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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 of Tripura’s communists. Early Left leaders from the indigenous community, in fact, supported the use of the Bengali script for Kokborok. Once it was adopted as the state’s second official language after the Left came to power at the end of the 1970s, it was introduced in school textbooks across the tribal-dominated areas, albeit in the Bengali script.
Even today, the Left-front government in Tripura is still strongly bent towards maintaining the status quo: “Where is the need to change the script? It has been this way all these years. An institute has been established not just to develop Kokborok, but other major languages used by the Reangs and the Chakmas,” says CPM secretary Bijan Dhar, referring to some of the state’s large tribal groups.
The issue in itself apparently does not pose too much of a political baggage. The CPM, with its largely Bengali leadership, continues to win most of the 20 ST-reserved assembly seats in the state and retains control of the TADC. But, for educated tribals with aspirations of a distinct identity, it remains a contentious topic.
Dr Debbarma, the linguistics officer, conveys what he perceives to be the state’s longstanding stand by narrating the government’s handling of the issue over the years: “The government has formed two committees to look into the issue. The first one was the Samacharan Tripura Committee during the Congress — Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) government. About 90 per cent of those surveyed said they wanted the Roman script for Kokborok. Then, another committee headed by former vice-chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University Pabitra Sarkar, was established under the communists in 2004. There, 57 per cent of the returned questionnaires advocated the Roman script, and 70 per cent of those interviewed had the same opinion. But nothing has happened,” he says.
Tribal Students’ Federation (TSF) secretary Biswajit Koloi says, “Horop (script) is political, just like everything else.” He insists that the Bengali script cannot phonetically render certain Kokborok words accurately. “The only way we can win the right to choose the script with which to write our own language can be achieved only if Kokborok is included in the Eight Schedule,” he says. “Take Tui (pronounced T-oo-ee), our word for water. It cannot sound right when it is written in Bengali script,” Koloi adds.
Indigenous politicians with non-communist leanings stand on the same side of the fence. The former head of the Tripura National Volunteers, Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, is one of the pioneers of Tripura’s decades-old and continuing armed ethnic movement. But almost three decades since he disarmed himself and his troops to join the political mainstream, he continues to push for a distinction between tribal (Upajati, as it is called in Tripura) and Bengali identities. One of his avowed means to do this is education.
When Hrangkhawl’s party, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra, came to power in the TADC at the turn of the century, it began to introduce Kokborok textbooks in the Roman script with the full backing of the TSF and the church — a Kokborok Bible in the Roman script was prepared as early as 1972, much before the language was adopted as an official state language or introduced in schools. But with the communists currently controlling the TADC, Kokborok textbooks are again in the Bengali script.
Hrangkhawl insists the TADC is rendered powerless in terms of promoting education; it is allowed to run only lower primary schools and has no authority to hire teachers, buttressing his claim that teachers are therefore mostly Bengali and are ill-equipped to teach Kokborok, let alone the Roman script. But like Dhar insisted, there have been some attempts at give and take.
In 1994, Tripura University established a certificate course in Kokborok, which was curiously offered under the stewardship of the department of Bengali. Later on though, a Centre for Tribal Language was set up in 2003, and the certificate course upgraded to a diploma course. “About 20 students undertake the diploma course every year,” says the university website.
And according to Professor Sukendu, a Kokborok scholar who teaches at the university, students are allowed to write the course examinations in either the Bengali or the Roman script.
Dr Debbarma laughs at the situation, but concedes it is a partial victory and that indigenous intellectuals continue to spearhead the movement. Beginning in 1996, he himself has prepared two dictionaries, with another in the works — a Kokborok-English-Bengali dictionary published by the TADC’s education department and an English-Kokborok-Bengali dictionary published by the Kokborok Tei Hukumu Mission, which he heads.
“The problem is that with the slow way it is moving officially, there are few of us who are very active. But there are lots of writers,” he says. “The mission has published 57 titles in Kokborok in the Roman script, in the general literature category, and more than 100 titles overall. We want to publish school textbooks in the Roman script as well, but we don’t have the finances.”