During the time Parliament was debating if Indians are intolerant of one another, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi mocked central BJP leaders for not being able to pronounce Assamese names. Apart from offending the BJP, his remarks — and the events that preceded them — have thrown the spotlight back on the uneasy relations between mainland Indians and the sensitive Assamese people.
One question that arises out of the remarks is whether something as trivial as pronunciation will matter in an election in which the BJP is seriously optimistic about dislodging Gogoi’s Congress government. There is another question, possibly less obvious to those not of Assam. Are central leaders of national parties any more aware about the sensibilities of the people of this identity-conscious state — and this is not just about pronunciation — than they were over three decades ago when a mass movement was born out of this very consciousness?
Gogoi’s remarks have earned criticism both within and outside Assam, but the fact remains that Hindi-speaking people cannot pronounce Assamese names any better than the Assamese can pronounce some names from, say, South India. Some Assamese names would qualify as tongue-twisters in Hindi but there are others the mainland Indian could easily master, if he cared to. Sheena Bora, for example. The “Bo” in Bora is not the same as the “Bo” in Bose, as national TV would have viewers believe. The correct match is with the “Bo” in Bond, as in James Bond.
Sarbananda Sonowal, whose name Gogoi cited as an example among various mispronounced names, is one of the tongue-twisters. The vowels are the least of the learner’s worries; a tricky consonant, which is unique to Assamese, begins both the first name and the surname.
Sonowal himself makes light of it. “Pronunciation differs from state to state and one shouldn’t find anything objectionable when one’s name is pronounced differently by someone from another state,” the Union Minister told The Indian Express. “We are all one country and it does not behove a leader of a national party as senior as Gogoisaab to make such remarks.”
It goes beyond pronunciation, however. A BJP statement declaring Sonowal state unit president had given the post to “Sarbanand Sonwal”, misspelt the names of three other MPs, and substituted “Hement Viswa Sharma” for Himanta Biswa Sarma, Gogoi’s closest aide-turned-bitterest rival.
If the Assamese spell some names differently from the way people in other states do, it is for a reason. The last ‘a’ in Sarbananda and Himanta needs to be pronounced — the same way as the ‘o’ in Bora or the ‘za’ in Bhupen Hazarika; some people with that surname occasionally spell it “Hazorika”.The Hindi-style spelling “Viswa” for Sarma’s middle name is wrong because it introduces a consonant alien to Assamese. And ‘h’ makes no sense when Sarma opens with the same spoken consonant as Sarbananda, Sonowal and Saikia, as in Hiteswar Saikia.
For this tricky consonant, the phonetic definition is “a soft ‘kh’ with the air released from the throat with the base of the tongue not touching the palate or the roof of the mouth”. It’s close to the ‘kh’ in the Urdu words khubsoorat, khali and khatam, only softer in Assamese.
It was days after the list of office-bearers came out that Gogoi took the first of two swipes at the BJP. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu brought it up in the Lok Sabha during his Constitution Day speech, accusing Gogoi of creating communal tension by having said Hindi-speaking people were out to “invade” Assam. Gogoi denied this in a statement but took his second swipe, listing the public mispronunciations by central BJP leaders and describing the state unit as a Hindi-centric party dominated by these leaders.
His comments might be of no electoral significance but are nevertheless being viewed as something to guard against. “I don’t think pronunciation can be an election issue or that such comments can influence the conscious Assamese people,” said Dr Nagen Saikia, former president of the Asam Sahitya Sabha, an influential literary organisation whose views are often seen as a reflection of those of Assamese society. “But,” he added, “it can possibly revive anti-Hindi sentiments among a section, the way the ULFA did when it killed two people (in Tinsukia in July). Responsible political leaders should be cautious about making such statements.”
If being conscious means the recognition that another culture does certain things differently, the mispronunciations will draw no more than amusement. It would be too much, for instance, to expect most Hindi tongues to manage a name like Srimanta Sankardeva. But when one refers to him as “Baba Sankardeo” — this happened several times at a function that included BJP president Amit Shah and Assam incharge Mahendra Singh — it is, in Gogoi’s words, “totally unacceptable”.
“They should have checked with their local leaders who are more knowledgeable about historical and cultural figures,” said Prof Sanjoy Hazarika, director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia. “It appears there is no difference among various political parties with regard to knowledge, or lack of it, about the region and its people.”
Sankardeva, a 16th-century saint-reformer, remains the first name of Assam’s heritage. Like mispronouncing Sheena Bora, calling him “baba” is something the Hindi speaker could easily avoid. If he bothered.