Among the events that went without the attention they deserved in the last fortnight is the observation of the International Mother Language Day on February 21. In some ways this is understandable for all through the fortnight, headlines in popular newspapers and TV channels were hogged by the controversy over the farmers’ protest tool kit issue first tweeted by Swedish teenage environment activist Greta Thunberg and the by Disha Ravi, another young Indian social activist who was arrested for circulating the same. After a brief court battle, Disha Ravi has been released on bail. Space on the social media on the internet was also largely shared between this development and the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar following a military coup on February 1, and outraged Myanmar people defying repressive measures to come out on the streets to protest every day since the coup. These are indeed very urgent and disturbing events and deserve the world’s attention, and we extend our solidarity to them too in their fight against their respective authoritarian states.
This said, it must also be remembered there are other weighty issues which must not be left unattended. Among these certainly is the question of dying languages and cultures. As well-known literary critic and activist Ganesh Devy said in an interview to a national daily in a December 2018 interview, there are more than 600 endangered languages in India and that each dead language takes away a culture system. [i] We have to note that of these 600 a great number are in the Northeast. But this is not all. The 600 here are “endangered languages”, but UNESCO has other categories of languages which may not yet come under “endangered” but are “threatened” or “vulnerable”. If the “vulnerable” category were to be considered, because of the smallness of the number of speakers alone all languages in the Northeast, with the exception of Bengali and Assamese, would come under it. A reminder of the UNESCO classification of languages to see more clearly the importance of the International Mother Tongue Day is urgent.
A look at the latest UNESCO list of endangered languages published in 2010 will give a sense of the vulnerability of the Northeast from this vantage.[ii] All languages spoken in the region, except Bengali and Assamese, are classified “vulnerable”, and at least two dozen of these are “critically endangered”. In this classification, “vulnerable” languages are not only marked by the smallness of the number of speakers but most children speak the language restricted to certain domains (such as ‘home’); in the “definitely endangered” category, children no longer learn the language as mother tongue; in “severely endangered”, the language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parental generation may understand it but does not speak it with children or among themselves; in “critically endangered”, the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently. Extinct languages have no speakers left. [iii]
This is a grim picture, and those of us in the Northeast must do all we need to do to not allow any of its many languages to die. Certain outcomes are inevitable. As for instance, in every situation, because our socio-economic realities are necessarily integrated, there would have to evolve lingua francas so that the markets and other public domains remain alive and viable. In fact, in the globalized economy, there is a need for those who believe in such an integration to master a global lingua franca, the most dominant of which is English. The outlook hence should be to master languages that have emerged as the lingua francas but not neglect their mother tongues. As for instance, it would be unrealistic for an Angami or a Meitei working family in Mumbai or Delhi or in Central services like the armed forces, to think of using their languages in public spaces such as schools, colleges, work places and markets, but the least they can do is to speak their mother tongues at home, so that their children remain conversant in them. By the compulsions of their environment, their children would in any case be picking up the dominant languages of their places of stay so there should be little worry their children would fall behind. The converse would be the case for the same two families if there were placed in their home states. They could encourage their children to speak another language, say English at home so that they can to familiarise it as a colloquial speaker would, and of course their mother tongue would come naturally to their children for that would be the dominant language in their given public spaces. The trouble often is, some are shy that they speak a language considered obscure. Probably as a consequence, they begin to see their children’s alienation from their own “obscure” mother tongues as a mark of status, a kind of self-detestation close to what Frantz Fanon described of colonially oppressed classes in the context of Algeria, but so true of all marginalised populations. This is unfortunate and if it is allowed to become the trend, it can hasten the fading of their vulnerable languages and therefore cultures.
But there are cautions. The zeal to preserve mother tongues and cultures must not turn bigoted as often has been the trend in the past. The humanitarian crisis Rohingya in Myanmar were left to face is a loud example of the complication such problems can lead to. It is an ugly situation but in assessing this crisis and others like it, embedded layers of deeper human tragedies must not be ignored altogether if justice is the end, and probably this is what the now ousted former State Chancellor of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, was trying to explain in her defence of her country’s military crackdown on the Rohingyas. The Buddhist Rakhines who share the Rakhine state with Rohingyas have legitimate fears that if the Rohingya population continually rise because of immigration of Bengali linguistic cousins from Bangladesh in integrate with the Rohingyas, they stand the chance of being overwhelmed and the Myanmar government was obviously siding with the Rakhines.
But away from the partiality of the Myanmar government on this matter, the truth will remain that the issue is more complicated than what are on the surface, and when these inner tensions are ignored, there are other smaller cultures waiting to be victims of slow eradication. It is therefore important to draw the lines between putative victims and aggressors in advance, and how easily tables can turn in this equation, so that things do not descend to desperate responses and counter responses as in this case. It must not be forgotten that often it is only after languages of small communities have died that the world quite ironically rage against the dying of more lights and write touching literary obituaries about them. Let me emphasis yet again, prevention not cure is what everybody should be looking for, and this balance between obvious and hidden catastrophes must not be lost in our analysis of cataclysmic human events. Let these events not be reduced to linear, black and white, narratives which are blind to the complexities of any human situation. The Northeast is a case in point, and judging from the response to the CAA and the demands for ILP and other symptoms of a fear for immigration, the Northeast can easily become a candidate for similar tragedies. The approach must be to identify these layers of frictions and address them ahead of time so they never have to blow up into ugly violent crises. The best way to do this is to ensure that the perception of threat to identity, culture and language never arise in the first place. In this, official policy must be matched with prudence on the part of the people with its elite leading by example. A respected civil servant, Nari Rustomji, seven decades ago anticipated this problem while writing about the Northeast region in his “imperilled Frontiers”, and said while immigration is inevitable care must be taken to regulate this inflow of population so that it does not exceed the rate local hosts are able to absorb them organically or else there will be social unrest.
It is amidst this that there is now a movement led by MEELAL to have all Meiteilon newspapers now published in the Bengali script to switch to Meitei Mayek in another year. The deadline set is now under discussion and understandably publishers of these newspapers would want it extended in view of the obviously disruption this would cause their businesses. The matter need not be rushed for as it is, the process for the switch to Meitei Mayek has already been set rolling and those who passed out from schools in the last three years read and write fluently in the script. It is imaginable that henceforth there would be a decline in readers of Manipuri newspapers in Bengali script progressively. A sudden switch as the MEELAL wants may kill them off before an alternative becomes viable, thereby resulting in severe upsets in the newspaper market. These are indeed times of upheaval, but we do hope sense and humanity prevail, however unsettling and traumatic the transition may become.
[i] See https://indianexpress.com/article/research/international-mother-language-day-2018-ganesh-devy-indian-languages-5072487/ (last accessed, December 27, 2018)
[iii] See http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/atlas-of-languages-in-danger/ (last accessed December 27, 2018)
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author