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Saving Assamese script digitally

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  11 Sep 2017 12:00 AM GMT

The campaign to preserve Assamese text in digital format and make it accessible over the Internet received a shot in the arm recently, but another battle is looming. In a heartening development, the Bureau of Indian Standard (BIS) last month accepted Assam government’s proposal that Assamese script has a separate identity and should be allotted a separate slot by the Unicode Consortium. The scene will now shift abroad with the BIS set to send the proposal to the Intertiol Organization for Standardisation (ISO). An independent, non-governmental world body, ISO has a membership of 162 tiol standards bodies including BIS. So, will Unicode Consortium now accept the changed stand of BIS? After all, it has taken decades to convince the BIS that Assamese is one of the oldest Indic scripts that origited from Brahmi script of the Gupta Age and then traced its own path of evolution. The Assam government buttressed its argument with detailed references to various rock and copper plate inscriptions dating from 4th-5th centuries onwards. Hitherto, the BIS, whose opinion is the Government of India’s opinion on such matters, believed that Assamese script is a variant of the Bengali script, differing primarily in two letters ro (with a middle diagol) and wabo with a lower diagol from the Bengali ro and bo characters respectively. In December 1991 when the BIS released its first Indian Script Code for Information Interchange (ISCII), it had included Assamese among the Northern scripts, but thereafter left out Assamese script altogether. The altered BIS view in turn determined the view of Unicode Consortium, a non-governmental body headquartered in the US, which maintains a standard of world scripts.

The upshot was that the Assamese script has remained misrepresented in the Bengali chart till date, with ro and wabo out of place, khyo nowhere in the chart and some other characters too distorted. This has caused collation errors whenever sorting softwares are run in Assamese, as activists like Dr Satyakam Phukan and others pointed out to a somnolent Dispur. The question was whether to push for reming the Bengali script and code chart (which would involve changing the mes of character descriptors and other technical issues), or to seek a separate slot altogether for the Assamese script. This the Unicode Consortium was reluctant to accept, as it would involve allowing duplication of characters. Successive governments in Assam since the 1990s failed to put up the case for Assamese script strongly to persuade the Ministry of Science and technology and BIS. Matters started to move only after an expert panel constituted by the BIS in November 2015 recommended a separate slot for Assamese script. Dispur was then asked to submit a formal proposal. After several brainstorming meets involving Gauhati University’s IT department, linguists, writers, researchers and other stakeholders, a detailed proposal was sent to the BIS in February 2016, and was filly accepted with amendments on August 23 this year. So will the Unicode authority now accept the BIS recommendation on its merits, or will it continue to display its hitherto jaundiced view of the Assamese script? The present Sarbanda Sonowal-led Assam government needs to maintain sharp vigil on this front and keep up the pressure on the powers-be in New Delhi. This is because in a world rapidly turning digital, the very identity of the Assamese script is at stake.

A language script in future can survive only if its users and researchers are able to process it digitally online. Presently, the characters of Assamese script can be read online only as images. Because of this handicap, search engines like Google cannot be used to seek out any text material in Assamese script. It is all very well to read text as images on Assamese newspapers online, but readers will hit a wall whenever they try to search out a topic by typing key words on the search bar. Neither can students hope to search out any educatiol material in Assamese text online. This in turn brings us to other problems that need be addressed to make the Assamese script digitally ameble. Despite the Assam Official Language Act ected way back in 1960, Dispur has so far failed to enforce compulsory use of Assamese language even in government offices and agencies. Now that the government is talking of digitalization of all kinds of records, it is a matter of urgency that Assamese alphabets can be digitally stored, processed and retrieved online. There is a crying need to keep on developing improved versions of text editing software to type out Assamese alphabets easily. There are many conjuncts in the Assamese script, and so far we are getting by with makeshift codes to represent these characters. These, along with Assamese internet fonts and other technical issues for an effective electronic database need to be sorted out at this end, even as we eagerly await the day when Assamese alphabets are separately encoded by Unicode Consortium.

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