Center’s aggressive push for Hindi as northeast India’s ‘bridging language’ threatens to expose ethnic fault lines

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Northeast 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 asserting identity, the central government’s efforts to make Hindi a compulsory subject in school have exposed the linguistic flaws. At the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Languages ​​in New Delhi on April 7, Home Minister Amit Shah said that “22,000 Hindi teachers have been recruited from eight northeastern states[ern India]. Nine northeast tribal communities have converted the scripts of their dialects to Devanagari and the eight northeast states have agreed to make Hindi compulsory in schools up to grade 10.

State governments in the region rushed to clarify that the central government had issued no instructions to introduce Hindi as a compulsory subject in grades 9 and 10. But linguists, literati, political historians, Student groups and opposition political parties fear that, in addition to affecting existing linking languages ​​in the region, it may derail efforts by various ethnic language speakers to develop their languages. The North East Student Organization has come out against the imposition of Hindi, saying it will harm the spread and spread of indigenous languages.

“If a language disappears, the traditions and knowledge of a nationality will also be lost,” warned Sabha Kula Saikia, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Prize, acclaimed short story writer and president of the Asam Sahitya Sabha. He said the imposition of Hindi was unnecessary as different speakers of North East Indian languages ​​have learned Hindi voluntarily. He went on to say that different ethnic languages ​​have enriched Assamese, giving it the status of a linking language, and that should not be bothered.

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Saikia said that the position of Asam Sahitya Sabha was that the mother tongue of every community should be given the opportunity to develop and spread. According to him, strict implementation of the Assam Official Languages ​​Act, which provides 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 in language development. The Asam Sahitya Sabha has started a project to translate Assamese books and songs into the ethnic languages ​​of the region and vice versa. So far, 90 songs by music legend Bhupen Hazarika have been translated into Manipuri.

Sociolinguist Banani Chakravarty from Gauhati University’s Department of Assamese says it’s hard to predict how speakers of a language will react to a changing situation. A number of factors, she said, including that of the replacement of Assamese as the lingua franca in Arunachal Pradesh, heightened fears that Assamese would lose its lingua franca status in Assam if Hindi is pushed into the school curriculum. “In Arunachal Pradesh, it took about 10 years for Hindi to replace Assamese. In Assam, it might be faster due to the popularity of Hindi films and songs among native 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 that part of the Assamese elite, while asserting Assamese linguistic aspiration, encouraged the “othering” of speakers of the Tibeto-Burman language. They considered the languages ​​spoken by migrants from the rest of India and former East Bengal to be minor languages. Such “othering,” theoretically, can boost the adoption of Hindi as a lingua franca by numerically smaller language speakers, she said.

According to her, the multilingualism of Assamese speakers is limited to Assamese, Bengali and Hindi but rarely includes Tibeto-Burman or other non-Aryan languages. “Some of the ruling Assamese elite assume that it is essential for Tibeto-Burman language speakers and speakers of ‘minor languages’ to know Assamese for communication and not the other way around,” he said. she declared. Banani Chakravarty co-edited The Languages ​​of Assam (Volume 5, Part 2) – People’s Linguistic Survey of India with Bibha Bharali and GN Devy as editor.

Concerns among Assamese speakers

Assamese fear of demographic change and Central 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 the language. education and lingua franca in Arunachal Pradesh. Following protests, the colonial regime restored Assamese as the official language in 1873.

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Linguistic data from the 2011 census heightened the fear. The percentage of Assamese speakers in the state was 48.83 in 2011 from 48.80 in 2001 and 57.81 in 1991, while the percentage of Bengali speakers increased 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 the replacement of Assamese with Hindi as the liaison language in Arunachal Pradesh, noted political historian, Professor Nani Bath, who teaches in the Department of Political Science at Rajiv Gandhi University in the state, said: “Initially, Assamese was the language of instruction, and has remained as the lingua franca. Strategic considerations after 1962 played an important role. Teachers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar replaced Assamese teachers. Thousands of soldiers were brought in. Local contacts with them helped spread Hindi. [Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru’s concern over the spread of Christianity was a key factor. He believed that some missionaries were responsible for anti-Indian activities in Nagaland and Mizoram. Indira Gandhi was instrumental in the arrival of Hindu missionaries, the Ramakrishna mission. Subsequently, Vivekananda Kendras and Sarda Mission arrived.

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

Ethnic languages

Language preservation initiatives through the adoption of technologies, multilingual dictionaries and literary exchanges also mark the resilience of ethnic languages. On June 22, 2021, the Mizoram government ordered its departments and offices to issue notices and memoranda in English and Mizo. In Nagaland, English is the official language, but Nagamese (“a kind of Assamese pidgin”, according to the Nagaland government state portal) is the lingua franca of 17 major Naga tribes and many sub-tribes, each having its own distinct language. Songs, films, newspapers and newsletters in Nagamese demonstrate its popularity as a connecting language.

Also read: There is power in multilingualism

Meghalaya became a state in its own right in 1972 following the enactment of the North Eastern Regions (Reorganization) Act 1971, but the Khasi and Garo languages ​​which 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 realities on the ground in northeastern India..

Meitei writing

The Manipuris have been trying for a long time to replace the Bengali script with the original Meitei/Meetei Mayek script. “The teaching of Meitei/Meetei Mayek began at the primary level in a progressive manner. It is now used at the university level. No student, from primary school to university, can now read Bengali script. The writers have reprinted their old books in this script,” said veteran journalist Iboyaima Laithangbam. As such, the Manipuris fear that the Devanagari script will now supplant the Meitei/Meetei Mayek script.

Laithangbam said that all Meitei/Meetei Mayek documents, books and scriptures were burned down and replaced with Bengali script during the spread of Vaishnavism in Manipur in the early 18th century. “Signs, banners, festoons and all kinds of government and private notices now have words in Meitei script. All Bengali script newspapers in Manipuri will only use Meitei Mayek from the beginning of next year,” he said.

However, for Bodos in Assam, the Center’s unstated policy of insisting on the Devanagari script for the inclusion of any language in the Eighth Schedule is evident from the fact that the leaders of the state movement have been content with the Devanagari script at the signing of the second Bodo Agreement in 2003 for autonomy under the Sixth Schedule. A booklet ‘Why a Separate State of Bodoland’, published by the All Bodo Student Union (ABSU) states: ‘The Bodo Sahitya Sabha launched a vigorous mass movement in 1974-75 for the adoption of [the] Roman script for the Bodo language. The ABSU actively participated in the movement and thousands of ABSU activists had to endure harsh misery, arrests and torture during the period of the movement. But, unfortunately, the request was not conceded, instead the Devanagari script was imposed [on] Bodo language.

word bridge

Meanwhile, Sikari Tisso, a community linguist from the Karbi hills in Assam, has made it his silent mission to document the forgotten words of the Karbi language, his mother tongue, in order to enrich the Tibeto-Burman language with an expanded vocabulary. He has also embarked on a larger mission to build a word bridge between the languages ​​of eight ethnic communities in Assam to bridge the language gap in communication and cultural exchange. Tisso hails from Diphu, the seat of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, and travels the hills of Karbi and Dimasa and other parts of Assam for his project.

According to the 2011 census, the total population of Karbis in India is 5,28,503, of whom 5,11,732 reside in Assam. Tisso is also working on a trilingual Karbi-Assamese-English dictionary and an eight-language dictionary of karbi, dimasa, bodo, tiwa, mising, deori, rabha and garo. Her documentation work includes audio and video recordings of traditional Karbi cultural practices. In 2021, the Linguistic Society of America selected Tisso for the “Award for Excellence in Community Linguistics”.

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