Dr Binoy Debbarma laughs and waves his hand in the air any number of ways — back, forth, up, down and all the directions in between. “There is nothing communal about it. It is just that the Roman script is much easier than the Bengali script,” he says, his flailing hand attempting to show the complexity of the latter.
As the senior linguistics officer in Tripura’s Tribal Autonomous District Council (TADC), Dr Debbarma is at the forefront of an officially stagnant but nevertheless emotionally and politically charged movement — in what script should Kokborok, the biggest contender for a lingua franca among most of the 19 tribes that live in the tiny state, be written?
Like most other tongues spoken in North-East India, Kokborok, is classified under the Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman groups of languages.
According to Ethnologue, the catalogue of the world’s languages run by the US-based Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), it is spoken by around 8 lakh people in both India and Bangladesh and is composed of three dialects, one of which is mutually intelligible to speakers of all three. Kokborok used to be written in a script thought to be entirely its own. It was called Koloma, and some say it dates back two millennia. But Koloma no longer exists.
Its ebb appears to be not as dramatic as that of the ancient Meitei Mayak script in nearby Manipur. In his zeal to promote the then newly-arrived Vaishnavite brand of Hinduism in the erstwhile Kangleipak kingdom, the Meitei king Pamheiba, burned his people’s ancient scriptures, called puyas, around the third decade of the 18th century and imposed the Bengali script on his subjects.
But there are certain parallels. Centuries ago, Tripura’s Manikya kings, too, introduced Bengali as the official mode of communication and made Rabindranath Tagore the kingdom’s most famous, and perhaps most influential, guest. Tripura is also the only state in the Northeast where the tribals are not in a majority — Bengalis are.
In the last few decades, the descendants of the Manikya kings’ erstwhile subjects have tried to undo this, although in a less dramatic fashion than Manipur’s ethnic armed groups. Ethno-politics, however, is a common thread in the linguistic movements of each state.
Since Independence, Tripura’s indigenous population has been overwhelmed by a much larger and faster-growing linguistic struggle. While the state’s population (a mix of both tribal and Bengali) in 1947 was just over six lakhs, as many people entered from erstwhile East Pakistan in the years before the birth of Bangladesh.
This relatively sudden demographic change resulted in subsequent loss of territory for the tribals and was followed by armed ethnic violence. With it came an us-and-them battle for distinct identities that is partially manifested in the choice of calligraphy. It was not always so, as is evident from the multi-ethnic politics continued…