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The ‘older-than-Bengali’ Assamese script now a step closer to getting digital recognition

The ISO recommendation to rename the “Bengali” script as “Bengali/Assamese” script in the Unicode comes after a meeting in London on Friday — and years of struggle by different quarters of the Assamese society, both in India and abroad.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: June 26, 2018 10:46:39 am
Assam script for unicode An ancient saanchipaat (tree bark) folio written in Assamese script from 1690 AD. Express photo by Tora Agarwala.

Through last week, a group of four Indian representatives have been in and out of a five-day meeting in London. Their demand: an independent chart for the Assamese script in the Unicode, till now labelled and included under the Bengali script. “This is the first time we have talked face-to-face with the Unicode Consortium,” says Dr Dhrubo Jyoti Borah, former president of Assam’s apex literary body, the Asam Sahitya Sabha.

Dr Borah, along with a team — which included the current Sahitya Sabha president Dr Paramananda Rajbongshi, Professor Shikhar Sarma of Guwahati University and member, Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), and AMTRON Managing Director MK Yadav — met with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) working group II to sound out a long-standing demand for an independent digital identity to the Assamese script.

The result? 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.

Today, digital identities of languages across the world are best legitimised by the Unicode: a computing industry standard where characters of different writing systems are digitised and identified under separate charts made by the Unicode Standard Consortium. The Assamese script has, till date, been clubbed under the Bengali script, owing to a “faulty Government of India recommendation in 1991.”

The first official move for this came in 2011 when Guwahati-based surgeon, Dr Satyakam Phukan and Pastor Azizul Haque filed a complained with the Unicode Consortium. According to a factsheet published by the Asam Sahitya Sabha, when the Unicode Standard was accepted by the Government of India in 2000, the Unicode Consortium did “not encode the Assamese script, instead added two characters of the Assamese script to the Bengali script, depicting them as a Bengali characters.” This was not conveyed to the Assamese people and the state government.

Assam script for unicode The early 5th century inscription of the Nagajari-Khanikar village in Assam’s Golaghat district.

In the interim, there have been many isolated moves from different quarters of Assamese society pushing for the Unicode. Around 2010, Wahid Saleh, an Assamese social entrepreneur based in the Netherlands, started a group to increase “Assamese presence on the internet.”

“For a person living abroad, it was difficult to read papers like The Assam Tribune. The contents of the paper were being uploaded as images but not as text. So you could not search for anything,” he says. He and a few others formed the E-Jonaki Jug, a website harking back at the Jonaki Jug (or, the Classical age) of Assamese literature embodied by litterateurs such as Chandra Kumar Agarwala, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Lakshminath Bezbarua and Hemchandra Goswami.

“There were others who realised the importance of the Unicode: Robin Deka from the Nameri region, who worked independently. And of course, the hugely popular Facebook group, Asomiya Kotha Botora which is perhaps the biggest attempt by the Assamese public for an independent identity in the Unicode,” says Saleh. The rules of the group — which has about 23k members — strictly prohibits use of the English alphabet to write anything in Assamese and insists that each member uses only the Assamese script to write any post.

“While there were many efforts such as this, things only moved when the government took it up,” says Dr Borah.

The result of the meeting which ended on Friday with the ISO has three important takeaways: one, the change of domain name — from “Bengali” to “Bengali/Assamese”. “They could not recommend an independent  chart to the Assamese script because it is too similar to Bengali — the computer would get confused,” says Dr Borah. The second is that each letter in the domain will also be recognised as Assamese. And third, inclusion of a set of new Assamese symbols in the chart. “These include land, weight and volume measures,” says Dr Borah.

A strong argument for the separation is also stemmed in the belief that the Assamese script is much older than the Bengali script — and probably the oldest script in eastern India. According to the Asam Sahitya Sabha factsheet, the early 5th century inscription of the Nagajari-Khanikar village in Assam’s Golaghat district is the oldest Assamese inscription. The ancient saanchipaat (tree bark) and tula paat (cotton) literature and stone inscriptions also predates the Bengali script.

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While the ISO recommendation is being regarded as a positive step by the Assamese society, some are not happy with the outcome of the meeting. Dr Satyakam Phukan, who has been one of the strongest movers for an independent Assamese chart, feels that the solution is a “patch-up” one and not a “real” one. “The representatives have forgotten the original purpose of this fight: separate transliteration for the Assamese script,” he says, “If both are clubbed together, there will be massive problems since the transliteration of the two script are completely different from each other.”

Meanwhile Dr Borah and his team will embark on the second part of their cause once they are back in India. “This is just the beginning,” he says. The ISO recommendations will now be sent to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), and only if the national standardization body approves, they will come into effect. “By September, we will have persuade the BIS to accept the  proposal,” he says, “In a way, our fight actually starts now.”

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