Inconsistent decision making and policy fluctuations are clear reflections of state govt’s apathy towards protection of indigenous languages
In a major blow to the linguistic minorities in Assam, the Gauhati University, through a notification issued on June 12, 2020, ‘discontinued’ the 6-month-long certificate/diploma courses on Mising and Rabha languages. The decision, taken during the 4th meeting of the Executive council and published as draft proceedings, highlights that the Centre for Languages and Cultural Studies, under which the courses were offered, will be merged with the ‘Centre for Performing Arts’ and all the running courses under the centres will be discontinued. The decision to merge both the centres can only be termed as ‘absurd’ as ‘performing arts’ and ‘languages and culture’ are separate lines of academic study. No explanation of how and why such a move is being taken is being provided yet by the university.
The Centre for Languages and Cultural Studies, established in August 2015 at Gauhati University, was to undertake efforts towards protection and preservation of languages like Misings, Rabhas, Tiwas, Karbis, Deoris, Dimasas and other ethnic minorities. The certificate courses on Mising and Rabha languages started in 2017 were seen as an effort towards such a goal.
However barely two years later, the course now is being discontinued.
The Mising Agom Kebang (MAK), the apex literary body of the Mising community, has already highlighted its strong objections. Through a memorandum and a press release dated August 8, 2020, the organisation has demanded that the merger should be revoked, and the certificate courses continued in the same way as earlier. They have furthered their demand and have called for the recruitment of permanent faculties for the courses, which was till now being run through contractual positions. They also highlight that the merger is against the earlier notification of the university, which in 2016 highlighted that the centre would function ‘independently’.
Neoliberalism, education and tribes
Under neoliberalism, education is seen more as a ‘profit-making initiative’, as a product which is to be consumed and is analysed from the perspectives of 'liabilities' and ‘assets'. Tribal language courses when introduced in institutes as an academic course are often seen as liabilities or burdens to an institution. Rather than proliferating the importance of indigenous cultural value and knowledge system, it is put under a prism of revenue consuming exercise.
As it is obvious that tribes have a marginally lower population compared to dominant linguistic groups, courses on tribal languages are least preferred by academic administrators as the enrolment of students is low. Thus, these courses often become the first casualties of cost-cutting exercises.
Tribes are good as ‘research objects’ for academic pursuits but integrating their language and culture within the institutional processes of academia faces impediment as they lack the agency and consciousness.
The aspirations of the tribal middle class, who prefer to learn the dominant market language, be it English or Assamese, get jobs, and move up the economic ladder is highlighted as a ‘lack of interest’ within the community. Little attention is paid to the structural issues like lack of avenues to learn the language, apathy from the government towards the protection of tribal languages, and linguistic majoritarianism.
‘Correcting’ systematic neglect
Tribal languages, especially those without any form of constitutional protection, has been on a steady decline in Assam. The Mising language is in the ‘definitely endangered’ category, while Rabha is classified as ‘vulnerable’. The Mising Agom Kebang has been constantly demanding the government to make efforts towards the protection and promotion of the Mising language. The certificate course on Mising language was started in response to the demand raised by the MAK in 2017. In the first year of its introduction, two guest faculties, one each for Rabha and Mising, were hired. Thirty-seven students enrolled for the Rabha course in the 2017-18 session, while the Mising course had 17 students. While the course also continued in 2019 and exams conducted, the results are yet to be declared by the university. No calls for either future admissions to the course or notifications for guest faculties are being made by the university for the academic year 2020-2021, indicating the uncertain future of the course.
One of the key reasons for the decline in the number of speakers, besides the lack of systematic attention and government support to Mising language, is also the lack of avenues to learn the language both academically and in the immediate environment, especially in cities like Guwahati. A generalist profile of the Mising inhabitants in Guwahati would highlight mainly three categories of people: 1) A vast majority of inhabitants are the middle class and creamy layer of the Mising community, employed in various government and private services; 2) A pool of young students studying in various academic institutions; and 3) A small section of climate refugees, displaced by floods, from their original inhabitants, who have been residing mostly on the outskirts of the Guwahati city.
While the latter two are mostly ‘well-versed’ in the language, the majority of those in the first category, especially the second-generation children of the serviced class, do not speak the language. The parents, wanting their children to have a clear understanding of the market language prefer their children to learn English, Assamese and Hindi languages. With the spoken language both at home and the immediate environment of friends being mostly Assamese, the students slowly lose interest, thereby completely not learning the language. The certificate course in that regard, not only as a measure to correct the systematic neglect but also would have enabled many misings to ‘learn’ the language.
Moreover, the syllabus offered in the Mising language certificate course comprises of three components: a) Introduction to the Mising language b) Grammar and Composition and c) the Mising language and Culture. Recommended readings are books in English, Assamese and Mising language which highlight that the course would have not only benefitted the Misings but also people from all communities in Assam with an interest in the language.
Beyond ‘electoral promises’ and ‘exclusionary politics’
Protection and preservation of ‘endangered languages’ demand structural efforts from the government, rather than piecemeal initiatives. It has to go beyond electoral calculations. Amidst the anti-CAA protests in 2019, the Assam government, made a slew of decisions to ‘protect’ indigenous people, languages and land. Major decisions included that the Autonomous councils of Misings, Rabha, Thengal Kachari, Sonowal Kachari, Deori and Tiwa would be recommended for ‘constitutional' status, which would enable these councils to access funds from both Central and state governments, besides other rights and privileges.
In other major decisions, the government decided to allot funds to the literary bodies of all the major communities in Assam. It was then highlighted that while the Asom Sahitya Sabha and Bodo Sahitya Sabha would be allotted Rs 80 lakh and Rs 40 lakh, respectively, other indigenous Sahitya Sabhas of communities like Misings, Deoris, Rabhas, etc, would get an Rs 24 lakh each annually. These decisions were seen as a genuine attempt by the government to protect indigenous languages.
On the other hand, the Assam government recently announced that it would make Assamese compulsory till Class X in both public and private schools, which is not only exclusionary but also highlights a ‘majoritarian linguistic nationalism’ taking precedence in the state. The government has also highlighted that it is mulling over a law, which would make only those who have studied Assamese till class X eligible for state government jobs.
Such inconsistent decision making, and policy fluctuations are clear reflections of the state government’s apathy towards the protection of indigenous languages. In such a context, the decision of the Gauhati University to scrap the certificate courses comes as another blow to ‘inclusive education’.
To make indigenous language courses sustainable, there is a need for a multi-pronged approach. The information has to be shared more aggressively beyond the regular university's media advertisement about the importance of the courses especially for students, researchers, and citizens. The government institutions such as the Welfare for Plains Tribes and Backward Classes, Mising Autonomous Council, Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council should be involved both in the design and implementation of such courses. For instance, these councils could sponsor candidates willing to study in such courses. The sponsored candidates could include students and researchers from other communities.
Such innovations, we believe, would not only sustain indigenous languages but also build fraternity and understanding among various communities in the state.
(Manoranjan Pegu is a trade union activist based in Delhi and can be contacted at email@example.com. Dr Bhasker Pegu completed his PhD from IIT Guwahati in 2019 and is based in Guwahati. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal)