In mid June, a three-membered delegation from India (including two Assamese) met with Unicode Consortium in London to discuss a long-standing demand of the Assamese community: an independent digital identity for the Assamese script, which is until now clubbed under the Bengali script. While the five-day meeting resulted in a recommendation to rename the “Bengali” script in the Unicode as “Bengali/Assamese” script as well as inclusion of a new set of symbols from the Assamese script, for the original campaigners (led by Guwahati-based surgeon Dr Satyakam Phukan), the fight is far from over.
Till date, the Assamese script has been clubbed as a modified version of the Bengali script in the Unicode, or the computing industry standard where characters of the world’s different writing systems are digitised and identified under separate charts made by the Unicode Standard Consortium.
Even despite the Unicode Consortium’s recommendations in June — which have been forwarded to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) — the problems persist. “The Assamese and Bengali scripts might look the same but that does not mean their identities are the same,” says Dr Bhaskar Jyoti Sarma, one of the campaigners who teaches at the Ananda Ram Barua Institute of Language & Culture, Guwahati.
This leads to practical issues for anyone who is trying to use or work with the Assamese script on the computer. “We can only type in Assamese. If we search for anything in Assamese, only Bengali results show up. This is because there is more Bengali content on the internet than Assamese. Till Assamese gets a separate identity, this problem will remain,” says Dr Phukan, adding, “When you google ‘Hima Das’ in Assamese, only Bengali articles show up. It is only if we add the Assamese alphabet ‘ra’ at the end — one of two letters that distinguish Assamese from Bengali — that the Assamese articles show up.”
Apart from that, there is a problem with the letter “Khya” which gets mixed up with the Bengali letter in “Khsya”. “But the most serious implication is in the field of transliteration. Assamese transliterates very differently from almost all other Indic scripts. It is because of this that most problem relation to non-encoding of the Assamese script has cropped up,” says Dr Phukan.
To address these issues, a public petition — signed by 500 persons including the likes of veteran journalist Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah and Sahitya Akademi-wining author Nagen Saikia — seeking restoration of the Assamese script in the international standards has been forwarded to the offices of the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister of Assam as well as the Public Grievances Portal of the Government of India. The group plans to start fighting the battle legally if no action is taken. “The issue is that in London, the Indian delegation went with a compromising attitude when they should have been confrontationist,” says Dr Phukan, who along with writer Pastor Azizul Haque made the first official move for independent digital identity in 2011. “Back then we did not have much support — now with increasing awareness, there is more support.”
At a press conference in Guwahati on Tuesday, a six-membered panel (including Phukan, Haque, Sarma etc) highlighted these issues. In a statement, they said, “Duplication has been accepted in the case of three European scripts (Latin, Greek and Cyrillic) and two Indian scripts (Bengali and Maithli) so why has the same principle not been applied to Assamese?”
Dr Sarma said that the “change” recommended by the Consortium is “more on paper” and not in “practice.” While the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology suggested using of patch software as a solution, the campaigners believe it will come in the way of smooth and hassle-free functioning.
According to Dr Phukan, if the Assamese script is encoded independently, the advantages will be several: translation software, text-to-speech programs and vice versa, as well as increased presence of Assamese content digitally. “Also at the end of the day, it is our script. We do not want to be dictated by the whims of a group of people who are not even from the country. If this works out, our Assamese heritage will also be preserved,” he says.