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Cover Story: Language Imperialism/ Tripura

Tripura: Concerns over Centre's proposal to impose Devanagari script for Kokborok

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-

Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma. His party TIPRA Motha

Tribal protests against the Central government’s proposal to impose the Devanagari script for Kokborok, the language most of the tribal people speak, is sure to pose problems for the ruling BJP’s attempt to impose Hindi as the language of communication in Tripura.

The proposal to impose Hindi as a uniform language is certain to have serious socio-political repercussions in the ethnically and linguistically sensitive State of Tripura. The two principal languages in the State are Bengali, spoken by roughly 70 per cent of the population, and Kokborok, which is spoken by the vast majority of the tribal population. The tribal population, which accounts for 30 per cent of the State’s population and voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party-Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) alliance in the 2018 election, is already on the warpath against the Centre’s proposal to impose the Devanagari script for Kokborok. They have been demanding that Kokborok be written in the Roman script.

With the Assembly election in the State scheduled to be held next year, the imposition of Hindi can spell trouble for the ruling BJP amid the emergence of new political forces, particularly TIPRA Motha, headed by Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, the head of Tripura’s erstwhile royal family.

The tribal population in Tripura is concentrated in the Tripura Tribal Autonomous Areas Development Council (TTAADC) region, which accounts for 20 of the 60 Assembly seats. At the forefront of the protest against the Centre’s suggestion on Devanagari script for Kokborok is the All Tripura Indigenous Students Association (ATISA), the student wing of the IPFT. “Our demand for the Roman script for Kokborok is decades old,” said Baithang Debbarma, general secretary of the ATISA. “Suddenly it was decided to have the script in Hindi. This is against the interest of the tribal people. Recently we came to know that Kokborok has been included in the CBSE [Central Board of Secondary Education], but it will be taught in the Hindi script; there has been no official notice. This, in spite of the fact that everyone in the TTAADC area is against it. We are left with no option but to continue with our protest.”

He said that even if political compulsions prompted the IPFT to distance itself from the protest, the ATISA would continue with it. Baithang, like many other tribal youth, fears that regional languages such as Kokborok will suffer in the long run if Hindi is imposed. “Both the Bengali language and Kokborok will suffer if Hindi is forced on us. We have nothing against Hindi, but let it not be made a compulsory subject,” he said. However, ATISA’s immediate concern is the Kokborok script. “We have not yet decided upon what action to take should the Centre try to impose Hindi,” said Baithang.

RSKC stand

The Roman Script for Kokborok Choba (RSKC), a body comprising 56 indigenous socio-cultural organisations of Tripura, has stated that no government should force a language upon the people for “its own interest”. “The RSKC is not against Hindi or Devanagari, but it strongly opposes the forceful imposition of Hindi language and Devanagari script in the north-eastern States in general and Tripura in particular,” its president Bikash Roy Debbarma told the media recently. “Language is a State subject and the RSKC is of the opinion that making Hindi compulsory in the north-eastern region is nothing but a blatant deviation from the constitutional provision.”

The newly formed TIPRA Motha, which has emerged as the single-most powerful political force in the TTAADC region, is not opposed to Hindi being introduced as a language in the State. “The tribal people do not seem to be getting along with the Bengali language, and are keen on learning English or Hindi for employment purposes. In the Bengali areas, I see a strong section objecting to it, especially the Bengali intelligentsia,” Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, chairman of TIPRA Motha told Frontline .

He maintains that the tribal people’s main demand is that Kokborok not be taught in Bengali. “There is a stalemate on the issue right now, but TIPRA Motha is where the people want us to be. If the people want us to support the Roman script, then we will support the Roman script; but the Bengali script is not acceptable to us,” he said.

Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma also feels the controversy over Hindi may well be a political ploy by the BJP. “We should not blame the Hindi-speaking people for any action taken by the Central government. Now that issues like the Babri Masjid have been settled, perhaps an adverse reaction to a language spoken in north and central India will help consolidate one party’s position over the rest of the country,” he said.

Even if TIPRA Motha’s stand on the language issue is ambivalent, the Left parties and other opposition groups are gearing up to take on the State government over it. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was in power for five consecutive terms in the State before it was ousted by the BJP in 2018, feels that the BJP is more interested in imposing its own ideology than in protecting endangered cultures and languages. Jitendra Chaudhury, senior CPI(M) leader and former member of the Lok Sabha, said it was a clear attempt to impose Hindutva ideology on the country. “The BJP does not respect the pluralism, secularism and federalism of the country. Nowhere in India will people accept this lying down. The situation is even more sensitive in north-eastern India, as there are innumerable small tribes and languages. The BJP does not care about them, and instead wants to forcibly foist its ideology on the whole country.”

He too is of the opinion that introducing Hindi as a compulsory subject will have an adverse impact on the Kokborok language. “Kokborok has advanced a lot over the years as a language. It is being taught at the Master’s level, and Kokborok music is getting very popular outside Tripura. At a time like this, if Hindi is forced on the tribal people, it will strangle Kokborok. In some ways it will be like the murder of a language. Not only the tribal population, the Bengali-speaking people too have rejected this proposal,” said Chaudhury.

Kokborok language

Kokborok was first recognised as an official language of Tripura in 1979. It was earlier taught as diploma and certificate courses, but of late it has been introduced as an undergraduate course in 22 degree colleges and is also being taught at the university level in Tripura. Pabitra Sarkar, noted linguist and academic, feels the current controversy is unnecessary. “People learn a language also out of necessity. People in the south and in Bengal are getting by without learning Hindi. This appears more to establish that equation of Hindu-Hindustan; the hidden agenda of the BJP is not so hidden any longer,” he said.

A strong section within the ruling BJP itself has reservations against the Centre’s suggestion. According to a BJP source in Tripura, there is a fear among the tribal people that their language will be lost if Hindi is pushed aggressively. He said: “The BJP in Tripura is divided on the issue of Hindi and the Kokborok script. The mainstream tribal, both within TTAADC and outside it, are for the Roman script. There are really three groups within the tribal community: the Left-backed tribal intellectuals who want the Bengali script for Kokborok; a minority who want Hindi; and the overwhelming majority who want the Roman script. In fact, some of our top leaders are also in favour of the Roman script. In this sensitive situation if Hindi as a language is also made compulsory, we can expect a strong repercussion from both the tribal people as well as Bengalis, which will in turn affect our prospects in the coming Assembly elections.”

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