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Cover Story: Language imposition and North-East India

Centre's aggressive push for Hindi as North-East India's 'link language' threatens to expose ethnic fault lines

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
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North East Region students of Delhi University seen staging a protest against the imposition of Hindi on them, in New Delhi on April 1, 2013.

The Central government’s efforts to push Hindi as the link language has the potential to expose linguistic fault lines in the north-eastern region where more than 400 languages are spoken.

North-eastern India is a linguistic mosaic, with over 400 different languages spoken in the region. But only three languages—Assamese, Manipuri and Bodo—are among the 22 languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Only languages spoken by more than 10,000 people are listed as mother tongues in the Census.

In a region where language and script are two key markers of identity assertion, the Central government’s push to make Hindi a compulsory subject in school has exposed the linguistic fault lines. At the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee in New Delhi on April 7, Home Minister Amit Shah stated that as many as “22,000 Hindi teachers have been recruited in eight States of the north-east[ern India]. Nine tribal communities in the north east have converted their dialects’ scripts into Devanagari and all eight north-east States have agreed to make Hindi compulsory in schools up to Class 10.”

State governments in the region rushed to clarify that the Central government had not issued any instruction to introduce Hindi as a compulsory subject in Class 9 and 10. But linguists, litterateurs, political historians, student groups and opposition political parties are concerned that, apart from affecting existing link languages in the region, it may derail efforts by different ethnic language speakers to develop their languages. The North East Students’ Organisation has spoken out against the imposition of Hindi, saying it will be detrimental to the propagation and dissemination of indigenous languages.

“If a language becomes extinct, traditions and knowledge of a nationality will also be lost,” cautioned Sabha Kula Saikia, Sahitya Akademi Award winner, acclaimed short story writer and president of the Asam Sahitya Sabha. He said the imposition of Hindi was unecessary as different language speakers in north-east India have been learning Hindi voluntarily. He went on to say that different ethnic languages had enriched Assamese, earning it the status of a connecting language, and this should not be disturbed.

Also read: 'All our languages are losing linguistic prowess'

Saikia said the Asam Sahitya Sabha’s position was that every community’s mother tongue should be given the opportunity to develop and spread. According to him, strict implementation of Assam’s Official Languages Act, which calls for Assamese and one ethnic language in each geographical area to be designated as official languages, would go a long way in ensuring equal opportunities for language development. The Asam Sahitya Sabha has begun a project to translate Assamese books and songs into ethnic languages of the region and vice versa. So far, 90 songs of the music legend Bhupen Hazarika have been translated into Manipuri.

Sociolinguist Banani Chakravarty of the Department of Assamese, Gauhati University, said it was difficult to predict how speakers of a language would respond to a changing situation. A number of factors, she said, including that of Hindi replacing Assamese as the lingua franca in Arunachal Pradesh, accentuated the apprehension that Assamese would lose its status as the lingua franca in Assam if Hindi is pushed into the school syllabus. “In Arunachal Pradesh, it took around 10 years for Hindi to replace Assamese. In Assam, it could be faster because of the popularity of Hindi films and songs among indigenous language speakers in the State. Several of our recent field studies indicate how Hindi has silently replaced Assamese as the lingua franca in some areas along the Assam-Bhutan border,” she said.

Dr Banani Chakravarty said a section of the Assamese elite, while asserting Assamese linguistic aspiration, encouraged the “otherisation” of Tibeto-Burman language speakers. They saw languages spoken by migrants from the rest of India and erstwhile East Bengal as minor languages. Such “otherisation”, theoretically, may provide a fillip to adopting Hindi as the lingua franca by numerically smaller language speakers, she said.

According to her, multilingualism of Assamese speakers is limited to Assamese, Bengali and Hindi but rarely includes Tibeto-Burman languages or other non-Aryan languages. “A section of the Assamese power elite assumes that it is essential for Tibeto-Burman language speakers and speakers of ‘minor languages’ to know Assamese for communication nd not the other way round,” she said. Banani Chakravarty has co-edited The Languages of Assam (Volume 5, Part 2)-People’s Linguistic Survey of India with Bibha Bharali and G.N. Devy as the Chief Editor.

Concerns among Assamese speakers

The fear of the Assamese over demographic change and the Centre’s language policies stems from colonial history, when the British regime replaced Assamese with Bengali as the official language in 1836, and Hindi replaced Assamese as medium of instruction and lingua franca in Arunachal Pradesh. Following protests, the colonial regime restored Assamese as official language in 1873.

Also read: Linguistic imperialism

Census 2011 language data accentuated the fear. The percentage of Assamese speakers in the State was 48.83 in 2011 as against 48.80 in 2001 and 57.81 in 1991, while the percentage of Bengali speakers rose to 28.91 from 27.54 in 2001 and 21.67 in 1991; the percentage of Hindi speakers increased to 6.73 from 5.89 in 2001.

Arunachal’s problems

Explaining the socio-political context of Hindi replacing Assamese as the link language in Arunachal Pradesh, noted political historian Professor Nani Bath, who teaches in the Political Science Department of Rajiv Gandhi University in the State, said: “Initially Assamese was the medium of instruction, and remained as a lingua franca . Strategic considerations after 1962 played a significant role. Teachers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar replaced Assamese teachers. Thousands of troops were brought in. Local contacts with them helped spread Hindi. [Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru’s concern about the spread of Christianity was a key factor. He thought that some missionaries were responsible for anti-India activities in Nagaland and Mizoram. Indira Gandhi was instrumental in bringing Hindu missionaries, the Ramakrishna Mission. Subsequently, Vivekananda Kendras and Sarda Mission came in.”

He said local communities were, more or less, happy with the Hindi, for it served as a medium of communication in the absence of a common language. However, many are of the opinion that Hindi is gaining popularity at the cost of local dialects .

Ethnic languages

Initiatives for preservation of languages through technology adoption, multilingual dictionaries, and literary exchanges also mark the resilience of ethnic languages. On June 22, 2021, the Mizoram government directed its departments and offices to issue notifications and memoranda in both English and Mizo languages. In Nagaland, English is the official language, but Nagamese (“a kind of pidgin Assamese”, according to the State portal of Government of Nagaland) is the lingua franca for 17 major Naga tribes and numerous subtribes, each having its own distinct language. Songs, films, newspapers and news bulletins in Nagamese demonstrate its popularity as the link language.

Also read: There's power in multilingualism

Meghalaya became a full-fledged State in 1972 following the enactment of the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971, but Khasi and Garo languages that are spoken by a large number of people in the State are not listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. This demonstrates the mismatch of the Centre’s language policy with the ground realities in north-east India .

Meitei script

Manipuris have been trying to replace the Bengali script with the orginal Meitei/Meetei Mayek script for a long time. “Teaching of the Meitei/Meetei Mayek started from the primary level in a phased manner. It is now used at the university level. No student, from primary school to the university level, can now read the Bengali script. Writers have reprinted their old books in this script,” said veteran journalist Iboyaima Laithangbam. As such, there is concern among Manipuris that the Devanagari script will now supplant the Meitei/Meetei Mayek script.

Laithangbam said that all Meitei/Meetei Mayek documents, books and scriptures were burnt down and replaced with the Bengali script during the spread of Vaishnavism in Manipur in early 18th century. “Signboards, banners, festoons, and any kind of notifications by government and individuals have some words in Meitei script now. All Bengali script Manipuri newspapers will use Meitei Mayek only from early next year,” he said.

However, for Bodos in Assam, the Centre’s unstated policy of insistence on Devanagari script for inclusion of any language in the Eighth Schedule is evident from the leaders of the Statehood movement settling for the Devanagari script while signing the second Bodo Accord in 2003 for autonomy under the Sixth Schedule. A booklet ‘Why Separate State of Bodoland’, published by the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) says: “The Bodo Sahitya Sabha launched a vigorous mass movement in 1974-75 for adoption of [the] Roman script for Bodo language. The ABSU actively participated in the movement and thousands of ABSU activists had to undergo rigorous misery, arrest and torture during the period of the movement. But, unfortunately, the demand was not conceded, instead Devanagari script was imposed [on] Bodo language.”

Word bridge

Meanwhile, Sikari Tisso, a community linguist of Karbi hills in Assam, has been on a silent mission to document the forgotten words of Karbi language, his mother tongue, to enrich the Tibeto-Burman language with expanded vocabulary. He has also embarked on a larger mission to establish a word bridge among the languages of eight ethnic communities in Assam in order to overcome the language gap in communication and cultural exchange. Tisso hails from Diphu, the headquarter town of the Karbi Anglong Autnomous Council, and travels the length and breadth of Karbi and Dimasa hills and other parts of Assam for his project.

According to Census 2011, the total population of Karbis in India is 5,28,503, of which 5,11,732 reside in Assam. Tisso is also working on a Karbi-Assamese-English trilingual dictionary and an eight-language dictionary of Karbi, Dimasa, Bodo, Tiwa, Mising, Deori, Rabha and Garo. His documentation work includes audio and video recordings of traditional cultural practices of the Karbis. In 2021, the Linguistic Society of America selected Tisso for the “Excellence in Community Linguistics Award”.

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