Assam elections and the crisis of language

Rini Barman
Rini BarmanJan 06, 2016 | 13:11

Assam elections and the crisis of language

Election time is the worst time of the year and if election wars are scheduled in the month of April, you cannot help but recall Eliot’s musings on the cruellest month. Before the cruelties strike, only yesterday, an earthquake of 6.8 magnitude shook the Northeast, with major tremors felt in Assam and Manipur. All of these incidents seem to me premonitions of a disaster that awaits Assam, which on the political front has turned into a “wasteland”.


Many have debated that the plight of Assam is similar to the other heterogeneous states in the country where the BJP has spread its communal wings. Now, my question is — how clean were the “others” before this saffronisation began? Were the regional parties better at handling issues like ethnic harmony, hunger, vote politics, migration, language, tribes, land and culture? A strange tug of war, this is, nobody knows how many sides are present, who belongs with whom, and how many new sides can emerge.

We have every right to blame the BJP for its zero sensitivity towards dealing with Assam, and the Northeast.

Last year, we have seen how interference in eating habits (beef ban) and local cultural icons have witnessed outrage in the country. But, the roots of linguistic chauvinism and religious chauvinism go deeper than this, sometimes the two are so intertwined that it is difficult to understand them in isolation.

Take for instance, the case of the heroic leader Lachit Borphukan who suddenly appeared in the national media because it fits the BJP’s obsession with a “nationalist hero”. Now, this figure of Lachit (and its silence) has been represented differently in literature, the Buranjis and the arts, his religious affiliation is of least importance! In the Jonaki era (the beginnings of romantic nationalism in Assam), a lot of historical plays meditated around folk figures like Lachit to write their version of nationalism (sub-nationalism).


All these years, Lachit was absent from CBSE NCERT History books, infact, the mention of medieval saint Sankardeva (a contemporary of Chaitanya) is also fairly recent. As the Assam Assembly elections draw nearer, once more, this “invasion” of culture and language has arrived in the political platter. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi complained that the BJP’s national functionaries were mispronouncing Assamese names, including that of Vaishnava saint, Sankardeva. This is not “acceptable”, he said. It was taken as an insult, a way of linguistic imposition. Thereafter, the entire issue was turned into a political battleground, with Ram Madhav, BJP’s national general secretary stating that Gogoi’s remark is “intolerant”.

The intent at hand was a fully justified one. How dare the BJP distort histories and legends which go all the way back to the heritage of the folks? True, they are a mix of truths and several fictional experiences, but imaginary meanings are sometimes, the binding fabric of a society. This fabric is very sensitive, no political party has the right to mess with it, as and when they please.

There is another issue at hand — the criticism of the Hindi-speaking leaders in BJP takes us back to the fear of Hindi-speaking businessmen, workers in Assam. This fear is a collective one, one trip to the markets in Guwahati run mostly by Hindi-speaking people, and you will have the picture. The anger is justified, the violence is not. I take the example of the pace at which traditional craftspeople lose their income when their designs and clothes are being appropriated to be sold at lower rates by the businessmen.


To quote them, it is not “ethical”. But Gogoi must remember that even Assamese speaking merchants had their own arbitrary ethics to “sell”. His generalisations won’t help much, I think; one of the first “progressives” of Assamese literature was a Marwari (Jyotiprasad Agarwalla). Perhaps, we need to question this premise of selling itself, be it language, culture or votes.

Coming back to my main question, is knowing the pronounciation of a name enough? We must certainly stress on the “right” pronounciations, ask Gogoi to invest in sectors that allow for the growth of the Assamese language, but will only knowing the name correctly ensure its appropriate usage? Is the philosophy espoused by the saint/hero at the medieval times being passed on unadulterated? Then, why are we so hurt at a mispronunciation? Those who pronounce Sankardeva perfectly (with the velar fricative “x”) have also taken the freedom to appropriate his teachings, haven’t they?

The name of the state underwent multiple changes through history; blood was shed, irrespective of which language you were speaking. This emphasis on Puritanism will not only be a failure of political parties, but a failure of the very reasons language was invented for: communication. I believe there might be very soon a need of sign languages in Assam, may be the tremor of silence will communicate better than this unending cacophony.

Last updated: January 06, 2016 | 15:56
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