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Reading Bodo: One language, three scripts, and a focus area in Accord

The PM, who often tweets in regional languages, wrote a number of these tweets in the Bodo language. The language is one of the key thrust areas in the Bodo Accord.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: February 3, 2020 11:41:51 am
bodo peace accord, bodo accord, bodo language, assam pact, bodo outfits, Bodoland, centre signs pact with assam, assam news, indian express Home Minister Amit Shah, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal and Bodo leaders after the signing of the peace accord. (Photo: PTI/File)

IN A series of tweets on January 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the signing of the Bodo Peace Accord among the Centre, Assam government and Bodo groups. The PM, who often tweets in regional languages, wrote a number of these tweets in the Bodo language. The language is one of the key thrust areas in the Bodo Accord.

A history of various scripts

Estimated to have 1.5 million speakers (Census 2011), Bodo is listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. It is spoken in Assam, where the Bodo tribe constitutes about 5-6% of the population, and in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and West Bengal.

The PM’s tweets in Bodo were written in both the Devanagari script and the Roman script. While Bodo is officially written in the Devanagri script, the language has a history of having been written in at least three different scripts — until in 1974, the Government recognised Devanagari as its official script.

Explained: Takeaways from Bodo Accord

The language is believed to have had its own script in the pre-13th century era, when it was called Deodhai. However, scholars say there are contrasting claims and no concrete proof. “When the Danish missionaries came to the Bodo-dominated area in the latter part of the 19th century, they started using the Roman script to teach Bodo in missionary schools,” said Pranab Jyoti Narzary, Assistant Professor, Department of Bodo, Pandu College.

J D Anderson, a member of Indian Civil service (1873-1900), is known to have translated a number of Bodo folk songs into English. “In the first decade of the 20th century, Bodos started writing in the Assamese/Bangla script,” said Narzary.

The decades that followed saw use of both Assamese/Bangla and Roman scripts, until in 1962, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, the apex Bodo literary body established in 1952, decided to use the Assamese script for Bodo textbooks to systemise the language. Taren Boro, president of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, said four universities have Bodo departments: Gauhati University, Cotton University, Bodoland University, and Dibrugarh University.

“In 1972, many academics and scholars decided that it was better to return to the Roman script since the Assamese script wasn’t conducive to certain Bodo pronunciations,” said Narzary.

In the 1970s, there was a sustained mass movement to that end, resulting in 18 deaths. This led to the then Indira Gandhi government asking the Bodos to use Devanagari as the official script, with a promise that it would be accorded an official Indian language status in the Eighth Schedule. “After that, books, medium of instruction in schools, offices have always been written in the Devanagari script,” Narzary said. “The problem is that many old-timers, who started with the Assamese script, find Devanagari tough; those who use Devanagri find Assamese tough — and many people stick to the Roman script because it is much easier.”

Promises in the Accord

It was only in 2003, under the then Bodo Accord, that the language was listed in the Eighth Schedule. “The 2003 Accord was very significant for language because it was the first tribal language to be included in the Eight Schedule,” said Raju Narzary, Executive Director, North Eastern Research and Social Work Network. In Assam, it has enjoyed the status of official associate language in undivided Goalpara district since 1986.

“Now the 2020 Accord makes Bodo the associate official language throughout Assam,” he said. The new Accord also promises to establish a separate directorate for Bodo medium schools, provincialise schools and colleges in the BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District) and establish a Cultural Complex-cum-Centre of Excellence named after the late social activist Bodofa Upendranath Brahma in Kokrajhar for protection and promotion of the language.

“The Bodos, who are one of the oldest inhabitants of the region, have been pushed from one capital to another ever since the 12th century. As a result, they have lost their language and script,” said Raju Narzary.

W as a vowel

In the PM’s tweets written in the Roman script, the words include “afadphwrjwng”, “gwrwbtha” and “thabwinw”. The letter w is used as a vowel in a number of languages, including Welsh, and denotes different sounds from language to language.

In Bodo, “the letter w is used to denote the high back unrounded vowel /w/ because the appropriate symbol is not readily available on computer keyboards and handsets. Though it might not be phonetically correct, it is used for the convenience of writing as well as orthographical need,” said Dr Phukan Ch Basumatary of Bodoland University, Kokrajhar, who researches linguistics, “Actually in English /w/ represents a semi-vowel. That is why this [letter] makes a contradiction for non-Bodo users.”

***Editor’s note: The print version of this article erroneously states that Bodo is the only tribal language to be listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. It has been corrected in the online version.

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