Last week, a conglomerate of 56 tribal organisations in Tripura came out in protest against what they saw as the possibility of Hindi being introduced as the script for Kokborok, the lingua franca for most tribes of the state.
The Roman Script for Kokborok Choba (RSKC) was reacting to Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s comments at the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee on April 2: that nine tribal communities of the Northeast have converted their dialects’ scripts to Devanagari, and that all eight states of the Northeast have agreed to make Hindi compulsory in schools up to Class 10.
The comments have led to protests in several states of the region. Each Northeast state has its own set of diverse languages, ranging from Indo-Aryan to Tibeto-Burman to Austro-Asiatic families.
Kokborok was recognised as an official language of Tripura in 1979. It is now taught in 22 degree colleges as well as Tripura Central University, using the Bengali and Roman scripts.
The debate around the script is several decades old. Two commissions had been set up, under former legislator Shyama Charan Tripura and linguist Pabitra Sarkar. While the erstwhile Left Front government preferred the Bengali script, the RSKC says both commissions found the majority of tribal people favour the Roman script.
“We feel introducing the Roman script for Kokborok would be easy… The government should not introduce any language for their own interests… Leave the matter to the people of the community,” RSKC president Bikash Rai Debbarma said.
The RSKC said it was not against Hindi or Devanagari, but strongly opposed forcible imposition. Tribal litterateur and cultural worker Chandrakanta Murasingh too said tribal activists were not against Hindi; however, the linguistic balance might be disturbed if Hindi was imposed.
“The brotherhood and balance of Bengali- and Kokborok-speaking people might be upset. If Bengali and Kokborok can’t be learnt due to Hindi, it might (disturb the balance),” he said.
The Mizo language or Mizo Tawng belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family. During colonial rule, Christian missionaries Reverends J H Lorrain and F W Savidge visited the Lushai Hills (now Mizoram) and introduced the Mizo alphabet in 1894, based on the Roman script. The Mizo script is called ‘A Aw B’.
“It’s been our script for so long. We won’t accept imposition of the Hindi script over it,” said Ricky Lalbiakmawia, spokesperson for MizoZirlai Pawl (MZP), Mizoram’s largest student organisation.
Manipur’s Meitei Mayek or Manipuri script is 2,000 years old. The script is recognised by the Government of Manipur, and Manipuri is one of the 22 languages listed in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.
On April 25, six student organisations of Manipur organised a public convention in protest against Shah’s proposals. It adopted a series of resolutions, including one against accepting Hindi as a compulsory subject up to Class X in Manipur.
“Our language is included in the 8th Schedule, like Hindi. Hindi and Manipuri have the same status. So, imposing Hindi would mean rejecting other languages and scripts. We feel this is a majoritarian policy,” said Leishangtshem Lambyanba, president, Democratic Students Alliance, Manipur.
Lambyanba said imposing Hindi may put extra pressure on students and hinder development of the local language. “Even the National Education Policy says education should be imparted in the mother language. Hindi is not our mother language,” he said.
Many languages are spoken in ethnically diverse Arunachal Pradesh. A recent UNESCO survey identified 33 languages as endangered and four as critically endangered. Even the most widely spoken languages, such as Adi, Nyishi, Galo and Mishmi, do not have exclusive scripts.
With almost no common indigenous language between one group and another, Hindi acts as a bridge language of sorts, All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) leader Tobom Dai said. But, he said, Hindi cannot be imposed as it would further distort the language dynamics.
Assamese and Bodo are both listed in the 8th Schedule. While Assamese uses an ancient script of its own, Bodo is written in the Devanagari script. Assam has dozens of other indigenous languages, many of them without a script. Karbi, Mising and Tiwa are mostly written in the Roman script, while Rabha is usually written in the Assamese script.
All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya said students in Assam are studying Hindi up to Class 8 anyway. “We are opposing this move. (Students) are already studying Hindi till Class 8 and there is no point extending it further. The government should scrap the decision,” he said.
He said the Devanagari script debate is not an issue for the Assamese language. Referring to other linguistic groups in Assam such as Rabha, Mising, Tiwa and Karbi, he said: “The literary bodies of those languages will decide about the script issue. From our side, we want that all tribal and ethnic languages should be developed.”
NE Students’ Union
Shortly after Shah’s comments, the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), a conglomerate of eight student bodies, wrote to him opposing “imposition” of Hindi as a compulsory subject, as this would be detrimental for propagation of indigenous languages and would also add another subject to the curriculum.
“As per the understanding of the organisation, such a move will not usher in unity but will be a tool to create apprehensions and disharmony,” the NESO letter said.