A truly ‘Assamese’ Sahitya Sabha must promote, not sideline, tribal languages

In 2022, the Mising Agom Kebang (MAK), the highest literary body of the Mising community in Assam will turn 50. In preparation for its 50th Anniversary, the small Assam type building office in Karichuk, Dhemaji from where the Kebang has been operating, is finally getting a facelift. The organisation is now constructing a 3 storey office building. Thanks to the grant received from Mising Autonomous Council.

The MAK was formally established in 1972. Before its establishment, much of what was written about the community was in English, primarily by the British Missionaries. By the 60s and 70s, the newly-emerging educated middle class of the community, started writing about the community either in English or in Assamese, as the community did not have its own script. The MAK, in that context, in 48 years of its existence, has achieved quite a lot, from developing its own script in roman language, to actually documenting and researching on the community, and publishing a considerable amount of literature in Mising Language. Much of this has been achieved because of the initiatives led by its own, with little support from the government.

While this is good news, another reality is that the number of Mising speakers within the community continues to decline rapidly. Various other tribes like the Rabhas and Deoris have the same story. These tribes, besides structural government support, also need support from other organizations, especially the Asom Sahitya Sabha, in their efforts to protect and preserve their languages. The Sabha has more than 100 years of experience working towards the preservation of the Assamese language, from leading political campaigns to make Assamese the official language of Assam to supporting writers to publishing, documenting and archiving classic and modern Assamese literature. In this piece, using the Mising community as an example, I argue that the Asom Sahitya Sabha could do much more when it comes to tribal languages.

Also Read: Ex-DGP Kuladhar Saikia elected Assam Sahitya Sabha president

Asom Sahitya Sabha, Assamese Nationalism and Tribes

The Sabha, in more than 100 years of its existence, has done commendable work and enjoys a position of great respect in the state. When formed, it highlighted that the Sabha would be a non-political organisation, which would work towards protecting and promoting Assamese culture and literature. However, on various occasions, the organisation shed its non-political image and engaged in direct political campaigns to ‘protect’ the Assamese language, which has also served as fodder for ‘Assamese nationalism’ and alienated tribal minorities.

According to Udayon Mishra, The Assam Sahitya Sabha had by the 1980s, “started shedding its non-political stand by actively participating in the Assam Agitation. The Sabha was a formal part of the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) which along with All Assam Students Union (AASU), along with other organisations, led the movement. The Sabha, due to its participation in the movement, had to lose government grant for 2 years”. (Referecne: Udayon Mishra: Assam Sahitya Sabha- Retreat from Popular Politics, Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 19, Issue No. 15, 14 Apr, 1984) wrote “by 1980s )

In recent times, the Sabha has spoken up strongly against the CAA, have demanded the Assamese language to be made compulsory in all schools in Assam and even passed resolutions demanding strict action against government employees who do not use the Assamese language.

When the sabha was formed in 1917, there was a ‘historical need’ to fight for protecting the Assamese language. However, post-1947, the Sabha should have expanded into an ‘inclusive organisation’ working towards protection and promotion of all languages in Assam, including those of tribes. To a large extent, it did. However, according to Mishra, “The Sabha’s language policy and its movement for the Assamese language to be considered the official language of Assam, leading to the adoption of Assam Official language act of 1960, prepared the ground for the emergence of organisations like the Bodo Sahitya Sabha. Earlier the plain tribes of Assam like the Bodos had largely identified themselves with the Sabha either because they thought that the sabha platform was wide enough to accommodate them as well or because they did not have any independent organisation of their own. But the Sabha’s rigid stand on Assamese language and the emergence of the small but influential middle class among the plain tribal speeded up the process of separation of a sizable section of these people from the Assamese Mainstream”.

It also raises a very pertinent question: if the Asom Sahitya Sabha means the Literary Society of Assam, why is the primary focus of the sabha is to just preserve and promote the Assamese language, which is very narrow and exclusive, considering Assam comprises of a diverse group of people belonging to various ethnicities and communities? An argument that could be provided by the Sabha is that almost all of the communities now have their own literary societies working towards promotion and preservation of their respective languages. However, the patronage and support the Assam Sahitya Sabha enjoys from the government is more than all the other organisations. Also, that sabha approach to preservations leaves the societies of the smaller tribes on their own, with the government and the Assam Sahitya Sabha providing very little support, both to the political campaigns and financial resources needed for language protection.

Can the Assam Sahitya Sabha still do more?

Can the Sabha do more to preserve and promote tribal languages, particularly of minority tribes? One of the office-bearers of the MAK highlighted that there is almost no relationship between the Assam Sahitya Sabha and the MAK, barring the annual conference of the Sahitya Sabha, where the office bearers of MAK are invited. He further went on to say that the Sabha, in fact, never supported the demand for a tribal language policy through which the Misings have been demanding for the introduction of Mising language as the medium of instruction at primary level, in Mising dominated areas.

There is also a considerable disparity in the assistance the organisations receive from the Assam government. While the aid received by the Sabha runs into crores of rupees, the Mising Agom Kebang receives a paltry sum of 15 lakh. The support received, the MAK tells me, is barely enough to run the daily activities of the MAK, like paying salaries of 2 full-time staff, managing the office and conducting its annual activities. The MAK, for a considerable part of its tasks, has to depend on public donations and support from the Mising Autonomous council. A considerable number of books in the Mising language or about the Mising community is self-published. A fall out of such an approach also means that MAK is left with little resources to engage in in-depth critical research on the language.

Also Read: Laika Dodhia, rehabilitation and conservation: How Mising people’s existence is threatened

Much of the literature representation in the Sabha publications have mostly either been novels written by a ‘non-Mising’ writer with the Mising community as context, or Mising writers writing in the Assamese language. Writings in Mising language or about the community itself seldom finds any place in the Sabha Publications.

To be a truly representative organisation, the Asom Sahitya Sabha should engage critically with the other literary societies like the Mising Agom Kebang. The starting point of such an engagement should be by supporting the calls by the tribes for a Tribal Language Policy in Assam. A policy that organisations like MAK have been raising, which would enable the introduction of Mising language as the medium of instruction in Mising dominated areas. The Sabha should realise that this support does not pose any threat to the ‘Assamese language’ or its official language status, but instead is a step towards being inclusive and respecting the diversity of the state and its varied languages.

The Sabha, considering its rich resource base and expertise, should also conduct in-depth studies on the status of the tribal languages in Assam and advocate the Assam government to take up steps to protect those in danger. In response to a detailed questionnaire to the Sabha, it responded by saying that in the ‘storytelling programmes, the Sabha has recently started, tales from tribal cultures will also be included so that the younger generation is exposed to the diverse culture of the Northeast and celebrates being a part of it’.

While it is a welcome step, if it is not complemented with active support to the demands of the tribal literary bodies, it might be ‘too little, too late’.

(This post first appeared in East Mojo here)

In 2022, the Mising Agom Kebang (MAK), the highest literary body of the Mising community in Assam will turn 50. In preparation for its 50th Anniversary, the small Assam type building office in Karichuk, Dhemaji from where the Kebang has been operating, is finally getting a facelift. The organisation is now constructing a 3 storey…

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