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Assam’s language policy and tribals of Assam

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  4 Feb 2020 6:14 AM GMT

Nijwm Basumatary

(The writer can be reached at

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has had several consequences. Desperately trying to repair the damage it has caused, the government is trying to appease and woo the protesting people of Assam by offering all sorts of incentives. One such incentive is the decision of the government to make Assamese language a compulsory subject at least up to Class 10 in all schools of Assam, barring the BATD and the Barak valley districts. Another proposal is that only those who have studied Assamese as one of the subjects in Class 10 would be eligible for a state government job. There are also reports that the State government has requested the Centre to declare Assamese as the permanent state language.

These decisions throw up a lot of unanswered questions. Firstly, does this mean that Bodos and other tribals outside the BTAD would be forced to study Assamese, instead of being able to voluntarily decide on their own whether to opt for Assamese as a subject in school? To put things into context, there are lakhs of Bodos and other tribals in Assam who are domiciled outside the BTAD region. Do these people not have the right to exercise their freedom of choice regarding which language they want their children to be educated in? Secondly, would a person from BTAD or Barak valley be ineligible for a State government job outside their areas of domicile if they have not studied Assamese in school? Finally, on what basis should Assamese be declared as a state language and what would it entail in practice?

These policies are very problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, they reveal the ‘majoritarian biases’ of those in power who, in their zeal to appease a majority community, are ready to sacrifice the interests of languages with fewer speakers like Bodo, Garo and Rabha. It is a well-known fact that the Assamese language has overwhelming advantages over other languages of Assam. It is the lingua franca of the State and has the highest number of speakers by a comfortable margin. Assamese is also well-entrenched as a language of communication and correspondence in official business and public ceremonies. Moreover, if we are being honest, it has been enjoying the lion’s share of patronage from the government for decades.

Contrast this with a language like Bodo, which was introduced as a medium of instruction in schools till class 3 only as late as 1963 and, as a medium of instruction in secondary schools in 1968. Today, Bodo medium schools across the state are languishing and struggling to survive due to the apathy and discriminatory attitude of government officials. For instance, there have been widespread reports about shortage of teachers and their lack of appointment, delay in supply of textbooks, non-provincialization of schools, financial problems, lack of infrastructure, etc. Suffice it to say that the future of Bodo medium schools is bleak and uncertain.

Although not always fluent or grammatically correct, many Bodos and other tribals of Assam can converse in Assamese and have a working knowledge of the language. Many of them are probably even proud to be able to speak multiple languages. But the imposition of a language is another matter altogether. It would severely handicap the chances of non-Assamese speakers in getting government employment. Making the knowledge of Assamese language a mandatory requirement for State government jobs would be discriminatory towards non-Assamese speakers, a violation of the principle of equality of opportunity, and a denial of a level-playing field in the pursuit of a source of livelihood for these people. This is especially grave because Bodos and other tribals are already underrepresented in the administration and the Government of the state.

The proposed language policies would alienate the tribals of Assam who do not wish the Assamese language to be foisted upon them. Perhaps those in the current government do not want to learn lessons from history or, do not care for it at all. Back in the 1960s, the Assam Official Language Act of 1960 catalysed the disintegration of the then undivided Assam and partly led to the creation of Meghalaya. It also deeply alienated the tribals of Assam and led to identity movements and demands for autonomy, especially the demands for a separate state of Bodoland.

Historically speaking, Assam has never been a monolithic entity. Cultures, races and languages have clashed and converged over centuries, sometimes giving rise to composite cultures and identities. I belong to a tribe whose language and identity have always been in a precarious position and in constant need of preservation and assertion. Being a son of the soil, I also completely empathize with the current predicament of the people of Assam and understand that their fears of losing their language and identity are genuine. But at the same time, I strongly feel that these language policies are detrimental to a multicultural and multilingual society that Assam currently is.

Instead, I want to offer a few humble suggestions to the government of Assam. Why not offer Bodo or any other tribal/non-Assamese language as an optional subject in Assamese medium schools? This would encourage intercultural exchanges and provide opportunities to children whose mother tongue is Assamese to learn a new language and explore a different culture through that language. Additionally, Assamese as a MIL could be offered as an optional subject in non-Assamese medium schools. Knowledge of Assamese is very vital considering its widespread use in the daily public life of Assam. I am certain that Bodos and other tribal students would be eager to learn the language in order to move ahead in life.

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