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Striking a blow against Assam’s inclusive ethos

The State’s language law points to a homogenised nationalism overtaking minority linguistic and cultural aspirations

The Assam government recently decided to promulgate a law to make the Assamese language compulsory in all schools, both public and private, including the Kendriya Vidyalayas, from Classes I to X. The State Governor has already given a formal assent to the Cabinet’s decision. However, the law will not be applicable in Barak Valley, Bodoland Council and other Sixth Schedule areas, where Bengali, Bodo and other indigenous languages will take precedence. The ‘Assamese nationalists’ are of course happy. Some are even demanding for it to be made compulsory in the exempted areas. However, none of them is talking about what effects it will have on communities such as the Misings, Deoris, Rabhas and the other smaller tribes and their mother tongues.

Data and politics

Statistical data have often been used as a tool to construct the linguistic hierarchy and homogenisation in a region. This in turn becomes an element crucial for constructing and stabilising the regional political economic hegemonies. We have seen that happen in north India with the census-driven communal split of Hindi-Urdu, presuming Muslims to be Urdu speakers, while Hindus to be Hindi speakers. Crucially, this politics marginalised languages such as Magadhi, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Garhwali with their rich literary and linguistic traditions as mere dialects of the Hindi language. And this was a political number game to ensure the dominance of Hindi and Hindi-Hindu elites, nationally.

A similar approach is also evident in Assam. Census data are often used to portray a ‘danger’ to the Assamese language — the ‘infiltration’ of Bengali-speaking communities is considered to be the primary reason. The number of Assamese speakers as per the 2011 Census comes to 48.38% of the population. In 1971, the percentage of speakers was at 60.89%. So, it seems the number of Assamese speakers considerably declined in these four decades. But this data need to be looked at empirically. It has to be noted that most tribal communities speak Assamese but return their own respective languages as their mother tongues. For example, in the Mising tribe, which I belong to, a large majority speak Assamese. This is not because of school education, but mainly because of the fact that Assamese is the dominant market language, at least in the Brahmaputra Valley.

Impact on tribal languages

The imposition of Assamese has had adverse effects on tribal languages, especially on those which do not enjoy any constitutional protection. Tribal languages are generally on a steady decline. For instance, while the Mising tribe reported a rate of increase of 41.13% in the number of speakers in the 2001 Census, by 2011 it was merely 14.28%. Similarly, the Deoris which reported a decadal increase of 56.19% in the 2001 Census, the increase percentage by 2011 had declined to 15.79%. It is to be noted that only the Dibongiya clan of the Deoris now speak the language. The Rabhas community provides for a more curious case. The community reported an increase of 18.23% in the number of speakers in the 2001 Census. By 2011, the number of speakers had decreased to -15.04%, almost completely obliterating the language. Other tribes such as the Sonowal-Kacharis and Tiwas have almost completely lost their languages. 

Tribal communities since long have been demanding linguistic and territorial protection and attention from the State government. On October 30, 1985, the government of Assam, in response to a long struggle by the Mising community, through a gazette notification introduced the Mising Language as an additional subject in Classes 3 and 4 in the Mising-dominated areas. 

Also, additionally, it was to be the medium of instruction at the primary level. The Assam government was supposed to take up various tasks such as appointing Mising language teachers, translating books into Mising, and also introducing Mising textbooks. But only 230 teachers were appointed till 1994, after which the whole process came to a halt. Further, the agreed upon clause of introducing Mising as the medium of instruction never took off.

Tribal communities have always resisted attempts of forced homogenisation. It was in response to the Official Language Bill in 1960 that the Khasi along with other tribal communities started protesting, ultimately leading to the formation of Meghalaya. The Bodo movement for autonomy also finds its roots in this bill. Tribes have often highlighted that the ‘Assamese nationalism’ discourse was narrow and rarely included other communities. However, tribes such as the Misings, Deoris, Rabhas, etc. have still consistently supported the Assamese movement against the imposition of Bengali language or Hindi in Assam. But in turn they now find themselves consistently marginalised, with their linguistic and cultural heritage derecognised by the State and the hegemonic forces.

The CAA factor

The anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) movement could have been a point of departure in the ‘Assamese Nationalism’ discourse. During the course of the movement, a new definition of ‘Assamese indigenous’ was seen emerging. This definition was inclusive of tribal and other non-Assamese communities and was based on domicile rather than language alone. Demands were raised for protection of indigenous land, culture and languages during the course of the struggle.

However, at the core of the movement, was also the fear of infiltration that the CAA bill promoted. Such fear and insecurity have an immanent tendency to straitjacket heterogeneous aspirations and scuttle the inclusive nature of the movement. The government is in fact manipulating this element of fear by raising linguistic nationalism to weaken the inclusive and anti-hegemonic build-up in the anti-CAA movement in Assam. The timing of the government’s decision to bring in a law making Assamese mandatory in schools clearly exposes its intentions. It was first announced in January 2020.

As a job requirement

Adding to this, the Home Minister of Assam states that the government is also mulling over a separate legislation which will make only those who learned Assamese till their matriculation suitable for government jobs in Assam. These moves are clear indications of a non-inclusive homogenised Assamese nationalism taking precedence over the inclusion of minority linguistic and cultural aspirations. Such a move alienates various linguistic identities such as those of tribes such as the Misings, Deoris and Rabhas, etc. and limits the definition of ‘Axomiya’ to just the speakers of the language. By bringing in such a law, the State government is seeking to overcome the legitimation crisis that its support to CAA had created.

While the tribes acknowledge the threat that infiltration poses to local languages and culture, they are also wary of the Assamese hegemony and homogeneity. This law will only increase the marginalisation of these communities, triggering social conflicts once again. It is time for progressive sections in Assam to go beyond the politics of fear and assert the inclusive ethos of Assam.

This was published in The Hindu here

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