March 4, 2016 is a very important date for Assamese speakers. It is a day on which the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) will meet in Delhi to take the fil call on the issue of having a separate slot for the Assamese script in tiol and intertiol standards, including the Unicode Consortium. The Assam government is ready with a detailed formal report justifying a separate slot for the Assamese script. If the report is accepted by the BIS, it will ask the Intertiol Organization for Standardization (ISO) to give a separate slot to the Assamese script in its encoding standards like ISO 10646 and ISO 15919. When this happens, Assamese will have a separate slot in the US-based Unicode Consortium as the Unicode Standard is synchronized with the ISO encoding standards. What the Assam government will have to do now would be to convince the BIS about the distinctive identity of the Assamese script. The task has become relatively easier now, since the ISO had earlier said that it had no objection to giving a separate slot to the Assamese language if the government of India agrees to it. Besides, a six-member committee constituted by the BIS on November 17, 2015, had said that the Assamese script should get a separate slot in ISO encoding standards or in Unicode. It was after hearing the panel’s suggestions, that the BIS asked the Assam government to submit a formal suggestion. This led to the preparation of a detailed report which was scheduled to be submitted this week.
In a milieu where committees are inclined to go by precedents and similar examples elsewhere, it should no longer be difficult for the Assam government or experts like Shikhar Kumar Sarma of Gauhati University who has been entrusted with the task of preparing the proposal to convince the BIS about the justification of a separate slot for the Assamese script, to make out a strong case. After all, even though the Assamese script is similar to the Bengali script with a few minor differences, it came into being before the Bengali script. In any case, having a common script does not make a language a dialect of another language with a similar script. Marathi has the same Devagari script as Sanskrit and Hindi. Is anyone going to claim that Marathi should share the same slot as Hindi in the Unicode Consortium? The examples from Europe are even more convincing. About a dozen European languages share the same script with minor differences. Is anyone going to suggest (for that reason) that English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Italian should share a single slot in the Unicode Consortium or that they should not have their separate identities? And even in terms of the number of speakers, Assamese, with about 15 million speakers ranks 40th among all the languages of the world [see page 289 of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Second Edition) by David Crystal]. No one can take away its distinctive identity. What is interesting is that even Meetei Mayek, the indigenous script adopted by Manipur, has a separate slot in the Unicode Consortium even though the language has only a small fraction of the number of speakers that Assamese does. Assamese also has a far older and richer literature. How can the BIS possibly brush aside such compelling reasons, precedents and parallel cases in arbitrating on Assam’s demand for a separate Unicode slot?