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Religion, Linguistics and Separatism in North-East India

Religion, Linguistics and Separatism in North-East India

Author: Kunal Ghosh
Publication: The Organiser
Date: July 30, 2000
It is a constant refrain from our political leaders of various hues that religion and politics should be kept apart. Notwithstanding this sloganeering, what we find in real life is quite often the opposite. It is high time we leave aside polemics and study the motives that are at work and the linkages that operate to connect religion to politics. Here we shall focus on two northeastern regions, Tripura and the BAC (Bodo Autonomous Council) area within Assam, where a mixture of religion and politics has produced an explosive situation.

There is a consensus among sociologists and anthropologists that religion and language are the two main identity-makers of a community or tribe or a group of people. The concept of nationhood has many definitions. The materialist philosophers, Kautsky and Lenin among them, define nationality in one way. The idealist philosophers, such as Bauer, in another way. But where both converge is on the point that language is an important ingredient of nationality. Therefore, if religion can be tied up with language and linguistics, it would acquire a direct hold on nationality. Now, nationality and politics are intimately and naturally related, courtesy the advent of the nation-state all over the world. Hence, once religion is connected via language to nationality, it cannot any more be separated from politics. Moreover when two main identity-makers of a community, that is, religion and language, are made to converge, the national feeling produced, is likely to be extremely strong.

In the case of Tripura and the BAC area there is a concerted attempt to make religion (Christianity in this case) and linguistics come together to shape nationality. Baptist missionaries have converted a large number of tribal people of Tripura to Christianity since the turn of the century. Since 1967 the Church has been demanding that the tribal language Kokbarak should be written in the Roman script, although the language has many words in common with Bengali and has been traditionally and more conveniently written in the Bengali script. Kokbarak was recognised as the second official language in 1979 by the first Left Front Government in the State. But when the Congress-TUJS (Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti) coalition came to power (in the late 1980s), it decided to introduce the Roman script, as demanded by the Baptist Church, and printed one hundred thousand textbooks for the primary schools. It should be noted that the TUJS and Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) are predominantly Christian outfits. Left Front leaders such as Dasarath Deb and Ranjit Debbarma declared that the "use of Roman script in Kokbarak is communal politics". Subsequently, when the present Left Front Government came to power in 1993 it re-introduced the Bengali script for Kokbarak.

The question is: why does the Baptist Church campaign to replace the more convenient and familiar Bengali script? A shared script is a cultural bond and it is this bond which the Church wishes to severe. Thereafter the Kokbarak language would be reshaped and its Indian moorings could be loosened. A distinct sectarian (Baptist Christian) identity would grow around this reshaped language and the cry that the Tripura tribals are a separate nation deserving a homeland outside the Indian Union would become louder and more convincing. There is already a secessionist and violent struggle being waged by tribal guerrillas. A sectarian cultural growth would serve to strengthen its base. Here what is at work is the sectarian nationalist ideology and not a conspiracy of a few individuals. The pattern has been grasped intuitively, that is: without any theoretical formulation, by the Left Front leaders of Tripura and they brand the politics of script as "communal politics".

Bodo Autonomous Council Area

The Bodo agitation of the 1980s came to a temporary halt after the signing of the Bodo Accord and the formation of the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC) in 1993. This Council was given jurisdiction over an area in the north bank of Brahmaputra in lower Assam which stretches upto 10 kilometres from the international border with Bhutan. Within two years the agitation started again with the demand for inclusion of more areas, particularly the strip of land which separates it from Bhutan. In 1998 the demand escalated further. It is being said that no less than full Statehood to "Bodoland" will solve the problem, although the name "Bodoland" has not earned official recognition yet. There have been internecine killings among two Bodo militant organisations, namely, the NDFB (National Democratic Front for Bodoland, previously known as Bodo Security Force) and the more recently formed BLTF (Bodo Liberation Tiger Force). Also several rounds of bloody conflicts between the Bodos and Santhals, Bodos and Bengalis and others have taken place. The events in the 1970s and 1980s that led upto the formation of the BAC are important.

By the mid-1970s Christian missionaries of mainly the Baptist denomination, who are numerous in the entire North-East, had succeeded in converting a large fraction of Bodos. I believe the Catholic Church has also made some inroads, albeit smaller. At present about 30 per cent of the Bodos are Christians. In the 1970s the Church started demanding introduction of the Roman script for the Bodo language. Until then the Bodos were using the Assamese script, which actually is no different from the Bengali script barring a couple of letters. In fact the Bengali script is also a misnomer. This script was used extensively and is still in use in the Mithila region of Bihar. Poet Vidyapati wrote in Maithili language using this script and as such it should be called Maithili script after its original source. Whatever the origin, to the Bodos this script is a symbol of Assamese culture. The church portrayed this also as a symbol of Assamese domination. The tribal Bodos have over the years felt neglected and deprived by the middle class of upper Assam who dominate over the politics of that State. Looking at the sorry state of development dearth of schools, hospitals etc., in the Bodo areas, their feeling of grievance and isolation is not altogether unjustified. .

The Church exploited this Bodo-Assamese division. The Bodos wanted to assert a separate tribal identity for themselves. Their language has a mix of diverse words drawn from tribal, Bengali and Assamese sources, some of it manifestly Sanskritic. The Church succeeded in spreading the idea that separateness from the Assamese language can be asserted only if they switched over to a different script. Just as Kokbarak (the tribal language of Tripura), the Bodo language also uses a much large number of consonants than afforded by the Roman script. it also uses a large number of Sanskritic words (both tatsama and tadbhava) which are more easily written in the so-called Assamese script. The very name "Bodo" gets distorted into Bodo while using the Roman script. Yet the Church prompted the Bodos to shift to the Roman script. An expected fallout is that the Sanskritic words would gradually fall away from circulation. The Church has also popularised the name "Bodoland", instead of "Bodo-bhum" or "Bodokhand". The last two options have an Indian mooring whereas "land" has a distinct European flavour (as, for example, England, Deutschland, Finland, Poland etc.).

At this juncture Indira Gandhi stepped in with the intention of garnering votes for her party from the tribal Bodo people. The political opportunist in her wished to widen the divide between the
Assamese and Bodos. The nationalist, in her heard an alarm' bell in the rising crescendo for the introduction of the Roman script. She must have perceived a separatist nuance in the call for the Roman script and the name "Bodoland". She opted for a third script which is different from both the Roman and the Assamese, and at the same time rooted in the Indian soil. Her choice Was Devnagari and from her point of view an admirable choice. The Devnagari script was given the official status in 1980 and her party, the Congress party, supported the creation of the Bodo Autonomous Council, which became a reality in February, 1993. And of course the Congress party made handsome gains in the electoral battles in lower Assam. The Church settled for Devnagari for the time being. One of its purposes is well served-the bond of sharing a common script with the Assamese and Bengali was severed. Also the habit of using the Assamese script could be broken.

What Indira Gandhi had not bargained for was that the Bodos in general, both the Hindus and Christians, would start complaining about a certain disadvantage associated with the Devnagari script. This script is very pleasing to the eye but not to the writing hand. One has to lift the pen quite frequently while writing a word in Devnagari. As a result it is difficult to write with a running hand. In comparison, the Assamese/ Bengali script is much more facile. This author has heard about this complaint first-hand from a member (Brahma 1998) of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha. In this backdrop it was easy for the Church to revive the call for a shift to the Roman script. This time the demand is much more difficult to resits, because the attachment to the Assamese script has disappeared among both the Hindus and Christians. The attachment to Devnagari has hardly had time to grow. Besides, Devnagari is perceived as not Very convenient for the running handwriting.

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