In 2016, when Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, referred to Baloch freedom struggle from the ramparts of Red fort, then it was called an ill-thought speech by many, for not a lot of people in India are aware of south India’s intimate connection with Balochistan, part of present day Pakistan. Brahui, a language spoken by 2 million Pakistanis, finds it’s origin in southern-India, about 2000 Km away from Baluchistan. This language has piqued the curiosity of many across the world, but within the subcontinent the subject hasn’t created enough pandemonium.
What is Brahui?
Brahui is the name given to a tribal group, majority of whom are living in Baluchistan, Pakistan, and speak a language known by the same name. Brahuis are also living in pockets of Iran, Afghanistan and Turkeministan, who physically are very similar to Jats and Balochs, yet not similar to people living in Sindh, Pakistan. Owing to the fact that Brahui’s grammatical structure and vocabulary is very similar to south-Indian languages, it has been categorized as a Dravidan language by the linguists. Albeit, Brahui, unlike the Indian languages doesn’t use a brahmic-script, instead uses Arabic and Latin script.
Brahui’s similarity was first noticed by H.Pottinger in 1816, but it was a century later, in 1909, that an Englishman, Denis Bray, decided to publish a book on Brahui’s diction and grammar. Since then, Bray is called as the father of Brahui studies.
There are about 3.68 million people who identify themselves as Brahui, and more than 60% of this population lives in Pakistan. Although, not all of them speak the Brahui language—some of them are bilingual, who speak both Brahui and Baloch, and then there are others who speak only Brahui.
Brahui’s South Indian connection
It was during the expansion of Mughal kingdom in 17th century that Brahui began to be mentioned in history books. Not much is known about Brahui’s ancient history as constant invasion in the region ensured manuscripts were destroyed, and whatever manuscripts were allowed to survive are nothing but history written to set a certain narrative. So it is hard to believe Brahuis, the tribal groups, were living in hiding till they were spotted by Baloch, some 800 years ago.
Presently, only 15% of the words used in Brahui are very similar to Dravidian languages and other words are loanwords from Baloch and Urdu. An American linguist and expert of south-Asian laguages, Franklin Southworth, in his book titled The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture and Ethnicity, concluded that– in commonly used Brahui there are about 300 words which are of Dravidian origin, but not any scholar has ever doubted Brahui’s south-Indian origin.
According to Uma Maheswar, Professor of Linguistics at University of Hyderabad, here’s a sample of words with similar pronunciation in Dravidian languages and Brahui.
These similarities between the languages which lie in geographical locations separated by mountains and rivers, and yet survived for centuries, is not a mere coincidence. In Franklin Southworth’s words – “Thus when we say that Tamil, Telugu, Toda, Kolami, Gondi, Malto, Brahui etc. are related, we are saying that we consider it proven that there was at some time in the past a single speech community, and that each of these modern languages represents a historical continuation of some portion of that earlier community”. His conclusion can be interpreted as— the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization or commonly called Indus valley civilization, was spread till the swathes of Iran for the speakers of the Brahui language to have survived there since centuries.
Unfortunately, since the number of people speaking Brahui are scanty, UNESCO has listed it as an endangered language. Brahui speakers in Pakistan have been struggling to get Pakistani government to include Brahui among one of the regional languages in Pakistan’s Central Superior Services examination. But alas! So far their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Call it fate but people of Baluchistan, where majority of Brahuis live, are now fighting for their freedom from Pakistan, the bone of contention being Baluchi mineral resources –which Pakistani government and Army have complete control over. Under such circumstances, it’s the centuries-old Brahui language which faces extinction.