How India's Ho- and Santali-language content creators are holding space for Indigenous linguistic assertion

Ramjit Tudu, an editor of Santali Wikipedia, is showcasing his project to others at Bhubaneswar, India. Image by R. Ashwani Banjan Murmu on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Wikipedian Ramjit Tudu demonstrating Santali Wikipedia to others in Bhubaneswar, India. Image by R. Ashwani Banjan Murmu on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

This article highlights findings from a study that involved desk research, surveys and interviews of people mentioned in the article.

As found in a 2021–2022 study, numerous Ho and Santali-language content creators from India are helping the spread of these two languages among the diaspora by creating video, audio and text content online, despite hardship with monetizing their creations and the lack of widespread use of the native scripts.

The Ho and Santal peoples primarily reside in eastern India, while their diaspora extends to the rest of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Santals (7.5 million) are among India and Bangladesh's largest Indigenous communities, and India is home to 1.6 million Ho people. Both groups are part of India’s 705 Indigenous ethnic groups, collectively known as the Adivasis.

Ho and Santali languages

Throughout history, the Ho and Santal communities preserved their languages through oral tradition. European missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries studied and documented the languages, creating written information in the form of dictionaries, grammars and cultural artefacts such as folklore, apart from publishing religious texts. Though the dominant Bengali, Odia, Devanagari and Roman writing systems were long imposed, the 20th century saw the communities assert themselves politically through native writing systems.

Kol Lako bodra rediscovered and modernized the native Warang Citi alphabet from a 13th century predecessor created by Deowan Turi to write the Ho language. Similarly, Raghunath Murmu created the Ol Chiki alphabet in 1925, beginning a new era for writing Santali.

Use of languages in governance and education

While Santali has been officially recognized since 2004, paving the way for its inclusion in public education systems and mass media, Ho has been proposed for inclusion into the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution that lists the official languages.

First-language literacy in Ho is staggeringly low, estimated to be between 1–5 percent, while it is merely 20–30 percent for Santali, and many native speakers have not gotten a chance to learn to write in the native scripts. Interestingly, the Roman script has also been chosen as a co-writing system, particularly on digital, and some physical, platforms, whereas the Bengali, Devanagari and Odia scripts have also been used for the respective official languages in most places Ho and Santal communities live. Ho and Santali speakers’ low native-language literacy, despite being fluent in dominant languages of their regions, adversely impacts their access to content in their own language and input in native scripts. Most content creators are publishing multimedia content in the interim. In 2018, a volunteer community of editors brought to life the Santali Wikipedia, making it the the first Adivasi-language Wikipedia.

Photo showing a primer intended for Odia-language speakers to learn the Ho language. Image by Gbirua123 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Photo showing a primer intended for Odia-language speakers to learn the Ho language. Image by Gbirua123 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Findings from this study

As a part of the OpenSpeaks project, supported by Grant for the Web, we conducted a mixed-method study in 2021–2022: surveys in Ho, English and Santali, and semi-structured interviews. Thirty-nine Ho and Santali-language content creators responded in the surveys, and 14 of them were interviewed over calls.

Most creators shared that they started YouTube, Facebook and Instagram channels out of passion and grew community engagement organically. They primarily post video on YouTube and Facebook, audio on music-streaming apps, and images on public pages/groups on Facebook, besides publishing online magazines and blogs. Both textual and multimedia content, regardless of whether they were written in Warang Citi (Ho) or Ol Chiki (Santali), were included in the study.

The majority of content (39.5 percent) created in both languages is entertainment-related, as seen in desk research and the survey. Of the 18 Ho-language content creators, 10 post video content, seven post textual content, seven post images, and five post audio content. Of the 21 Santali-language content creators, 12 post textual content, seven post images, five post videos, and four primarily post audio content.

Analysis of YouTube videos with over one million unique views revealed that 89 percent (166 out of 187) were music videos. Santali-language Wikipedia editor Ashwani R. Banjan Murmu shares that there is a large audience for Santali movies and music albums, but different how-to video tutorials are scarce, suggesting  low audience interest or attention from content creators, or both. Discovering native-language web content —  like Santali Wikipedia editor Bo​​di Baski stumbled upon a few Santali YouTube videos and blogs in 2019 — has motivated some to become content creators.

After entertainment content, linguistic and cultural content (34.2 percent) tops the chart, followed by current news (7.9 percent) and education and job related content account for 18.4 percent.

For award winning Santali poet, lexicographer, and Wikipedian Maina Tudu, promoting education in Santali is a top-most priority. “Instead of stopping during the Corona pandemic, I started online classes to teach Santali, while coordinating through a WhatsApp group,” she adds in an interview with us. Tudu also founded the first women-run Santali online magazine Ayo Arang and a YouTube channel.

Bikram Biruli, founder of the Ho Samaj Live channel on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram in 2018, sees hope in Ho being spoken widely and proudly as it is gradually being taught to children. He remembers the pain of Ho speakers being mistreated for being Adivasi and for speaking Ho. YouTube and blogger Babulal Jarika notices how the content he and other creators produce is inspiring young children to learn Warang Chiti, leading to the active use of Ho.

Web content monetization

According to the study, 48.7 percent of the creators earn from YouTube ads, 43.7 percent monetize using AdSense, and the remaining earn from Facebook (Meta) Ads. Nearly half (48.1 percent) mentioned that they have a secondary income source, while 59.1 percent rely solely on content monetization.

Though the most-used operating systems — Android for phones and Microsoft Windows for computers — ship with Warang Citi and Ol Chiki fonts, these two scripts are not yet supported by Google Adsense, barring the use of Ho/Santali ads on YouTube, Blogger and other platforms. This means Ho and Santali content creators spend more time adding descriptions and other metadata in supported dominant languages for their audience to find content easily.

The majority of participants (40 percent) in this study also stated that they spend 1–5 hours a week on creating a post. Many stated how attaining long-delayed financial stability thanks to the reservation system and other forms of affirmative action helped them contribute.

The study also asked about content creators’ interest in, aspiration to and experience using Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) such as blockchain, allowed in some browsers and platforms now. Most cited low or no experience, while some said they are interested in learning or expressed the fear for the risk involved.

Globally, DLT sees a significant pushback from marginalized communities, considering the significant risks in crypto-mining due to its contribution to air and water pollution, high non-green energy consumption, and electronic waste. In India, the Adivasi communities have long been exploited through coal mining, a system benefitting dominant caste groups. Coal remains the source of 75 percent of India's energy requirement.

The study also finds that the existing intersectional issues, such as lowered access for women and queer individuals and technical barriers, significantly affect both the content creators and the content. However, the persistent efforts of a handful few are still building a pathway for a new generation of content creators. The challenges with web content monetization cost them personal time, labor and even money. Many platforms are yet to include basic features such input, search and ads in native scripts, and machine translation. While awaiting for better web monetization, Ho and Santali content creators continue their social, educational and political assertion so that their fellow speakers enjoy equality, and its manifestation on digital platforms.

The article was written by Subhashish Panigrahi, Ganesh Birua and Prasanta Hembram.

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