Thursday, October 25, 2012

The politics of language standardization: the case of a fragmented Assamese society

The concept of cultural hegemony was theorised by Antonio Gramsci when he emphasized the dominence of one community over a certain geographical region over others - although not direct but influential - by means of political control or in cultural terms. Cultural hegemonization always needs a catalyst, i.e. language or lingua franca to be more specific. When the Indian state was formed, it was conceived as a federal democratic country where staes were given a lot of governance power. These states were formed on the basis of language boundaries: Tamil Nadu thus included the territory in which Tamil speaking people formed the majority population, Gujarat in a similar way consisted of Gujarati-speaking majority, so and so forth. Assam was probably the only state of India which was formed without giving much significance to the official language, the reason being that although Assamese had constitutional acceptance of being a major Indian language, in the general perception of the rest of India, particularly among the Bengalis, it was merely an offshoot of Bengali. Hence even after having official recognition, Assamese youth had to come up with two consecutive movements - the Bhaxa Andolan (language movement) and the Madhyam Andolan (medium movement) - and sacrifice lives to finally get Assamese language a rather practical acceptance in government documents and dealings, somehow managing to overthrow a rather unwelcome hegemony of the Bengali language over the local tongue, finally! These two movements proved to be crucial for the subsequent uprisings during the Assam movements and the militant 'nationalist' propaganda of the ULFA. Most importantly, such an Assamese 'nationalist' sentiment spread among the entire population living in the Brahmaputra valley irrespective of community and dialects. Whether such a scenarion was good for a marginal society like the Assamese is a debatable issue, but it did not last long among the Assamese.

By the 1970s, Assamese language became in true sense the lingua franca of the entire northeast region of India. Almost all the states barring Tripura could and did use Assamese as the language for communication. But this supremacy of Assamese was short-lived as gradually the other northeastern states adopted either Hindi or English for communication. Even fraction started within the greater Assamese society; the Bodos branched out and even changed their script to devnagri from Assamese. The situation at present is worse; the Bodos to a large extent do not even identify themselves as Assamese, but with an independent Bodo identity. This trend is more visible aong the younger higher educated generation of Bodos. It is not my aim here to judge what is right or wrong. My only aim is to provide a prelude to a much more complex and intriguing problem of the Assamese as a community or a group of communities, a problem within the Assamese which has deep historical roots. This is rooted in the the culturally divisive, fragmentary nature of the Assamese. There has been umpteen attepts to bring the diverse communities of Assam under one unified roof, be it the religio-cultural movement initiated by Sankardev in the 15thcentury or the neo-literature movement of early 20th century, of which Lakhminath Bezbaruah was the most notable figure. However, none of these movements could complete the process of unification and present a greater singular identity of the Assamese. Has the hegemonization theory propounded by Gramsci failed in Assam?

There is another serious problem, that is of divisions within the Assamese society as far as language is concerned. The simplest and rudest manifestation of this can be seen in the hostels of the two main state universities of Assam - Gauhati university and Dibrugarh university. Guwahati and Dibrugarh respectively relate to the lower and upper Assam regions, the two 'distinct' regions of Assam which were not unified until the battle of Saraighat in the 17th century. The two regions had distinctly different land system, which eventually resulted in different economico-social scenario and culture. This difference can even be seen in the food habits, settlement patterns, and language (dialectical difference though). This division between the two region is expressed, sometimes in extreme forms, in the hostels of the two universities, where students form lobbies in terms of language affinities and disregard the existence of a 'different' assamese language, and this happens vice versa. Although difficult to believe, this tension between the two goes to the level of physical clashes. This cold war between the 'lower Assam language' and the 'upper Assam language' can even be seen among the mature lot, especially people working in government offices and other noted private and corporate bodies. It is sad to see that people from the two regions do not usually mingle with each other, and it goes to the level of hatred when in a joint circle.

Although this obvious difference is often not discussed in the learned circles, while in the entertainment sector this has been used as comic relief, the ordinary people is not immune to it. The people of upper Assam take pride in their form of the Assamese language to be the standard tongue which has been used in the literature, although with grammatical modifications, and use derogatory remarks for the people of lower Assam, the most common of thembeing 'dhekeri', a term which was originally the name of a certain area in Kamrup district in the medieval period but has now become synonymous with lower Assam people speaking the 'rude' version of Assamese. The people from the lower Assam, on the otherhand, have developed a sense of low esteem and inferiority complex and have tried to immitate the upper Assam tongue which has often resulted in disastrous use of the language. This inferiority complex in a way has developed a sense of distrust among the people towards the upper Assam people. This difference is spread across the whole of Assamese society to the minutest levels.

Lack of historical knowledge and even lack of interest in the past can be one reason why the Assamese society keeps on repeating the same mistakes again and again, and never gets united. The history that is told to students in schools and colleges is also biased and represents the viewpoint of the contemporary dominent group. For example, the medieval period of Assam has often been considered to be belonging to the Ahoms and it has been repeatedly emphasized that it was but for the Ahoms that the Assamese society has attained the present state of being; thus the role of the Koch and the Kachari kingdoms get neglected. The history of Assam has often been misrepresented and that needs serious reconsideration. Now. Likewise, the history of the formation of the Assamese language, vis-a-vis its standardization, is one aspect which has rarely been scientifically analysed.

The role of Axomiya Bhaxa Unnati Sadhini Sabha (an organization for the development of Assamese language), founded in 1988 is worth mentioning. The establishment of this organization is often said to be 'a landmark in the history of Assamese language and literature'. Among its most important projects was the standardization of the Assamese language, which it planned to do by removing some grammatical and orthographic anomalies and introducing some appropriate new words. Although language standardization was not a concerted approach at the beginning, by the late 19th century the Assamese spoken in upper Assam - the centre of the more powerful Ahom kingdom - was becoming accepted as standard modern Assamese. A certain bias of the then Assamese scholarly people can be surely seen here, as although not often mentioned most of the scholarly people belonged to that region only. The language of lower Assam was gradually being considered as outdated and rude. What was the scene prior to this process of standardization? - a question which has been thoroughly avoided by even modern scholars.

Banikanta Kakati, who has produced perhaps the most important work on the construction of Assamese language, takes a more scientific and liberal view on this; perhaps because he belonged tolower Assam region. He while emphasizing the role of Srimanta Sankardeva in the development of Assamese culture and literature points out that the royal patronage that the vaisnava guru required for peacefully propagating what he preached actually came from the Koch king Naranarayan, whose capital was in the lower Assam region bordering Bengal. He specifically points out that the patronization of Assamese language and literature did not come from the 'mainland' Assam (he probably meant upper assam), but from Koch Behar.

The above scenarion as reflected in the medieval period continued till the early 19th century, when the British settled down mostly in the upper Assam region and gradually started influencing the Assamese learned lot. Prior to this, Assam was mostly identified with Kamrup and the standard language was considered to be Kamarupi. All the other dialects spoken in the region such as Rajbongshi, Goalporia, and West Bengali has close affinity with Kamarupi. In upper Assam, there existed several Tibeto-Burmese languages along with Assamese and it is difficult to point out which was more dominent over the others.

Although the standardization process of Assamese started in the early 19th century, it never became totally accepted by the tribal groups of Assam. Gradually several tribal groups started finding sub-national identities through a process of reviving their own languages. As this revivalism started getting more acceptance, the strenghth of Assamese language as a binding force began to reduce and petty nationalism and segragation movements started taking place.
The present fragmented Assamese society and the failure of the political parties to unite the many communities of Assam can be attributed to the failure of Assamese language in becoming a singular, strong lingua franca of the entire region. This needs serious rethinking.

The weakening of the language led to a signicant drop in literature and readership in Assamese. Influences of other Indian languages has also corrupted the current form of Assamese language, both spoken and written. And there are very few who have actually spoken in open about it!

1 comment:

Hemant Dave said...

Really wonderful and enlightening piece. I've been teaching the "Assam problem" for past several years, but I never come across any of the issues in "academic, serious scholarship". Thanks a ton, Bhai!! I want you to turn this into a well documented article.. Best..