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TOWARDS A HISTORIOGRAPHY OF MAITHILI LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
Udaya Narayana Singh
University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.
1. Maithili: Speech Area
Grierson (1908) had described the speech area of Maithili to be the entire
districts of Darbhanga and Bhagalpur of Bihar in the early 20th century. In addition, he
had enlisted Maithili as a language spoken by the majority of people living in the districts
of Muzaffarpur, Monghyr, Purnea and Santhal Parganas, although his population estimates based on his survey done in 1891 were not agreed upon by all. Grierson (1909) also wrote in his 'Introduction to Maithili' that Mithila has always been distinguished in common parlance as a distinct "country with its own traditions, its own poets, and its own pride in everything belonging to itself”. During the Moghul period, a part of the northern speech area was permanently annexed by the Kingdom of Nepal.
Therefore, at present, a large tract of the Terai region of Nepal is to be taken as a part of the Maithili speech area, as according to the official figures, about 13% population of Nepal—mostly living in this region, have returned Maithili as their mother tongue in Nepal.
During the Moghul era, the region was called ‘Tirhut' (cf. 'Tirhutaa' was the name of the writing system employed by Maithili), and it formed a sarkaar (= division) of the subah (= province) of Bihar. Even in the early British period, as the District Gazetteer of Muzaffarpur says, there indeed was a large geographical space under the 'Tirhut division' bound on the north by Hajipur, Monghyr and Purnea divisions. The British used 'Tirhut' to designate a revenue division spreading over the districts of Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Champaran and Saharsa. Jayakanta Mishra (1976: 2) describes its area to be spreading over the following districts: "[this comprises roughly the districts of] Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi, Vaishah, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Samastipur, Saharsa, North Monghyr, North Bhagalpur and a part of Purnea in the Indian republic and those of Rautahat, Saralahi, Saptari, Mohatari and Morang in the Kingdom of Nepal".
According to the Census of India 1901 (cf. Vol. VI, Pt 1; ch 10, pp. 32), at the turn
of the present century Maithili was spoken in the following regions:
i. all Darbhanga and Bhagalpur, ii. 6/7th of Muzaffarpur, iii. 1/2 of Monghyr, iv. 2/3rd of Purnea, and v. 4/5 of the so-called 'Hindi' speakers (enumerated in the Census) under the Santhal Parganas.
It may be worth mentioning here that the earliest reference to the geographical space called 'Mithila' is found in 'Alphabeticum Brammhanicum' (published in 1771, vol.
5.1; pp. 23, as reported in Subhadra Jha 1958). The name used then was 'Touritiana'.
The references to 'Mithila' in the RaamaayaNa and Yajnavalkasmruti are too well known to be mentioned. According 'to 'Mithilaa Maahaatmya', a Sanskrit work, "Mithila is the country bounded on the north by the Himalaya mountains, on the south by the Ganges, on the west by the river Gandak, and on the east by the river Koshi". The trouble with this definition is that the river Koshi as well as the other two changed their course so much that Shillingford (1895) had shown how the river shifted nine times between 1600 A.D. and 1893 A.D. The maps prepared by Grierson (1908:12) in his Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. V, pt. 2 show a number of differences in comparison to another map, made out by some Maithili organizations, following the description of the speech area in Subhadra Jha's (1958).
Finally, it should be mentioned that before the recent reorganization of the state, only 5 out of 17 districts (viz., Bhagalpur, Purnea, Saharsa, Darbhanga and Muzaffarpur) were generally taken as Maithili-speaking districts of Bihar. Paul Brass (1974) in his detailed study of the Maithili movement in his 'Language, religion and politics in North India' had taken these as broadly defining the geographical space of Mithila. After Bihar was split up into 31 districts in early 1980s, in a project report (entitled 'The Maithili language movement in North Bihar: a sociolinguistic investigation') prepared by me jointly with N. Rajaram and Pradip Kumar Bose, we had taken the
position that 10 out of 31 districts should be considered as Maithili speech area:
Bhagalpur, Katihar, Purnea, Saharsa, Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur, Sitamarhi.
Muzaffarpur and Vaishali.
2. Standard Literary Dialect
The speech variety based on the dialects spoken in and around DarbhangaShmastipur has come to be regarded as the standard literary medium, although the variety based on the Saharsa dialect has also been used by certain writers. The standardization had been accomplished quite some time back, particularly after 1940s.
But the question of whether one should have unitary literary standard is still an open question.
In this context, it will probably be appropriate to mention the position of Grierson in the beginning of this century. In his Linguistic Survey of India, Grierson (1908: 13—4; Vol.
V. ii) states that "Maithili is spoken in its greatest purity (Standard Maithili) by the Brahmanas of the north of the Darbhanga and Bhagalpur districts and by those of Western Purnea... It is also spoken with some purity, but with more signs of the wearing away of inflexions in the south of Darbhanga district, and in those portions of the Monghyr and Bhagalpur districts which lie on the northern bank of the Ganges. This may be called Southern Standard Maithili. “He then goes on to mention its other varieties: Chhikaa-Chhikii born out of contact between Maithili and Magahi in the south, Western Maithili (which has a lot of Bhojpuri element in it), and the Jolahaa bolii (also known as the Shekhai or Musalmani, and has traits of Awadhi)—which is basically a cover term used for Muslim speech variety in Mithila. It must be borne in mind that by the name 'Standard', Grierson was referring to mainly accepted spoken standards.
3. Other Languages Spoken in the Region
The other languages spoken around Mithila are the languages also found within the Maithili-speaking districts for obvious reasons. Bihar being a multilingual state with great internal as well as external mobility, there can be found a number of Bhojpuri, Magahi, Nepali and Bengali speakers in the area where Maithils live predominantly. In addition, since Maithili speakers are found in good numbers in the Jharkhand region too, one has to take it that Oraon, Mundari, Ho, Birhar, Dhangar, Santali and a number of the smaller Austric language speakers too co-exist with the Maithils. Particularly among the non-Brahmin castes among the Maithils, the contact with Bhojpuri and Magahi speakers are also established through inter-marriages. And, of course, Hindi being the language of education and instruction and Urdu being the language of a sizable population are also available.
4. Linguistic Tensions
As I have mentioned, there are at least three major speech forms in Bihar, viz., Maithili, Magahi and Bhojpuri—all of which are usually described as dialects of Hindi.
This seems to be the first source of tension which get manifested badly particularly during the decennial census enumeration work when the enumerators try recording the name of the 'language' (= Hindi) of which these are 'dialects'. These three speech varieties show varying degrees of structural differences with respect to Hindi, although it has been demonstrated by several linguists that among them Maithili is closer to the eastern NIA languages—Bengali, Assamese and Oriya rather than to Hindi. These three speech varieties of Bihar are regarded as L- varieties vis-a-vis Hindi occupying an H-position in a Fishman-type of diglossic situation by some sociologists. Grierson had long back branded them together as 'Bihari', and that name continued for quite some time.
There is no doubt that Hindi was first introduced in Mithila as a language of convenience, or one that can be used for administrative purposes in place of the traditional Persian language which was the language of the court earlier. Later, once Hindi entered into the educational arena, it gradually assumed the status of a superordinate language. In the 'Distribution of, languages in India in States and Union Territories' published by the CIIL, Mysore (1973: 9—11), we are told that 56.86% population of Bihar speak the language(s) recognized in the 8th schedule of the Constitution.
It has already been stated that Maithili is now found spread over Nepal too. In Nepal, it has Newari and Nepali as its immediately neighbouring speech communities.
These are also spoken to a large extent, with varying degrees of competence, by the speakers of Maithili themselves (Cf. Yadav 1991 for a profile of multilingualism in the Maithili-speaking region of Nepal).
One should not forget that the fourth important socio-cultural region of Bihar is the Jharkhand region in South Bihar where too a large number of Maithili speakers live.
According to the 1981 statistics prepared by Narottam Shah of the CMIE, Bombay ('Basic Statistics relating to the Indian Economy', table 19.3—1), the following is the
distribution of space among different regions of Bihar:
Finally, the administration quite often played the Urdu card to curb the movement for Maithili on which there are detailed studies. What is significant for us to know is that in 1980, through an amendment to the Offical Language Act, the Bihar government decided to announce Urdu as the second official language of the state (the first being Hindi), and that in the first phase the decision was to be implemented in those six districts of Bihar (Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Darbhanga, Katihar, Purnea and Bhagalpur; cf.
The Statesman, Calcutta, June 12, pp. 10) that have the maximum speakers of Maithili.
This is attempted to dissociate the Muslims living in Mithila for centuries from supporting the cause of Maithili. However, the Muslim-Urdu identification in Mithila is far from being complete. In the Census enumerations, the high returns for Maithili could be explained only by the fact that although 46.84% people living in the Maithili-speaking districts are Muslims, as against 31.06% Hindus in Mithila, there could not have been an overwhelming support for Maithili unless a good number of them returned Maithili as their mother tongue.
5. Population Figures
Paul Brass (1974: 64—6) uses Gait's computation (cf. Census 1901) based on various documents available through 1885, and arrives at the figure of 16,565,477. The calculation here is based on Grierson's estimates plus the growth of overall population for Bihar over these 8 decades. On the basis of 1981 figures, and considering the figure of scatterred Maithils outside the Mithila area, and considering the population in the 10 districts (out of 31), Singh, Rajaram & Bose arrives at the figure of 22,972,807.
6. Literacy Rate
If we take the predominantly Maithili-speaking districts of Bihar as the area for Mithila, and if we do not include the Maithils living outside Mithila—particularly those in different states, the figures for 1971 and 1981 show 17.54% and 22.71% people to be literate, respectively, as against an all-Bihar figure of 19.94% and 26.01% respectively.
But then these figures include the population in the age-group of 0—4 year old too. But if we take up literacy figures in different age-groups as per 1981 records, the picture is
5—14 9.17% 15—24 7.98% 25—34 6.92% What is more alarming is that before independence, Bihar was educationally the most backward state. It is also true that at the time (by the end of the period consideration—around early 1950s), when the language movement was launched only less than 7% people in Bihar could sign their names. And even in 1971, for every 1,000 literates, only 9 males and 1 female were above the graduation level and only 51 out of every 1,000 literates passed the School leaving examination. But it is also true that a large number of these literates possessed reasonably good reading and fair amount of writing skills because they were educated informally. Even if one looked as far back as in 1931, the all-Bihar showed 1,853.094 people out of 42,329,583, i.e., 4.37% were literate, although only 178,701, i.e., 0.42% were literate in English. If we add up the figures for the four Maithili-speaking districts, in 1931 out of 8,540,009 Hindus and 1,966,932 Muslims, only 4.008% and 3.854%, respectively, were literate and only 27,966 Hindus and 6,432 Muslims in Mithila had received English education. Most of the literate Hindus belonged to the upper strata of the society, as according to one calculation, in 1931, only 1.22% of the lower castes and tribes in Bihar were literate and only 0.02% of them were literate in English. 1931 Census data gave us caste-wise literacy figure, which is difficult to ascertain now. For instance, it is interesting to note that even then 37.2% Kayasthas were literate as against 18.48% Brahmins, 13.56% Bhumihars, and 12.05% Rajputs. It should not be surprising if the leadership of the Maithili language movement were drawn mainly from Brahmin and Kayasthas.
7. Language in Education
The State Government of Bihar had long back recognized the following as the media for primary education: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Oriya, Maithili, Santali, Oraon, Ho and Mundari, and of course, English for the Anglo-Indian schools. This decision was a result of the 1949 Provincial Education Ministers' Conference on the basis of which the article 350 A was prepared. The 17th Report of the Coin-missioner of Linguistic Minorities in India informs us that in pursuance of the provisions given in the article 350 A, there were about 358 separate classes or sections (as against 283 for Bengali, 317 schools and 78 sections for Santhali, nil for Oriya and 2,471 for Urdu) where instruction was imparted through Maithili. About 358 teachers were employed (as against 915 for Bengali, 398 for Santhali, and 6,466 for Urdu) for teaching Maithili in the primary sections for 2,937 students had opted for the Maithili medium. At the secondary level, there were 186 sections with 2,888 students taught by 186 teachers as in 1975—76.