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Assam: Civil societies protest language imposition over misinformation?

The Assam govt under Education Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma has made Assamese as a compulsory subject in all schools (CBSE, SEBA, ICSE) irrespective of government or private from Class I to Class X. This has backfired among certain political and civil society organisations who have protested openly calling it a move that extends Assamese chauvinism and majoritarianism.

Among them, the prime opposition has come from the All Assam Bodo Students Union (ABSU). Speaking to the reporters on Monday at Bodofa House, ABSU assistant General Secretary Kwrwmdao Wary and Education Secretary Kastom Basumatary has directly opposed the proposal.

In that entropy, few of the leaders of Dima Hasao and other hill districts of Assam have protested against the decision by the state government on making the Assamese language “compulsory”. The move has re-ignited scepticism among few indigenous bodies due to historical episodes on the hegemonic imposition of the Assamese language over tribal areas.

The historical crux of the issue

Upendranath Brahma, Father of Bodoland, was fair to raise the issue against the political class of Assamese leaders that neglected the tribal groups by stating that “Bodos are treated as secondary citizens”. It fueled subsequent self-determination processions, which have been rightly held by Bodos and allied tribal groups albeit the violent turns some of it has transcended. The original intention was to counter “neglect” – social, political, economic and cultural.

In those lines, ABSU has tried to evoke an appeal to the education minister not to impose the Assamese language in the Bodo medium and stated that “Bodo medium school education has come in today’s juncture through language movement and accordingly gaining up its educational scenario in the state”. As per sources, other affiliated bodies too have subscribed to this line of thought.

Are they “presuming” this time?

Due to the stakes involved, Inside Northeast, contacted the Education Commissioner Pritam Saikia in lieu of this ensuing tension to understand the resolution. The education department is already preparing a press release in the coming days to clear the matter, even though, he revealed exclusive key points for now.

First, it is duly stated that the Assamese language has been made compulsory in CBSE, ICSE, SEBA schools irrespective of govt or private enterprise as the elective language subject, which was earlier optional between Hindi, Assamese and French in some “cosmopolitan” schools. However, the decision has key exemptions made for the entire Barak valley, 4 districts of Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) – Baksa, Chirang, Kokrajhar and Udalguri and 3 hill districts of Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Another step is Bodo medium schools outside BTR peripheries like Sonitpur will be exempted. They will operate as it is in the Bodo medium.

Following this clarity, people have shifted their earlier critical stand. It nullifies ABSU’s stand on the issue. A popular representative from one of the hill districts who allegedly wrote on the lines of “Stop Assamese Language Imposition” has now deleted his Facebook post. A benefit of the doubt can be given to them for the lack of information, nevertheless in a sensitive state like Assam, making such statements can lead to repercussions. This already has the potential to create a tensed atmosphere in certain circles of the state.

Also read: Assam govt to shut down schools with zero pass percentage in HSLC 2020

Is it then just rebranding?

In hindsight, the decision only extends in Brahmaputra valley minus BTR. Earlier, Assamese was compulsory till class 7 or 8 depending on the school, now it will be mandatory till class 10 instead. In other places of exemption, the status quo remains. According to sources, this has formalised Bodo and Bengali as the compulsory language in BTR and Barak respectively which anyway continued until now. Full notification will be revealed in the upcoming days. On the matters of how it affects the APSC exam, Pritam Saikia refused to comment as of now. As per the recent APSC notification, already Assamese, Bodo, Bengali is allowed as a language paper and for Dima Hasao districts, English is permitted for the language paper. The final notification is not confirmed due to a change in syllabus and might subject to alteration.

Thus, critics are of the view that the state govt has just rebranded the already existing law as a face-saving measure post CAA to appease the people, who raised the issue of safety of indigenous culture and language relevance against historical concerns of increasing “East Bengal-Bangladesh” equation. Although, the supporters of the move cite that it is an extension of the Jaati, Maati, Bheti claim in the manifesto of 2016 Assembly election by BJP.

To understand the middle path, Inside Northeast spoke to a Northeast Regional Expert who on anonymity defined the current situation in the words of T N Iyer Seshan, “whatever there’s in the law, I have utilised it”. TN Seshan was an Indian civil servant who also served as the 18th Cabinet Secretary of India in 1989.

The grey areas

Language imposition in a globalised and liberal order is never a wise decision as it prohibits the idea of a choice. The Assamese language was already compulsory till middle school which enabled people to acquire basic communication skills to operate in society that served the purpose of it being a lingua franca. To impose it beyond that without the option of a choice might seem like a stretch. This makes us revisit the times when the nation was divided along linguistic lines and as a consequence, several smaller languages suffered. Even in Assam, languages like ‘Kamrupi’ has been side-tracked as a mere dialect on the face of extreme homogenisation of the current Assamese language. As for evoking strong ‘regionalism’ sentiments which the govt expects to bring, the kids should themselves select the subject for that purpose to indicate their approval instead of imposing the will on them by the state.

Beyond the move: Tribal politics

Beyond the pros and cons of the decision, one must not forget the ethnic politics associated with it. The autonomous district councils were formed to preserve the pristine culture of the tribal and to forward self-rule. It was initially pushed due by the visionary outlook of Gopinath Bordoloi (Assam first Chief Minister and freedom fighter), who headed a sub-committee aided by Meghalaya’s Rev. Nichols Roy among others, that recommended that inclusion of district council on schedule 6 of the constitution during the drafting of the constitution to B R Ambedkar. This was an important historical shift which has so far allowed the indigenous bodies to self-determine along with the valiant efforts of the native people to push for welfare movements through the autonomous councils.

The accountability of the leaders

Few current day politicians have struggled to keep up with certain promises they made during those councils formation, including state demand, jobs and better development and with reports of corruption and irregularities, those figureheads have lost their mileage.

As development is no longer the plank through which they generate rhetoric, have they now resort to hypothetical criticism as seen in this episode? What about the rights of the other indigenous communities in BTR which includes Rabhas, Garos, Koch. Aren’t they too facing the similar onslaught of Bodo language imposition in BTR and lack of representation in the legislature of the council? The dialecticism of Assam and Northeast amid the self-determination of the indigenous communities and the traditional Assamese middle class seems to raise more questions than a straight jacket binary of who’s right or wrong.

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