties, intellectuals for their own shake. They have divided the Santal people for their own benefits. This applies not only to Bangladesh, but also to India. They do not want to see a united Santal community across the world.

All scripts are not suitable for the Santali language. It has been cleared by linguist Dr. B. Chakrabarti in his ‘Comparative Study of Santali and Bengali’. According to him, “Missionaries (first of all Paul Olaf Bodding, a Norwegian) brought the Latin script, which is better at representing Santali stops, phonemes and nasal sounds with the use of diacritical marks and accents. Unlike most Indic scripts, which are derived from Brahmi, Ol Chiki is not an abugida, with vowels given equal representation with consonants. Additionally, it was designed specifically for the language, but one letter could not be assigned to each phoneme because the sixth vowel in Ol Chiki is still problematic.[12]” He revealed the ‘limitations’ of Indic scripts e.g. Bangla, Devnagri which do not have letters for all of Santali’s phonemes, especially its stop consonants and vowels. The Roman script has not been recognised by any state in India for writing the Santali language, but, surprisingly, it is still widely used for writing Santali language in both India and Bangladesh. It has been possible because of the Santali Roman script’s accuracy in representing the Santali language. Some researchers claim that British and other missionaries have exerted pressure on the Santals to accept the Roman script [13]. The people of the sub-continent have a common trend. They always try to paint anything with the colour of religion, when they have not enough evidence. The Portuguese priests Rev. Mannuel and Rev. Willium Carry, who was also a missionary, have done a great job for the development of Bangla language. But nobody questioned it as being stemmed from Christianity or boycotted their work.

Santali Roman and Ol Chiki scripts have emerged lately in the final race for survival in India [14]. Bangla and Devnagri no longer need to join the race. Now, what is the public (Santals of Bangladesh) opinion? A high-level survey says that 79 per cent of these people like the Santali Roman, 12 per cent Bangla and 9 per cent Ol Chiki [15]. The Pakistani rulers had proposed to write Bangla in the then East Bengal in foreign scripts, but they had an ill motive. The proposal was rejected vehemently by the Bengalees. Almost the same has occurred in the case of Santali. The motivated attempts are destined to end up in a fiasco.

The writer is a teacher, Notre Dame College, and general secretary, Santal Graduates Association, Bangladesh.



1. Mitra, P. C. (1988). Santhali, the Base of World Languages. Calcutta: Firma KLM.

2. George Muscat (1989), SANTALI A New Approach, Santali Book Depot, Shahibganj, Bihar.

3. Mitra, P. C. (1988). Santhali, the Base of World Languages. Calcutta: Firma KLM.

4. Skrefsrud, Horkoren Mare Hapramku Reak Katha, The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches, Benagaria, 3rd Ed.,1928.

5. Sandes, published by Santal Students Union, Bangladesh, Issue -24, 20012, p-27,

6. Samor M Soren, Santali Bhasa Kon Horope Likhte Hobe, the Daily Prothom Alo, Dhaka, 5 Feb 2013

7. Julian Tudu, editor, Abowak Kurumutu, Beldanga, Dinajpur

8. Sebel Sorom Kisabon Anjom, published by Jatiyo Adivasi Parishad, Rajshahi, funded by Grameen Trust, 12 June 2000

9. A noted Bangladeshi left leader

10. A. N. S. Habibur Rahman, editor of Sebel Sorom Kisabon Anjom, published by Jatiyo Adivasi Parishad, Rajshahi; Dr. Sourov Sikder, consultant of Adibasi Unnoyon Sangstha-published Santali book.

11. B. Chakrabarti, A Comparative Study of Santali and Bengali, KP Bagchi, Calcutta, 1994.

12. B. Chakrabarti, A Comparative Study of Santali and Bengali, KP Bagchi, Calcutta, 1994.

13. Pavel Partho, Santali Bhasa Kon Horope Likhte Hobe, the Prothom Alo, 3 Feb 2013

14. Sandes, published by Santal Students Union, Bangladesh, Issue -24, 2012, p-21

15. Samor M Soren, Santali Bhasa Kon Horope Likhte Hobe, the Prothom Alo, Bangladesh, 5 Feb 2013
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