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The suffocation of indigenous-script movements in the Northeast

Students of the tenth standard at a government school in Assam in Barpeta district, in 2021. Tens of thousands of students from indigenous minorities in the state receive education in Assamese and its Eastern Nagari script, which are not practised in their homes. David Talukdar/NurPhoto/Getty Images
30 June, 2022

On 7 April 2022, the union home minister, Amit Shah, while speaking at a meeting of parliament’s official-language committee, described Hindi as “the language of India.” He said that Hindi, an official language, should become an “important part of the unity of the country.” When speakers of different languages in India converse with each other, he added, “it should be in the language of India” and, in keeping with this spirit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used Hindi for running the government. Shah suggested that Hindi, rather than indigenous languages, should take the place of English. He announced that all eight north-eastern states had agreed to make Hindi compulsory up to the tenth standard and had recruited over twenty thousand Hindi teachers.

This was not the first time that the home minister had announced the government’s intention to impose Hindi upon those who do not speak the language. “Every language has its own importance, but it is very important to have a language of the whole country which should become the identity of India globally,” Shah said on the Hindi Divas in 2019. “Today, if a language can keep the country united, it is the spoken language, Hindi.” That year, the Modi government also pushed for Hindi to become compulsory as part of its draft National Education Policy, eventually dropping the clause after massive protests.

Like its previous iterations, Shah’s latest push for “one nation, one language” drew outrage from organisations of the Northeast. The Northeast Forum for International Solidarity, a sociopolitical collective, issued a scathing statement. It accused the home minister of “exerting Hindi chauvinism over other communities, especially marginalised communities.” The NEFIS took issue with how, instead of according formal recognition and support to indigenous languages, the centre was instead forcing Hindi on marginalised groups. It said that this was “not accidental but the unfortunate result of the insolent attitude of an arrogant state that chooses to impose its culture and language upon marginal groups/communities in the manner of a haughty conqueror.” The statement reflected the frustration of a majority of India’s tribes, who, for decades, have been enmeshed in arduous struggles to preserve their languages and, by extension, their culture. The Roman Script for Kokborok-Choba, a conglomeration of 56 indigenous sociocultural organisations in Tripura, also opposed the move.

In his speech for the parliamentary committee, Shah noted that nine tribal communities in the Northeast had converted their dialects’ scripts into Devanagari, the script in which Hindi is commonly written. For instance, the Bodos, the largest tribe in Assam, now use Devanagari to write their language. Shah’s speech failed to capture the complex history behind this outcome. Devanagari was never a natural choice for the Bodos, nor did it emerge from within the community. It was a direct result of the larger interplay of linguistic politics in India.