With the recent uprising in Assam against Citizenship Amendment Bill, a parallel sentiment of ‘Assamese’ linguistic hegemony has erupted among the people, who are in favor of ‘One state, one language’. The argument is as absurd as ‘One India, One Language’ propagated by the B.J.P government. Why? There are multiple reasons to it. The first reason is the political and social structure of the state. Assam by its very nature is pluralistic- including a chromatic variation of communities, languages and religions, as it wasn’t formed on linguistic basis. Every community has its own ethnic identity same as India. Thus, a ‘state language’ which is a long associate of the ethnic nationalism is not implementable in a diversified civic nationalist state like Assam.
A civic nation or state is nothing but an amalgamation of diverse ethnic identities on the basis of liberal-democracy, making it impossible to fuse the miscellany, under the roof of congruity, of one linguistic or cultural identity. The very caricature of a liberal state is based on the principles of liberty to endorse the scattering cultures and languages on the values of liberalism and democracy of identity and self-dignity. So, enforcing a language as the ‘State language’ will put the identity and self-dignity of the marginal ethnicity in jeopardy.
The ‘State language’ model also contradicts the idea of liberal culturalism, which believes in preserving the ethnic and linguistic groups historically native to the place. Why? Assam was never an Assamese linguistic state. It was always plural with different communities having different mother-tongues. Thus, bringing in one language as the ‘State language’ categorizes every other ethno-linguistic identity in the marginalized section, considering the Assamese speaking ethno-nationalists as mainstream.
The second reason of my skepticism is the historical context of the linguistic hegemony in Assam. In 1960, when the ‘The Assam Official Language Act’ was passed, it resulted in an outburst of protest in Barak Valley as the act sought to dilute their self-identity. The same happened in Meghalaya which was then a part of Assam. As the act declared “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subject as hereinafter provided, Assamese and English, and when the latter is replaced under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, Hindi in place of English shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.”(The Assam Gazette, October 10, 1960, pp. 623-25), the communities in Meghalaya felt marginalized and deprived of self-dignity, resulting in Khasi leaders joining hands with Garo and Jaintia Hill leaders to voice their demand for a separate state. In 1972, Meghalaya attained statehood through their struggle of self-identity.
Barak Valley and Meghalaya were not the only ones threatened by the Act. The Misings also demanded self-rule as Bora explains in ‘The Missing Movement in Assam…” – “Among them were the Misings, started movement for self-rule as a means to ensure their cultural and political representation, and above to have powers to control resources in their locality. Mising Agom Kebang, a literary organisation of the community launched cultural revivalism process to fight against the implementation of Assam Official Language Act 1960, alleging it as a means of majoritarian dominance.” The linguistic hegemony has also resulted in the demands raised by the Bodo population in the last few decades.
So, what is the connection between all these events? Simply, the power-hungry nature of a linguistic identity to rule over the other identities.
The third reason to my contradictory stand is purely constitutional. Article 345 of the Indian Constitution mentions of official language, but there is no mention of any provision of selecting a state language when it says- “Official language or languages of a State Subject to the provisions of Article 346 and 347, the Legislature of a State may by law adopt any one or more of the languages in use in the State or Hindi as the language or languages to be used for all or any of the official purposes of that State: Provided that, until the Legislature of the State otherwise provides by law, the English language shall continue to be used for those official purposes within the State for which it was being used immediately before the commencement of this Constitution”. And if, Assamese indeed becomes the state language somehow, will it not further affect the structure of Article 29 and 30? Historically, after the official language act movement, there was the Assamese medium movement. Will the history not repeat itself? Post the demand for state language, will it be for the conversion of all the institutions to one linguistic medium?
The majoritarian approach always is a fuel to separatist movements in a civic democracy. It marginalizes communities, dropping bombs of fear into their ethnic identity. Imagine the central government doing the same to Assam through enforcement of Hindi as the ‘National Language’, challenging the existence and liberty of self-determination. The same will happen to the minorities in Assam. The Assamese ethno-nationalists have always failed to understand the complexities of a civic society, as they tend to live in a utopian world of ethno-nationalism where only their language matters. The hegemony of any ethnicity over the other has been devastating for the world. The struggle for ethnic nationality resulted in the massacre of Jews in Germany, as ethno-nationalists tend to always seek for an enemy inside their own house, and lives poles away from accepting and acknowledging differences.
And, it is surprising to see how well the ethno-nationalists have adopted to the policy of dividing a democracy on the basis of language. In India, ethically, there shouldn’t be any state or national language, for the very idea of India is of inclusion, and acceptance. Every citizen of India has the right to converse, and celebrate their identity. But, this tendency is doing the opposite. More often than not, people of other ethnicity face comments like- “Assam’t thakile axomiya xiki ahibi” (If you want to live in Assam, you must learn Assamese), which violates their right to self-dignity. A civic nation if enables the ethno-nationalists to celebrate their identity, it does the same to the other communities, that is, if you speak in Assamese, the other has the equal right to reply to you in Bhojpuri or in Miya dialect. Just like his language can’t be forced on you, your language can’t be forced on him as well. That’s how it works.
But, people must assimilate. Why? Because that’s how a civilization grows. People learn the language when there is a necessity. It can’t be enforced on a state where people have their own self-ethnic identities. What it will do at maximum is to slow down the process of assimilation, thus dividing the society in factions, and a divided society hardly develops. Also, there is also a high probability of communities demanding segregation from the state of Assam. Therefore, whatever future holds, in my opinion, it will not be good for the health of the liberal democracy Assam has.
Sutputra Radheye is a poet and commentator who delve into the themes affecting the socio-eco-political scenario. His works have been published in prestigious platforms like ‘Frontier’, ‘Countercurrents’, ‘Janata Weekly’, ‘Culture Matters’ (UK), and many more throughout the years.