An important component of the spectrum of discussions and debates around the proposed bill to amend the citizenship act of the Republic of India passed already in the lower house, has been around the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions. This component seems to occupy a large space in the current discourses of the national political parties as well along with the people-citizens of the republic on the proposed amendment.
The issue for the people-citizens of the Republic of India whose native language is one of the languages that have evolved over centuries in the North-Eastern region; and mainly spoken only in this region, is not only about the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions. Various democratic instruments have been used by a large number of people-citizens, across religion, of this region; these protesters have stood firm so that the republic does not end up altering one of the fundamental axioms that characterise it which is “principle of separation of the state from religious institutions’’.
The proposed citizenship bill has been widely protested across the state and the entire Northeast. If one hand the protestors have cited the loss of land and control over resources as one of the reasons of their protests, at the same time these protesters have also expressed their worry that the amendment to citizenship has the potential to lead to a significant number of immigrants into the region which in turn may lead to the disappearance of their languages and cultures. Pertinently while the importance of the axiom of separation of the state from religious institutions seems to be shared widely across various people-citizens and political parties of the republic, it seems that the worry of a potential disappearance of linguistic groups has not been able to receive enough attention.
Is the worry about disappearance unfounded? In an article in The New York Times, titled ‘World’s Languages Dying Off Rapidly,’ John Noble Wilford (September 18, 2007) wrote:
“Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. In fact, they are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks.
Some endangered languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.”
In this context, it is noteworthy that the total population of Northeast is 45,772,188, a little more than four crores fifty lakhs, according to the 2011 Census of the Republic of India. Given the diversity within the collection of the languages that have evolved and spoken mainly in this region, it need not be hard to imagine how small each of these linguistic groups is both in absolute as well as in relative terms once compared with the size of the linguistic groups such as Hindi or Bengali for instance.
Are there arguments in favour of protecting linguistic diversities?
Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist at University of California San Diego, in an article, titled ‘Lost in Translation’ published in The Wall Street Journal (July 24, 2010 ) mentioned: “new cognitive research suggests that languages profoundly influences the way people see the world…”
In this context, it is worth mentioning one of the observations by Amrita Dhillon in an article, titled ‘Indigenous culture and tribes of North-East’ published in The Kootneeti (November 3, 2017)
“Children and women generally are taught to be self- independent from a very young age. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, there are societies that are matriarchal which a rare phenomenon in patriarchal India is,” she wrote.
“Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia are the three major tribes of Meghalaya. The Khasi and Garo societies are matrilineal societies. In a matrilineal society, the women of the family inherit all the ancestral property. It is indeed a contrasting culture to be seen in a male-dominated country like India. Indeed it is something the whole country should follow in the wake of increasing crimes against women and trends like #metoo which reinforce the harsh reality of women abuse,” she adds further.
The importance of ecology of the North-eastern region for the entire Republic can hardly be overemphasized. In WWF-India Background paper No. 13 June 2006 titled “Biodiversity Significance of Northeast India” Sudipto Chatterjee, Abhinandan Saikia, Pijush Dutta, Dipankar Ghosh, Govinda Pangging and Anil K Goswami noted, “The people of the north-eastern states have managed biodiversity with traditional wisdom. The influx of people, mostly labourers, from neighbouring states and countries will generally have scant regard for local sentiments and values.”
In the same research paper Sudipto Chatterjee, AbhinandanSaikia, Pijush Dutta, Dipankar Ghosh, Govinda Pangging and Anil K Goswami also mentioned, “….a large influx of people into Tripura from Bangladesh during the second half of the 20th century, contributing to an increase in the population of about 327 per cent between 1951 to 1991. The per capita forest area has been reduced from 0.97 hectares to the present level of 0.18 hectares.”
At this juncture, a pertinent and an important question for us to understand is the reason as for why languages die?
In an article titled ‘When languages die, we lose a part of who we are’, published in ‘The Conversation’ (December 9, 2015), languages die owing to various reasons and these reasons are often political, economic or cultural in nature. Speakers of a minority language may, for example, decide that it is better for their children’s future to teach them a language that is tied to economic success.
“Migration also plays a large role in language change and language death. When speakers of Proto-Indo-European migrated to most of Europe and large parts of Asia between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, they probably brought about massive language change and language death. In Western Europe, Basque could possibly be the only modern language that survived the influx of the Indo-Europeans,” the article further adds on.
So going by the observation above we can say that the native languages of Assam are not threatened by the ‘migration’ or by the proposed bill as the settlers will be speaking or have to speak the native languages of Assam and their language will eventually die. But, this observation, however, somehow doesn’t fit in here.
Nandita Saikia, while shedding light on the history of migration in an article titled ‘Citizenship Bill: BJP chasing ghosts in Assam; Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated’ published in ‘Firstpost’ on November 30, 2018, says, “Census data shows that Assam had been the destination for people of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) since 1891. The movement of people from Bihar, Chotanagpur and Odisha for employment in the tea sector is discernible until 1901 but the migration was almost entirely from East Bengal and particularly from Mymensingh since 1911 Census of India. The abnormal trend was noticed by CS Mullan, census commissioner in 1931. He observed that the Assamese could be reduced to a minority in their own land.
And the influx has continued ever since and it continues to grow even now. The six-year-long Assam Agitation was an attempt to push all the illegal migrants out from the state. The fight was against each and every illegal migrant, irrespective of their religion.
However, with the Indian Government trying to bring in the amendment to the citizenship act and if it is passed by the Upper House on January 31, the Hindus from Bangladesh who have entered into the country and settled here (most in Assam and the northeast) will be granted citizenship to the Republic of India. This will certainly put the native languages at a spot of bother and it will not be wrong to say that ‘native languages of Assam are in fact already are in a spot of bother’. The language demography of Assam has changed drastically over the past few decades and this is a sad reality!
Sushanta Talukdar in his article ‘Assam records decline in percentage of Assamese, Bodo, Rabha and Santali speakers’ and published in Nezine (June 8, 2018), writes, “According to the Languages and Mother Tongue data of 2011 Census, released by the Census authorities and have revealed that percentages of Assamese and Bodo speakers to the total population in Assam have declined while percentages of Bengali and Hindi speakers in the state have increased over the decade 2001-2011.”
“The data further reveal that the percentage of Assamese speakers in Assam further declined to 48.38 in 2011 from 48.80 in 2001. Percentage of Bengali Speakers increased to 28.91 in 2011 from 27.54 in 2001. The number of Bodo speakers declined to 4.53 per cent of the total population in 2011 from 4.86 per cent in 2001. The number of Hindi speakers increased to 6.73 per cent in 2011 as compared to 5.89 in 2001. In 1991, the percentage of Assamese speakers in Assam was 57.81 per cent and that of Bengali was 21.67 per cent,” he adds on.
“While the decadal percentage of all major language groups registered an increase, the Rabhas recorded a sharp decline of 15.04 per cent over the decade from 1,64,770 persons in 2001 to 1,39,085 in the country and from 1,30,875 to 101,752 in the state. A number of Santali speakers also declined from 2, 42,886 in 2001 to 2, and 13,139 in 2011 in the state,” Talukdar further writes.
“The Data show that of the total population 31,205,576 enumerated in Assam during 2011 Census, 15,095,797 are Assamese speakers, 9,024,324 are Bengali speakers, 14,16,125 are Bodo speakers, 21,01,435 are Hindi speakers. Corresponding figures in 2001 Census were: Assamese – 13,010,478, Bengali- 73, 43,338, Bodo- 12, 96,162 and Hindi- 15, 69,662,” Talukdar concludes.
Quoting the same article, Saurav Bhattacharjee, a Guwahati-based research scholar, says, “When there is a decline in the speakers of the native languages of a state, the situation is worrisome. The Bengali speakers have increased and here we need to see that if the numbers of these speakers are a citizen of Assam for ages or have they migrated to the state? Those migrating from Bangladesh, irrespective of what religion belong to, are Bengali speaking. And now if we allow this act to pass, think of the number of Bengali speakers? Eventually, a day will come when the native language speakers will turn out to be a minority and the native languages may just cease to exist.”
“One thing I will like to make it clear here that I have no objections against those people who have been a part of Assam both culturally and traditionally but either speaks Bengali or Hindi as their mother tongue. They are Assamese and there is no doubt about it,” adds Bhattacharjee.
A language is considered nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers and if the influence of non-native languages continues to grow then it is certain that a time will come when the Generation Z will only listen to fables about these languages.
Raveena Aulakh, in an article titled ‘Dying languages: scientists fret as one disappears every 14 days’, published in ‘The Star’, writes, “As many as half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to be extinct by the end of this century; it is estimated that one language dies out every 14 days. Endangered languages, much like endangered species of plants or animals, are on the brink of extinction. According to UNESCO, a language is endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children and it is no longer being used in everyday life. A language is considered nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers.”
“A language defines a people, a culture. Languages hold a world of knowledge. We lose knowledge and history and lose connection to the land (when a language is lost). Songs, stories, words and expressions — developed over many generations — are also lost. Each language is a unique way of talking to the world, about the world,” she further adds.
No matter how many arguments the government of Assam put forward in support of the proposed citizenship amendment bill, it will bring down disaster on the community. If we look in closely, we will see how the cultural demography of the region, especially Assam, has changed with the high influence of the Northern belt of the country. Moreover, a rich Bengali influence borrowed from West Bengal can also be felt on some rare occasions.
When the entire region has felt this threat hovering over their identity owing to the citizenship proposed bill, it is sad to see that those at the helm of affairs have not felt the same and they are hell-bent to pass the bill at any cost. When protestors in Mizoram rant slogans like ‘Bye Bye India, Hello China’, we must understand that the situation is grave and our existence is at stake!
By no means the observations by various researchers mentioned above are arguments that native (i.e. evolved and practised mainly in the region) languages and cultural practices are complete and are a moral imperative that they are followed in other parts of the Republic; but none the less these observations may lead us to form a belief that not allowing the native languages and cultural practices disappear in the shadow of bigger, for instance in terms of population-wise, is important for the people-citizens of the Republic of India. In this context, it is pertinent that any attempt to understand NRC and the proposed amendment of the Citizenship bill never lose sight of the worry surrounding the possibility of disappearance of native languages and cultures of the North-Eastern region of the Republic of India. It may be desirable that children of the future do not have to listen to the stories about the lost people of the Northeast.
We still have time to stand up and take a stand and possibly overthrow the proposed citizenship bill, which has brought a threat to the citizenship of genuine citizens.
(The article was originally published February issue of Northeast Today)
Partha Prawal (Goswami) is a Guwahati-based journalist who loves to write about entertainment, sports, and social and civic issues among others. He is also a published author.